Cultural Diversity and Brown vs. Board
of Education after 50 years
Robert C. Morris
State University of West Georgia
Educators never fathomed the greater impact on the teaching
of multicultural students when the Supreme Court ruled in 1954
on the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas. The court's mid-century decision would come to have an
even more dramatic impact on schooling by the close of the 20th
Century. The ruling's affect on education has made school available
to all children on equal terms, stating that it is unconstitutional
to operate segregated schools under the premise that they are
separate but equal. The Brown ruling was, of course, primarily
aimed at the integration of black Americans who were being segregated
in their own schools. It was demonstrated that many of the black
students studying at black schools were not even close to the
same level of excellence as those of their white counterparts.
It was argued successfully that separate schools for black students
caused low self-esteem and could never adequately give these children
the same opportunities for education that others enjoyed. Since
that time our country has witnessed a population boom among other
racial and cultural groups along with a determination among these
other groups to secure their rights in schools and other social
institutions. As children from Hispanic and Asian cultures have
entered our country in ever increasing numbers, the Brown ruling
has come to take on new meaning. Not only do we have students
of varied cultural/ethnic backgrounds in the classrooms, they
also come from different language environments, as well as different
family customs and values. Those blatant as well as subtle changes
in school populations have necessitated an urgent need for multicultural
thinking and approaches in education.
Even so, many educators continue to teach the same subject matter
using the same methods they have always used with little regard
for the changes going on around them. Sensitivity on the part
of many to the variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds currently
within our communities is evolving slowly. This is probably due
to our inherent resistance to change. But as more groups are coming
to demand change, more emphasis is being placed on educating all
Americans equally. In 1979, Edmundo Vasquez, a consultant for
multicultural education from the University of New Mexico, outlined
four goals for all children. They were:
- To reflect diversity and life in the world
- To recognize and reduce racism and discrimination
- To provide alternatives for personal choice
- To increase student mastery of basic skills by using culturally
While more than two decades old, these goals for multicultural
education are valid today, even though the world of today is vastly
different from the world of 1979. We are in one sense a world
grown closer by vast changes in technology, while at the same
time harboring a population that is more diverse than it has ever
been. Census figures from 2000 indicate the multicultural changes
in enrollment of all K-12 United States students from the mid-1980s
through the1990s as follows (NCES, 2001) in the chart below.
This chart reflects a changing school population. A population
that must be understood and developed if educators are to adequately
prepare these young people for the future.
|Race/Ethnicity of Students
Asian or Pacific Islander...................
American Indian/Alaskan Native.......
Melting Pot or Puzzle Pieces?
As immigrants from diverse backgrounds came to this country,
Americans began calling themselves the "Melting Pot"
of the world. This came to mean that these unique cultural groups
were fulfilling their respective hopes and aspirations by deliberately
submerging their identities into a melting pot. They were giving
up their individuality and becoming a part of a greater more or
less homogeneous nationality. Mitchell (1980) expressed the melting
pot theory as this formula: A + B + C = A, where A, B, and C represent
different social groups, and A represents the dominant one in
America, white Anglo-Saxon. Over a period of time, all groups
would eventually conform to the values, mores, and lifestyle of
the dominant group. Students in this situation are therefore taught
from a one-background point of view, which happens to be one of
The more recent trend in the education of diverse cultures is
referred to as pluralism. It is considered more like the fitting
together of various puzzle pieces. In a pluralistic society people
of different ethnic backgrounds learn to live together, side by
side, celebrating their differences with mutual respect. In this
setting the existence of diverse cultural backgrounds is encouraged,
as well-fitting puzzle pieces, rather than melting together and
losing their individuality (identity). The most current philosophy
seems to be encouraging a pluralistic approach to education. Here
it is hoped that when a school's curriculum includes and emphasizes
a variety of cultural backgrounds reflective of all its students
a clearer picture of individuality will emerge. This approach
has become known as the "shotgun approach," which focuses
on the differences rather than the similarities of its constituents
The purpose of the analysis that follows is to determine how
administrators can become more aware of the varied backgrounds
of their students. This awareness needs to focus on the diversity
of an administrator's student body while at the same time attempting
to develop understandings of similarities and common elements
and focus of all students.
