Standards and Multiculturalism

Two noted educators discuss how the increasing reliance on textbooks and standardized tests undermines multicultural education.

The following is condensed from a dialogue about school reform, standards, and multicultural education between Anita Bohn, a professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Illinois State University, and Christine Sleeter, a professor at California State University – Monterey Bay and co-editor with James Banks of Culture, Difference, and Power (2001).

Anita Bohn:
For two years I have interviewed and observed elementary teachers and administrators in a large Midwestern school district and during that time I’ve seen decreasing concern with multicultural education. The blame seems to fall on the state’s new standards-based reform, which is causing the district to emphasize the standardization and testing of content to the exclusion of all other social concerns. Is this a national trend?

Christine Sleeter:
The problem is that the development of new standards, or new revisions of old standards, is happening during an increasingly repressive social and political climate.

The issue of standards is complicated – standards tend to allow people to bypass the question, “What curriculum is of most worth?” If the curriculum is overly prescribed, one may not even spend a lot of time finding out what one’s students are interested in, or know already. To the degree that standards are highly prescriptive and only minimally sensitive to multiculturalism, they certainly can mute attention to it. In addition, I think that multicultural education needs to be grounded in dialogue and collaboration between the school and the community. The more prescribed the curriculum, the less space there is for dialogue and collaborative thinking.

However, I’ve also had experience with standards that require attention to multiculturalism, and literally opened up spaces for people to address it. In some states there are now state requirements that the K-12 curriculum address multiculturalism.

At the same time, standards make explicit what kids are going to be tested on, a condition which some people argue helps parents and community leaders at least know what the “game” is. It has made more public what the kids are going to be judged on.

That last effect of standards, though, contains a fatal flaw particularly dangerous in a conservative climate. Standards operate on the assumption that all students have an equal opportunity to learn. In reality, the playing field is anything but level. The fact is, state standards mean standardized testing in the vast majority of states, even though numerous studies make it pretty clear that 85 percent or more of the variation we see in student performance on standardized tests is attributable to factors outside the control of teachers – school funding levels, family income and education levels, class size, and so forth.

In California now, to make sure students are prepared for the tests, teacher education content knowledge is now supposed to be aligned with state curriculum standards. That means that state curriculum standards are now being directed toward the university curriculum, in addition to the K-12 curriculum.

The same thing is true in Illinois, and in other states as well. I’ve also seen Illinois school districts attempt to implement the state standards by purchasing new textbooks they see as better aligned with the new standards. In fact, the only state financial assistance for the new standards in Illinois was money for buying textbooks. What are your thoughts about the extent to which publishers’ textbooks can help reform the curriculum?

I’ve never thought that the best way to teach or learn was through relying on textbooks. I’ve always used textbooks selectively.

Education should be about developing powers of thinking. This includes developing the ability to ask good questions, find and evaluate information, analyze it, use it, and communicate it in a wide variety of ways. Textbooks are one of a number of resources where one can find information or ideas.

But, overall, textbooks tend to give students predigested “knowledge” presented as indisputable fact. “Covering content” in the text tends to mean exactly that: dishing out content that is to be memorized, then given back on a test.

Further, textbooks are written to be as non-controversial as possible. And despite years of injecting “multicultural content,” they are still based largely around the worldview and sensibilities of the white male middle and professional class.

I reviewed two publishers’ new elementary textbook series in 1999 to evaluate their attention to multicultural education. Even though textbooks have improved in this respect over the last 10 years, they still have much further to go. Texts still completely ignore the idea that social classes exist in this country. Capitalism and consumerism remain dominant themes, and Americans all appear to be happy, middle class, well-treated members of society enjoying equal access to success. One wonders how those images fit with the experiences of many of the children who read those texts.

Kids of color often know this. The more textbooks are disconnected from kids’ own lived reality, the more disconnected school feels. A lot of white educators don’t understand that a curriculum around European American experiences validates the sense of self and sense of identity of white kids, but not of kids of color.

A colleague who teaches a Latino studies course in a predominantly white university was telling me how his Latino students, until taking his course, felt that they were simply crazy or weird, because their reality was so at variance with that of their white classmates and of the predominantly white curriculum they had experienced. Clearly, increasing the role of textbooks in the curriculum has a number of problems associated with it.

I think of Adrienne Rich’s quote: “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

Unfortunately, when teachers have little space to explore non-traditional areas, and when kids tune out from the classroom, they often blame the kids and their homes. We teachers need to explore our own multicultural knowledge base and look at ourselves as cultural beings, including the way we read behavior through our own cultural filters. We also need to explore the intellectual work by groups of which we are not members, and implications of such work not only for curriculum but how people make sense of everyday life. For example, if you don’t have much knowledge about American history as people of African origin have experienced it, you don’t interpret history in a way that “rings true” to your African- American students, and you downplay the role of racism both historically and currently.

The bottom line for me right now is the evidence we’re seeing that this current obsession with standardizing curricula and measuring output is further marginalizing students who come from groups in our society already seriously cheated by the system. How do we keep the critical issues in multicultural education from becoming obfuscated or even abandoned as the standards movement intensifies?

By organizing to pressure state school boards and state legislatures. People must understand that multicultural education is not just one more program to add to a school, and a passé program at that! Multicultural education is a field and arena for reforming schools in ways that support pluralism and justice.

The crucial questions we need to ask are, first, what do we know about effective education of children from historically marginalized groups and how should we make use of this knowledge? We need to look for what is actually known rather than assuming we know; educators from the same groups as the children are an important source of insight that is often overlooked and ignored. Second we need to ask how, in an increasingly pluralistic and divided society, we can engage across boundaries of difference and power to build schools and systems that work for all of us. You won’t do that by legislating solutions, or by having powerful social groups impose their own versions of solutions on everyone else.

Historically, organizing and pressing for change have been the most effective way of bringing change about. The situation now is no different.