Reflections on Multiculturalism in Education


This was my final paper for a class on multiculturalism in education.

There are currently two conflicting developments within the field of education. On the one hand, policies such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core have demonstrated a push for national standards, to ensure that students all over the country get the same quality of education. On the other hand, there is a greater official understanding of the need to provide students individual attention with inclusive settings, and the reconciliation of different cultures. Diversity comes in many forms, as the system has to accommodate the diversity within the country, the state, the city and the individual school. This leaves teachers with a lot to figure out, especially when it comes to their individual philosophy. They have to provide appropriate support for each student, while meeting national and state standards.

Students spend most of their lives outside of their classroom, and they’re shaped by factors that educators are unable to control. The book Freakonomics brought my attention to correlations between a student’s academic success and the amount of books in the household, or the age of the mother when her first child is born (p.174). This all occurs before the student enters the classroom, a reminder of the limitations in discussions about what educators can do. It’s important for teachers and administrators to be as effective as possible, but there is more to education than what they provide.

Teachers are expected to weigh different needs, and to find the right balance in different categories. They have to come up with a curriculum for an entire classroom while determining ways to allow individual students to achieve their full potential. From a policy perspective, they have to determine when it’s necessary to implement rules set from the top-down, and when it’s appropriate to execute policies from the bottom. When change occurs, they have to avoid going too far, be it in implementing new technology or dealing with transitions in cultural norms, especially in fighting bullying and discrimination, or in embracing diversity.

german diversity simpsons

Standards are a significant source of controversy, because the stakes are so high, as in anything to do with education. If something goes wrong, an entire generation is unable to achieve its full potential. I’m sympathetic to all sides when it comes to Common Core. I can appreciate the arguments that individuals on the local level know what is best for their community so that there are numerous advantages to bottom-up approaches over a national top-down initiative. However, there are certainly benefits to a national approach. Families move, kids go to universities out of state, and it will be essential for adults entering the workforce to be able to meet the same standards as contemporaries from other states and other countries. I’ve read about the numerous mistakes with implementation on the national level, although this would not have been necessary if education leaders on the local level had been able to provide appropriate management.

There are occasional stories of honors students who fail a standardized test, exposing the weakness of a curriculum. Bridget Green of New Orleans is the prototypical example. She was a high school valedictorian accepted by a state university, who had difficulty meeting the minimum ACT score. Her education had left her completely unprepared for the higher expectations outside her school. The trouble isn’t that the national test was too difficult, but that her curriculum had been so unsatisfactory.

On occasion, I’ll read about success stories of schools where children initially failed new standards, but after a change in policy, were able to demonstrate remarkable improvement. This does always make me skeptical. I wonder if a random success is given outsized publicity, or if another factor such as a change in student composition contributed to improved statistics. Another concern is that administrations may have figured out how to teach to the standard to the exclusion of everything else, which raises the possibility that the pattern will repeat itself when new standards are implemented. For all the complaints about the difficulty of meeting benchmarks, the schools that suffer from new standards tend to be seriously flawed.

crowded detention

Some of the biggest problems do seem to have fixes, which suggests that the issue is with the shortcomings of standards rather than their existence. It is unrealistic to expect students who are not at grade level to meet national standards within a year, but there have to be alternatives to continuing with a system that wasn’t working before, and expecting success. Rather than expecting kids in tenth grade reading at a sixth grade level to be at a tenth grade level within a year—which is what the standards are going to measure when finding students wanting—there should be initiatives to help them.

National standards have to make room for the particular strengths of localities. New York City has a high population density, which means that every student is able to travel to multiple schools. That does allow for unique approaches. For example, if eighty tenth graders within the city could benefit from the same specific approach, it might be worth sending them all to the same school. New York City schools are diverse, so different schools will fill different needs for their populations. In areas with high immigration, there may be a greater need to educate kids on American social norms. In areas where children rarely leave the Bronx, it could be advantageous to expand their horizons with regular field trips. There is a concern that administrators who stumble into positions of national leadership will grasp onto something that worked in another country, and insist that everyone in the United States try it, neglecting the obvious differences, to say nothing of the subtle variations. New York City schools may have a much higher immigrant community than nations where citizenship is more restricted. These will be populations with divergent needs.


