Online Degrees Blog History of multicultural education in the United States

History of multicultural education in the United States

19 April
Group of young multiracial friends traveling in the city.

The history of multicultural education and ethnic studies in the United States is deeply intertwined with the Civil Rights movement.

In schools, multicultural education initiatives aim to address the experiences and perspectives of historically oppressed communities, including Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other ethnic minorities.1 This broader approach emphasizes intersectionality and recognizes the interconnectedness of racism and other forms of oppression.

Scholars like James Banks have made significant contributions to multicultural education, pioneering approaches to promote equity in schools including infusion and transformation models.2 Carl Grant, Christine Sleeter, Geneva Gay, and Sonia Nieto built upon Banks’ work; they examined how the structural foundations of schools contribute to educational inequities.2

This post explores the evolution of multicultural education, the role of the Civil Rights movement, modern-day challenges and controversies, and educational outcomes.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—a direct response to Jim Crow laws in the South—ignited a push for equity and justice across all aspects of society, including education.3

Parents, community leaders, and prominent activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X called for education reform and demanded equitable educational opportunities for all. Through freedom marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, these leaders laid the foundation for multicultural education and social justice in schools.4

These efforts led to landmark legal victories, such as:3,4,5

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): Plaintiff Oliver Brown filed this lawsuit after his daughter was denied admission to an all-white elementary school based on race. The Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Historian Juan Williams compared this decision to the Big Bang of the solar system
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: Legislation banning discrimination and empowering the federal government to enforce desegregation and address unequal access
  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971): Upheld court-ordered busing to improve access to quality education for minority students

These legal victories didn’t bring an end to racism overnight, but they did pave the way for integrated schools. In cities like Boston, violent protests erupted over court-ordered busing. Meanwhile, in Berkley, desegregation efforts changed the life of a little girl named Kamala Harris. The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris was able to attend school in an affluent neighborhood.5 In the South, the number of Black students at majority-white schools rose from two percent in the mid-1960s to nearly 45% by the late 1980s.4 Today, many school districts are still segregated, leading historians to question the legacy of busing.4

The 1970s

This decade saw the rise of African-centered schools, African American history electives, and inclusive textbooks. In addition, the women’s rights movement converged with the push for education reform, calling for gender equity in curriculum content, hiring practices, and educational opportunities.1,2 Similarly, advocates for individuals with disabilities pushed for accessible education and accommodations to address diverse learning needs. Multicultural education recognizes and values the contributions and experiences of all groups, striving to create inclusive learning environments that support diverse learners.1,2

The 1980s

Scholars like James Banks pioneered scholarly exploration of multicultural education, advocating for systemic transformation of policies, teaching practices, and curricula to foster greater educational equity. 2

Considered to be the founding father of multicultural education, Banks drew on his personal experiences growing up in Arkansas during the civil rights movement.8 Throughout his schooling, Banks struggled to reconcile textbook representations of Black people with the people he knew in his community. 8 During his college years, he explored the experiences of diverse ethnic groups, including Asian Americans and Mexican Americans, which led him to view racism as a national issue. 8

Notable multicultural education scholars: Trailblazers in equity and inclusion

In the transformative landscape of education during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a cadre of pioneering scholars emerged, in addition to James Banks, who have left an indelible mark on the field of multicultural education.

Operating predominantly from the 1980s through the 2000s, these luminaries illuminated the path toward equity and inclusion within educational institutions. Through their research, advocacy, and tireless dedication, scholars such as Carl Grant, Christine Sleeter, Geneva Gay, and Sonia Nieto reshaped the discourse surrounding race, ethnicity, and learning.

Their work not only challenged prevailing paradigms but also catalyzed systemic changes aimed at fostering diverse and inclusive learning environments. Let's delve into the transformative contributions of these champions of equity, whose legacies continue to reverberate through educational practice and policy today.

Carl A. Grant

Carl A. Grant, a distinguished scholar in the field of multicultural education, has made significant contributions to understanding the complex dynamics of race, ethnicity, and education.9 His research delves into the experiences of marginalized ethnic groups within the education system, shedding light on disparities and inequities that impact student outcomes.

Grant's work emphasizes the importance of cultural diversity in educational institutions and advocates for systemic changes to promote inclusivity and equity. As an advocate for educational equity, Grant has played a key role in shaping teacher education programs to prepare educators to effectively engage with diverse student populations.

Grant served as the Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he conducted extensive research and published numerous influential works on multicultural education and teacher preparation.

Christine E. Sleeter

Christine E. Sleeter is renowned for her groundbreaking research on multicultural education and social justice in schools. Her scholarship focuses on the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender, and class within the education system, highlighting the unique challenges faced by marginalized students.10

Through her work, Sleeter has emphasized the need for culturally responsive teaching practices and inclusive curriculum development. She has advocated for the integration of multicultural perspectives into the school curriculum to better reflect the diverse experiences of students from various ethnic backgrounds.