Finally a pluralistic goal for achieving multicultural education
needs to be identified by school administrators. That goal should
be directed toward either creating a more harmonious fitting of
the "puzzle pieces" thereby not "melting"
students together, or to use the "shotgun approach"
when working with diverse cultures. Specific ideas and strategies
for dealing with either of these positions as well as a few methods
for reaching all students successfully is what follows.
Problems with Diversity in the Classroom
It has long been known that children do not come to the classroom
as "empty vessels" but come with internalized standards
of communication, interaction, language use, and behavior from
their home environments. These standards are affected by parenting
styles, family structures, and rules for social interaction all
of which are heavily influenced by cultural values and traditions
(Bigelow, 1999). An example of the influence of one's cultural
values and traditions can be readily seen in our native American
children who are encouraged to be only spectators at adult activities.
This situation causes them to become somewhat skilled observers
of the nonverbal, as well as being able to better understand behavior
cues of the adults around them. These same children tend to use
these nonverbal communication strategies more frequently than
verbal ones. Of course this kind of "personality difference"
could easily be misconstrued in a mainstream classroom as the
student is disinterested or misunderstood. The rules for social
interaction are often discrete and hidden especially given the
example of the native American.
As stated earlier schools have historically been structured to
reflect middle class, Euro-centric cultural standards. In this
kind of setting students from diverse backgrounds will experience
cultural conflict constantly since their accustomed methods of
learning and communicating will probably not match the mainstream
standards. Students from varied backgrounds also bring with them
generally only one type of culture and it is usually completely
foreign to the average performance levels of the school and the
backgrounds of fellow students. When two or more cultures are
not compatible, the schooling process ultimately fails to teach,
students fail to learn, and little if any socialization takes
place (Protheroe & Barsdate, 1991). It should be noted that
often times it is not a student's lack of desire to succeed or
a low ability that holds him or her back. Often the failure can
be traced directly to cultural clash. In most cases a teacher
may misread a student's aptitude, intent, or ability as a result
of the differences in styles of language use and international
patterns. Also, a very common clash for teachers comes when they
use teaching strategies or discipline models that are at odds
with the cultural backgrounds of the students. What could be considered
a typical punishment for a classroom offense in this country may
never be used or even considered in another country's schools.
The approach is then pointless as a strategy for effectively dealing
with that foreign student. One interesting research finding that
supports this finding indicates that a classroom that allows for
greater movement and interaction can better facilitate the learning
and social styles of African American boys, while a more structured,
inhibitive class will unduly penalize these same boys. Perhaps
cultural sensitivity on the part of teachers in allowing African-American
boys to interact more with peers in their classrooms while performing
assigned tasks will ultimately reduce the number of African-American
boys assigned to special education classes. The significance of
this finding could have dramatic effect (Protheroe & Barsdate,
Another important problem that occurs in Euro-centric classrooms
is that the minorities in a classroom may resist learning within
the white cultural frame of reference because to learn within
that mode they feel that they would lose their identity, self-worth,
and sense of community. Furthermore, those who do "conform"
to the mainstreaming form of learning being preached are often
accused of "acting white," which easily causes loss
of friendships within their own culture. These conforming students
may not necessarily be accepted into the white culture either.
They are then faced with the dilemma of "acting white"
and being successful academically while losing their loyalty to
their minority group (O'Neil, 1997/1998).
Since the Brown decision has reached this fuller inclusion of
all minorities in the school, educators have been called upon
to teach more about the contributions of blacks, Hispanics, Native
Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups long absent from
the curriculum. If one looks at an ethnocentric approach that
is based on a study of the values and behaviors of a variety of
ethnic groups, one might begin to view the world as if they were
"using another lens to view the world, and [that] my way
of looking at it is different than yours"(Viadero, 1990).
The shotgun approach to education, where the focus is on the differences
of cultures instead of the commonalities, has been challenged
by critics such as Thomas Sobol (Viadero, 1990). Sobol, as a separatist,
attempts to approach individuals separately rather than as a group
which embodies pluralism. Others, such as Asa Hilliard (1992),
feels that the ethnocentric curriculum carries too much baggage.
