Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice

by Wayne Au

wayneheadshotThis post is an excerpt from the introduction to our new and expanded 2nd edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice published just last week.   

Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice, second edition, has been a long time coming. Over its almost 30 years of existence, Rethinking Schools has published more than 200 articles that dealt explicitly with issues of race and culture. Even though Rethinking Schools has always kept racial and cultural justice amongst our main focal points, until the first edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education in 2009, we had never published a book that specifically focused on race and culture in education in their own right. This book does just that: provide a Rethinking Schools vision of anti-racist, social justice education that is both practical for teachers and sharp in analysis.

It is my hope that the selections included in the second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice offer a more robust and powerful definition of multicultural education than we see so often used. For instance, some educators and teacher educators say they teach multicultural education, but do it under the guise of “global education.” This form of multiculturalism feels safer to some because it uses the veneer of international cultures to avoid more serious and painful realities of issues like racism. Similarly, “diversity education” and “cultural pluralism” get used with the singular intent of promoting heroes and holidays and celebrate individual differences, again circumventing issues of power and privilege.

RME2_cvrThe terms “diverse students” and “urban students,” two more stand-ins for “multicultural” students, have devolved into meaning “poor African American and Latino students” or “students who aren’t white.” This is particularly ironic given that in some school districts in the United States, schools might be approaching 100 percent African American or Latino students, as is the case in Detroit and Santa Ana, California, respectively, and are regularly referred to as “diverse” by professors, teachers, and politicians alike. The right wing has also developed its own, sometimes contradictory definitions of multicultural education. While some conservatives have vehemently attacked multicultural education as representative of the downfall of Western Civilization, others such as E. D. Hirsch (founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum) have developed a different definition of multicultural education. As Kristen Buras, professor of education at Emory University, talks about in her book, Rightist Multiculturalism, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has recently taken up the banner of multicultural education by defining the United States as a multicultural nation of diverse immigrants—while simultaneously covering up systematic oppression based on class, race, and nation status.

Multicultural education is also being narrowly defined as a path students can take to “higher” status literature. Teachers use Tupac’s lyrics to move students to Shakespeare; students can unpack hip-hop lyrics as a way to learn literary language like stanza and rhyme, but they need to study Frost and Yeats to be considered well read. Students in regular classes can read “thug” literature, but AP classes need to read the classics. (Does anyone read Morrison as a precursor to Chaucer? She’s harder than the Canterbury Tales). This version of multicultural education focuses on access to the canon of high-status knowledge. In doing so, such a definition not only keeps the Eurocentric canon of knowledge at the heart of “real” education, it also communicates to students the idea that the diversity of their identities, lives, and communities do not really matter when it comes to learning.

The second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education is an attempt to reclaim multicultural education as part of a larger, more serious struggle for social justice, a struggle that recognizes the need to fight against systematic racism, colonization, and cultural oppression that takes place through our schools. In the chapters included here, multicultural education:

  • is grounded in the lives of our students.
  • draws on the voices and perspectives of those “being studied.”
  • teaches through dialogue.
  • critically supports students’ identities.
  • embraces and recognizes the value of students’ home languages.
  • critiques school knowledge, knowledge that has historically been Eurocentric.
  • invites students to engage in real social and political issues.
  • creates classroom environments where students can meaningfully engage with each other.
  • is rigorous, and recognizes that academic rigor is impossible without it.
  • connects to the entire curriculum.
  • is rooted in an anti-racist struggle about which knowledge and experiences should be included in the curriculum.
  • celebrates social movements and the fight against nativism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.
  • explores how social, economic, and cultural institutions contribute to inequality.

It is critical that I take a moment here to address an issue regarding how I am defining “multicultural” in this book. Some friends and allies, for instance, critiqued the first edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education for focusing too narrowly on typical categories of race, ethnicity, and culture, to the exclusion of more expansive definitions of “multiculturalism” that might include, for instance, an attention to the identities of LGBTQ youth in our classrooms and curriculum, or to the religious diversity of our students and communities. I understand and appreciate these concerns. The identities of our students and their communities are diverse and exceedingly complex, and certainly one approach is to define “multiculturalism” in ways to match every aspect of those identities—every aspect of “difference.” My answer in conversation with these friends and allies has been along two lines. First I attend to the context of Rethinking Schools itself. Two of our earlier, widely used books, Rethinking Our Classrooms Volumes 1 & 2, take up a broad definition of teaching for social justice, and in doing so, both volumes seek to embrace an expansive definition of culture, and also span grade levels and subject areas. Granted these two volumes are not perfect, but in many ways, my choice of focusing on more typically defined notions of race, culture, and ethnicity was a conscious one within the context of Rethinking Schools. We had already worked with the more expansive notion of culture in those two volumes, but had yet to take up a book that focused on race, racism, and the ways culture intertwines with them. The second part of my decision to define “multiculturalism” in the manner that I have for Rethinking Multicultural Education is connected to my experience teaching multicultural education and diversity courses at the university level. As I discussed earlier in this introduction, I worry that multiculturalism has been equated with “diversity” and has become the “everyone else” category. Teacher education credential coursework at many universities, for instance, require some sort of “diversity” class as a part of their core sequence of courses. Although I generally believe in the importance of requiring such courses and certainly do not want them taken out of teacher credential programs, the “every aspect of difference” nature of these classes oftentimes means that students—future teachers in this case—may talk about race, privilege, and myriad issues associated with diversity but give short shrift to the painful and powerful systemic racism, the legacies of colonization, and the realities of cultural oppression.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to more expansive definitions of multiculturalism and diversity, and I’m open to hearing the critiques of my friends, colleagues, and allies regarding the definition of multiculturalism I’ve chosen within the context of Rethinking Schools as a whole and the field of multicultural education as it currently exists. But this book represents the need to defend the conscious and explicit attention to race and ethnicity, and the aspects of culture that extend from them, as I have done here in this second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education.