Sleeter is Professor Emerita in the College of Professional Studies at California State University Monterey Bay. She has been a prominent voice in multicultural education for decades, publishing influential books and articles on the subject.

Geneva Gay

Geneva Gay's contributions to multicultural education have had a profound impact on educational practice and policy.11 Her research examines the cultural dimensions of teaching and learning, emphasizing the importance of culturally relevant pedagogy in promoting student engagement and academic achievement.

Gay's work has informed the development of culturally responsive teaching strategies and curriculum materials that empower educators to meet the diverse needs of students. She has been a vocal advocate for educational equity and social justice, advocating for policies that address systemic inequalities within the education system.

Gay is a Professor Emerita in the College of Education at the University of Washington-Seattle. Throughout her career, she has been recognized for her expertise in multicultural education and has received numerous awards for her contributions to the field.

Sonia Nieto

Sonia Nieto is a leading scholar in multicultural education and bilingual education, with a focus on promoting educational equity for culturally and linguistically diverse students. Her research explores the intersection of language, culture, and identity in education, advocating for policies and practices that support linguistic diversity.12

Nieto's work has influenced teacher education programs to integrate bilingual and multicultural perspectives into their curricula. She has emphasized the importance of cultural competence among educators and has worked to dismantle linguistic and cultural barriers that inhibit student success in schools.

Sonia Nieto is a Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been a leading voice in advocating for educational equity and has authored several influential books on multicultural education and diversity in schools.

Challenges and controversies

The battle over multicultural education has been marked by both progress, resistance, and controversy. Since the 1990s, many school districts made it a priority to include perspectives and contributions of historically marginalized groups, such as Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. However, a growing backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in American schools threatens to reset the progress that has been made.

This year, Alabama passed an anti-DEI law that prohibits public colleges and K-12 schools in the state from hosting DEI offices, requiring student participation in DEI trainings, and teaching divisive concepts that discriminate based on individual demographics.13 In 2022, the College Board’s AP African American Studies course drew fire from conservative politicians in Florida, and it was revised. Critics said the new framework omits crucial concepts and scholars due to political pressures. 14

Multicultural education in the curriculum

Two main approaches have emerged: infusion and transformation models. While infusion models seek to integrate multicultural content into existing curricula, transformation models aim to fundamentally reshape educational structures and practices to reflect diverse perspectives and experiences.

The Infusion Model

The infusion model aims to enhance students’ understanding of multiculturalism and promote inclusivity by incorporating key components into lesson plans:

  • Diverse Content: Incorporates multicultural themes and materials into existing curriculum frameworks across various subjects.
  • Cultural Awareness: Broadens students’ awareness of diverse cultures, traditions, histories, and experiences through lessons and activities.

This model uses an incremental approach, which allows educators to make meaningful changes without completely restructuring educational systems. Thus, it is a practical and feasible option for schools and institutions.

The Transformation Model

Transformation models go beyond simply incorporating diverse content; they strive to address power dynamics, privilege, and systemic inequalities within the educational framework. Key components include:

  • Social Justice: Focusing on issues of social justice, equity, and human rights within the curriculum
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching: Adapting teaching strategies and materials to meet the diverse cultural and linguistic needs of students
  • Community Engagement: Collaborating with local communities and stakeholders to integrate culturally relevant resources and perspectives into the curriculum

By adopting a transformation model, educators can move beyond surface-level diversity initiatives and work toward creating meaningful and lasting changes to the educational system. This approach not only benefits students from marginalized communities but also nurtures critical thinking skills and empathy among all learners.

KU course connection: C&T 807: Multicultural Education

This course examines multicultural education and culturally relevant pedagogy to understand inequalities in PK-12 schooling. It analyzes cultural diversity, historical oppressions, and systemic disparities in education, prompting students to reflect on their identities and their impact on teaching and learning in diverse public schools.

Impact and outcomes

Measuring the impact of multicultural education extends beyond academic achievement to encompass broader societal benefits. Studies have shown that exposure to diverse perspectives enhances critical thinking skills, promotes empathy, and prepares students to thrive in an increasingly globalized world.

Outcomes include:

  • Valuing Diversity: Understanding diverse identities fosters respect and appreciation, empowering students to navigate complex social dynamics and build inclusive communities.6
  • Empathy and Allyship: Learning to engage respectfully across differences, promoting empathy, communication, and allyship, especially for marginalized groups like individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ, religious minorities, and immigrants.6
  • Awareness of Injustice: Cultivating a critical lens on systemic discrimination and oppression, encouraging students to analyze social injustices beyond surface stereotypes.6
  • Social Action: Empowering students to be citizens, addressing real-world issues through collaboration, critique, and activism6

With these values, students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to positively contribute to their communities and advocate for a more equitable world.

Prepare to be a multicultural educator

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With the most up-to-date curriculum, interactive learning opportunities, and highly qualified faculty, you’ll be equipped to shape the future of education. Contact an admissions outreach advisor today to learn more.