Focusing on cultures rather than excellence in education is what
A spin-off of ethnocentric education, Afro-centrism is a focus
on Africa and American blacks. A number of school systems have
developed curricula to focus on this newest approach. The Milwaukee
school system is going so far as to create two separate schools
that will specifically cater to the academic and social needs
of black males. These "magnet" programs are not off-limits
to whites and females but are focusing on the specific needs of
black males. A final problem identified through research indicates
without a doubt that black children are faring poorly in the public
schools. They typically enter only slightly behind others, but
by the time they reach the third grade they have slipped 6 months
behind and by the 6th grade they have fallen a full year behind
(Reissman, 1994). Most believe that white students are succeeding
because the school's curriculum makes them feel as though they
are at the center of the universe. Of course the opposite is true
when they fail. Afro-centric curriculum proponents contend that
by focusing on a feeling of centrality with the African American
students a feeling of centrality can develop, thus raising the
students' feelings of self-esteem as well as raising their achievement
A Pluralistic Approach to Culturally Sensitive Instruction
Once the culture conflicts have been identified, educators can
proceed to adapt their curriculum to meet the needs of all their
students, especially including those from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Protheroe and Barsdate (1991) cite four features for developing
a culturally sensitive approach to instruction. The first of these
is to maintain a pro-student philosophy, capitalizing on each
student's strengths, viewing cultural ways of learning as resources
to be used, rather than deficits to be remedied. A second feature
relies on the premise that there is no best way to effectively
teach all of the students all of the time (Brown, 1990). Educators
postulate that to successfully teach multicultural children, "most
students can learn the same things but they learn them for different
reasons." In order to reach the diverse population, it is
necessary for the teaching techniques to be varied. This should
encourage students to develop their own reasons for learning.
A third feature of culturally sensitive instruction for a teacher
is to rely on the path of least change. Students build on knowledge
that they have already acquired; the challenge for teachers here
is to use that body of knowledge already attained to facilitate
the acquisition of new skills. The fourth and final feature of
cultural sensitive instruction is to maintain high expectations
for achievement for all students, modifying only the methods for
attaining the outcomes. Too often students from diverse backgrounds
are put into a slow learner track because of a misunderstanding
of cultural values and customs. A student often will work to reach
their expectations if there is no miscommunication between all
interested parties. If one accepts the above four features as
sound educational thinking, questions are then easily raised as
to how these features can be applied to culturally sensitive instruction.
Two studies are noted here which reflect research developed to
increase the school's success in implementing a culturally appropriate
curriculum program. The first study known as the "KEEP Program"
took place with Native Hawaiian students (Protheroe & Barsdate,
1991), and the second with Eskimo and Indian children in Alaska
(Noordhoff & Kleinfeld, 1993).
The "KEEP Program," (Kamehameha Early Education Project)
was developed to increase a school's success when working with
low-achieving Native Hawaiian students. The heart of the program
is to modify the classroom routines in order to "mesh"
all students cultures in ways that will ensure a "generation
of academically important behaviors" (Protheroe & Barsdate,
1991). This was accomplished by observing learning that was actually
taking place both in the home and in the school setting. Any cultural
conflicts would readily appear in this approach. It was determined
that at home the family concentrated on group learning while the
school setting was emphasizing independent work. These differences
were producing a cultural discontinuity that hindered the educational
The school where the "KEEP Project" was housed began
to modify its teaching techniques by encouraging cooperative learning.
By building on a familiar mode of learning, the students on-task
behaviors increased. Using the premise of "least change,"
the teachers were able to capitalize on prior student knowledge.
After four years of implementation the KEEP Program reported dramatic
achievement gains. These results gained national attention, but
critics of the project reported that this type of research is
not replicable with other cultures. The key here, however, is
to find the culture clash that exists and modify classroom instruction
to match the target population's cultural patterns.
The second study focused on secondary teachers from the University
of Alaska Fairbanks, who participated in a teacher education program
called, "Teachers for Alaska" (TFA), which is a fifth
year certification program. In this program teachers were instructed
on the history and culture of Alaska's Indian and Eskimo groups
as well as pedagogical strategies for dealing with these populations.