Read the rest of Wayne’s introduction >>

The Trouble with Common Core

On Friday, Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp delivered a speech “The Trouble with Common Core” to Portland area parents, educators, administrators, elected officials, among others.  (See our summer editorial with the same title.)

Watch and share.

Save Our Schools returns

by Stan Karp

Last summer, the Save Our Schools march brought thousands of teachers, parents, and supporters of public education to Washington, D.C. The march and rally were hopeful signs of pushback against corporate ed reform. A school year that began with the media blitz around the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman ended with the voices of grassroots resistance in the nation’s capital.

From August 3 to 5, Save Our Schools supporters will gather again in D.C., this time for a “peoples convention” focused on giving more shape and substance to the SOS effort.

Rethinking Schools will be there, joining longtime friends and advocates for educational justice like Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and many others. We hope you will join us. More info here.

Rethinking Schools editor and parent activist Helen Gym and I will host a workshop session Saturday morning on education activism. We’ll share some lessons from Rethinking Schools’ 25-year history as a voice for social justice inside classrooms and communities. We’ll also share our experience with efforts to create local, state, and national coalitions to defend and improve public education, and we’ll invite discussion about how SOS might move that effort forward amidst the strongest corporate counterattack on public schooling we have seen in our lifetimes.

One topic will be strategies for countering the current mainstream narrative about education reform. That narrative is based on fundamentally inaccurate descriptions of the central problems public schools face and disastrous policy prescriptions misframed as the solutions our schools need.

For corporate reformers, the main problems in public education are low test scores, “bad teachers,” and union contracts. Their “solutions” are more standards and tests; creation of a less secure, less experienced, and less expensive professional staff; and more privatized, corporate management of schools, districts, and education policy.

But in the real world, the core problems facing public education are poverty, inadequate resources, systemic inequality and racism, and the misuse of standards and tests. The real solutions are fair and sustainable school funding, poverty reduction, curricula that reflects the real world our students live in and engages them in improving it, better preparation and support for educators, and stronger partnerships with parents and communities.

Solutions like these will only emerge from broad social movements that challenge the lack of democracy and equity both inside our schools and in the society around them.

Rethinking Schools has been addressing these issues since it was founded in 1986—partly in response to an earlier wave of top-down, business-led ed reform. We have tried to provide both critiques of bad policy and concrete examples of better practice. We have highlighted the kinds of stories and voices of educators, students, and parents that are crucial to replacing the current narrative of failure and privatization with one of hope and collective democratic vision.

At the end of last year’s SOS march and conference, participants were invited to submit a short vision of “what next.” In response we wrote:

“As we build on the SOS march and rally, we invite activists to use, support, and contribute to Rethinking Schools in a variety of ways: as a starting point for discussion, a venue for telling our stories of struggle and success in schools and classrooms, as a place to discuss ideas for building our movement, and as an accessible way to reach new audiences with our hopes for what our schools could and should be.”

As SOS regathers, we’re happy to repeat the invitation and look forward to working with other activists to realize the potential of a grassroots national movement for educational and social justice.

Former Stand activists speak out on ballot initiative

Rethinking Schools supporter and education activist Alain Jehlen is involved in an organized effort to halt the corporate-driven reform agenda of Stand for Children.  Here’s the latest from Alain, including a call to action.

by Alain Jehlen

In the fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand for Children abandoned its grassroots and started promoting the corporate, anti-union agenda of the Gates and Walton Family foundations at the same time that the foundations began pouring millions of dollars into Stand’s coffers.

My sidebar article on Massachusetts told the stories of local leaders who quit the organization in disgust when Stand pushed aside their priorities to get with the new national program.