As teachers, we have to acknowledge our ignorance at times.  There will be cultural norms students don’t care for, as well as priorities that we haven’t considered. Educators will have to be sensitive to all of this. Well-meaning people will make mistakes when determining policies where the goal is to acknowledge diversity. Sometimes, officials will be ignorant of specific cultures, as may occur with East Asians. They may also forget the differences between subcultures. A recent Chinese immigrant may speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or Fujianese. The designation African-American applies to groups that have different communities: the descendants of southern slaves, Caribbean-Americans, recent immigrants, and their children. An earnest desire to help kids understand their culture ignores children of varied cultures, such as mixed race kids. I can understand the frustrations of a teacher who just wanted to teach Civics, and didn’t want to think about all of this, although it is necessary.

I’m studying to be an English Teacher (7th-12th grade) so what I’ve learned is considered in that context. As in a math class, students are expected to build on prior knowledge, but there’s much more flexibility when it comes to material to cover. It can lead to students coming to class with very divergent background knowledge. There really isn’t a canon, allowing teachers to use material that they’re more invested in, although there is also the risk that students will consistently be exposed to the same short story. There has been a recent shift with a greater focus on information texts, and communication, which requires modifications in curricula.

One strategy I’ve come across in numerous places that is appropriate for Intermediate or High School ELA classes is to carefully select subject matter that involves individuals with similar backgrounds to the students. Several of the articles in Annual Editions suggested selecting diverse reading material, something also mentioned by students in a multicultural club chaired by a teacher I interviewed. This is a consideration teachers will have to be aware of.


I cotaught a 10th grade English class in a Harlem summer school, using material selected by the supervising teacher. We focused on short stories: two by dead European authors, and two by Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes. It was an effective combination, and it may have helped to have material with connections to African-American students.

The most important thing is to figure out what works. I was an English major in college, and it shows at times. However, I have always been interested in data. There are certain teaching strategies that I might find worrisome, but the results are more important than personal preferences.  It’s always easy to admit that others may be biased and mistaken, but there is also the possibility that I’m wrong.

I’m concerned about the approach with a program described in the article “Life Skills Yield Stronger Academic Performance Reflection.” It suggests creating a separate curriculum for children of a particular race. That strategy has led to subpar education in the past, and goes against the Supreme Court’s conclusion on education that separate institutions are inherently unequal. I also believe that it’s advantageous for students entering the adult world to have similar frames of reference, which only works when children have similar educations regardless of race. It could contribute to a troubling perception that those unfamiliar with their syllabus are ignorant, when they simply covered different material in their classrooms.

I didn’t learn about individuals who fit my background in any of my classes, since there aren’t prominent short stories written about Estonians, nor do I recall anyone from the Baltics being important in history class. I wasn’t bothered by the idea that there hadn’t been any Estonian-Americans who had succeeded in the industries I wanted to work in. That said, I did still learn about my culture outside of school, and it’s certainly possible that I identified with numerous Caucasian brown-haired boys (IE- Tom Sawyer).

I can appreciate that some students have different needs. One of my classmates related an anecdote of a professor troubled by a student’s query about whether the fact that the only black women she heard about in classes meant that she was supposed to be a slave. I’m sure many teachers want to end that conversation as soon as possible, telling the student “Of course not!” and sending them back to their assigned reading. But it may often be up to teachers to explain to certain students their culture.

It has become clear in the classroom discussions and reading that many of the problems and solutions are political. Teachers are limited by the decisions of the departments within their school, and those departments deal with city, state and national orders. For example, I may think that it would be best if some kids are held back a year, but that might not be possible, and there wouldn’t be much that an individual teacher can do about it.

At this point, I’m learning what I don’t know. Teachers have to be prepared for difficult discussions on topics where they’ll be uninformed. There may be parents with different priorities. On one extreme would be parents who are outraged that their child only has a 96 average. On the other extreme will be parents who simply don’t prioritize education. Anyone involved in education will have to be ready for these, and other cultural differences.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at
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