Professing Education


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 relevant materials
    (Rothkopf, 1979).

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
Fall 1986
Fall 1991
Fall 1998


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 Euro-centrism.

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 (Nieto, 2002/2003).

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, 1991).

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 he advocates.

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 levels.

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 process.

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 Students

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 low self-esteem.

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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