But these activists didn’t go away. Now, many of them are fighting against Stand’s latest Massachusetts effort, a ballot initiative that would restrict collective bargaining and have the effect of handing more power to school administrators. At last count, 55 former Stand activists had signed an open letter blasting Stand for doing the corporations’ dirty work.

“The proposed ballot measure . . . does nothing to improve teaching in our schools,” they wrote. “What it does is put the careers of our teachers at the mercy of an untested rating system, violating the recommendations of the people who designed that system.

“We fear the result would be to drive some of our best teachers away from the schools that need them most.

“This ballot measure fits the ideology of its corporate sponsors, but it is not what we want for those who teach our children. Most of all, it is not what we want for our children.”

Among the biggest contributors to Stand for Children in Massachusetts are principals in Bain Capital, the private equity company co-founded by Mitt Romney.

Read the letter—and sign on if you’re a former Stand member.

Shock Doctrine Comes to Philly Schools

by Jody Sokolower

Philadelphia teachers and parents—and educators throughout the country—were horrified a few weeks ago when Thomas Knudsen, the School District of Philadelphia’s chief recovery officer, unveiled a five-year plan to close 64 schools (25 percent of the system), move 40 percent of students into charters, slash the central office to 20 percent of its former capacity, and divide the rest of the district into “achievement networks” run by third-party operators.

Mayor Michael Nutter said the district faced near “collapse” and that the plan was something Philadelphians needed to “grow up and deal with.” Can you believe that city officials later admitted that the charters and achievement networks wouldn’t actually save the district any money?

We are proud that one of the voices of sanity and resistance came from Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and longtime parent activist in Philly. We are reposting her open letter to Knudsen here—not only because it analyzes so articulately what is happening and what is at stake in Philly—but also because Philly is not alone. Similar “saving the district from collapse” scenarios have already played out or are in progress in cities as widespread as New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago.

Commentary: You’re not speaking to me, Mr. Knudsen

by Helen Gym

I am the mother of three children in District and charter schools in this city. I have been actively involved in stopping good schools from decline and helping low-performing, violent schools turn around. I believe in the essential role that a high-quality public school system plays and have fought for that vision. My 7th grade son will soon have outlasted four superintendencies, including yours. And I’m here to tell you that you’re not speaking to me.

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and “rightsizing” our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25 percent of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations,” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two-thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District-managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds.

You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend $1.4 million for six-week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an “intimate, hand-in-glove” relationship, yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb.

You’re not speaking to me when you’ll go to any extreme to radically transform “education delivery,” yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, art and music, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings, and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your “plan.”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been around the block a few times.

We’ve seen how promises of an 85 percent proficiency rate fall flat when all they’re based on is rhetoric and no concrete plan on how to achieve it; James Nevels’ School Reform Commission tried that. Contracts will do that? Sorry, we’ve been around that block, too. Ask yourself where the 2002 purported savior of Philly and Chester education, Edison Schools Inc., is today. Ask the Truebright Science Academy parents how it felt when their five-year contract didn’t work out, or the Martin Luther King High School community — after 10 years of Foundations Inc., they ended up with a school arguably worse off than when it started.

We’ve seen how privatization and charters have done little to radically impact systemic achievement and improve education. There are some great charters out there, but no more than there are great public schools.

We’re tired of the ridiculous labeling of schools as high-performing and low-performing. The label mentality assumes schools are in permanent stasis rather than in varying stages of evolution and devolution highly dependent on resources and institutional priority. By simply expanding high-performing seat capacity and closing down low-performing schools, you fail to understand or even seek to understand the very elements that make a level of performance possible. You don’t understand schools, you don’t understand success and failure, and you don’t understand how change happens.

I believe in something.

I actually believe in the value of institutions, despite having been burned by them plenty of times. I believe that professional educators can do a better job than the majority of the hucksters and hustlers and ideologues scoring off of public education’s demise.

I believe in the possibility of school transformation and the role that community and parent voices play in concert with schools and districts. I believe in the value of the public sphere and the responsibilities it owes to the most marginalized of communities — our immigrant students, special needs populations, and young people struggling with disciplinary issues.

I believe in choice options that co-exist to supplement, not destroy, a public school system. I believe in real, creative innovation in our classrooms, not the “drill-and-kill” test prep replicated in too many of these “high-performing” charters you tout. I believe in a vision of schools that is aspirationally led rather than deficit-based. Your focus on the bottom brings everyone down.

I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for.

Mr. Knudsen, these are the things that speak to me. So if you’re not speaking to me, who are you speaking to?

Helen’s letter was originally published at The Notebook: An Independent Voice for Parents, Educators, and Friends of Philadelphia’s Public Schools.

Related Resources

Rethinking School Reform offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.

Keeping the Promise? the debate over charter schools examines the charter school movement’s founding visions, on-the-ground realities, and untapped potential-within the context of an unswerving commitment to democratic, equitable public schools.