All strategies used were linked to the contexts in which these
students worked best. The teachers were encouraged to learn experientially
about their students as well as students families through discussions,
home visits, and involvement in the community (Protheroe &
Barsdate, 1991). Results indicated that engaging the students
in activities rather than exposing them to a teacher-centered
approach was very successful in reaching them. The minority students
relate that teaching is effective when subject matter is related
to their backgrounds, enabling them to make connections. These
results definitely bear on the development of a multicultural
program. However, here again, the research was carried out with
a select group of minority students, not the typical variety that
is seen in many school districts.
A Basic Strategy for Dealing with Culturally Diverse
There are some basic ideas and strategies that can be effectively
implemented for teaching students of culturally diverse backgrounds.
Many of the ideas which teachers use with students are not new.
Cooperative learning as an alternative approach that shifts the
emphasis from competition to shared learning has been hypothesized
to better match the cultural characteristics of many of our students,
including Blacks, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. Whole
language strategies also encourage engagement of minority students,
as they are able to use their background life experiences as a
frame of reference for learning new material. Research cited by
Harste (Protheroe & Barsdate, 1991) reflects that whole language
is "the only approach to teaching reading and writing that
does not deny children their culture."
It is important in the multicultural classroom to be able to
modify instruction in order to match the cultural cognitive styles,
which students possess. Using multiple stimuli in the classroom,
as well as a variety of teaching strategies, are all helpful for
reaching all students in a class. In a culturally sensitive classroom,
however, the teacher must focus on those strategies from which
the diverse students learn best. In an article on culturally assaultive
classrooms, Clark, DeWolf, and Clark (1992) cite several examples
of things to avoid when recognizing cultural diversity. Culturally
assaultive classrooms include discussions of cultures only as
they existed in the past, such as the Indians helping the Pilgrims
at Thanksgiving. They might also promote incorrect stereotypes
such as the characterizing of Indians in scant clothing, scalping
people. These classrooms concentrate on the differences of the
cultures rather than the similarities, emphasizing these particularly
with "holiday units" rather than incorporating a year-round
curriculum with cultural diversity.
An attitude of embracing diversity must saturate the classroom.
Diversity must be given the endorsement of administrators, and
teachers need to become active pluralists, encouraging the fit
of the puzzle pieces rather than acknowledging the differences
between them. The focus should be on the child's world of today,
rather than on the world of the past. Children should experience
enrichment from diversity, not fear, apprehension, anxiety, and
A Design for Success
An ethnocentric approach to teaching cultural diversity is not
feasible; it is a shotgun approach, giving students a smattering
of many different cultures while ignoring the similarities. Teachers
already have a crowded curriculum of information to impart to
their students and adding more is probably not the best answer,
but it will need to be an option. A broader, more truthful historical
view of all cultures involved in a particular school should be
incorporated into the basic curriculum. The melting pot theory
has dissolved and basic ethnic characteristics need to be recognized
and embraced in this democratic society. Human culture is the
product of the struggles of all humanity, not the possession of
a single racial or ethnic group. In a pluralistic society, the
puzzle pieces must be put together to facilitate living side by
side in harmony, with respect for each other.
It is interesting to note that many of the same teaching strategies
that were used in the mainstream classroom of the 1970s are encouraged
in culturally sensitive instruction. Inclusion of whole language,
cooperative learning, and the acknowledgement of cognitive learning
styles have been embodied in the regular classroom during the
latter part of this century. It is important to reinforce the
use of these strategies among our culturally diverse population,
enabling them to become more self-confident and thus more successful
in the classroom.
These and other teaching strategies can reach many of our minority
students but another step must be taken to ensure the success
of these students. Teachers should be trained to become knowledgeable
about the backgrounds of the cultures represented in their classrooms.
If, for instance, a Native American student does not respond in
a situation, it may be because of his/ her background culture,
not lack of knowledge of the subject matter. Incorporating this
information in a course for pre-service teachers is required to
be developed. It should also be incorporated in in-service courses
for experienced teachers in order for them to be able to truly
relate to their students.
Specific methods for dealing with multicultural students must
become a part of teacher training to make them more culturally
sensitive in their instruction while still maintaining valid scholarship
as the goal for effective curriculum content. Changes remain the
key to becoming proactive in preparing our students to deal with
this pluralistic world. As Asa Hilliard (1992) has often expressed,
"Nothing less than the full truth of the human experience
is worthy of our schools and our children".
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