Multicultural education is an educational approach that encourages diversity and equality: the instruction of students from different backgrounds, the study of ethnic and other cultural groups, the development of critical thinking skills, and a focus on human relations. The achievement gap in education refers to systematic variances in the ability to learn between students from majority populations and students from minority populations. Today, efforts are being made to raise student achievement across the board and close the achievement gap.
Keywords Accountability; Achievement Gap; Brown v. Board of Education; Cultural Incompetence; Culture; Curriculum; Diversity; Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); Empowerment Theory; Equality; General Education; Marginalize; Multicultural Education; National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Self-Efficacy; Special Education; Teacher Preparation Programs; Underrepresented
Multicultural Education: The Achievement Gap
Multicultural education is an educational approach that integrates four factors into a curriculum to encourage diversity and equality: the instruction of students from different backgrounds, the study of ethnic and cultural groups, the development of critical thinking skills, and a focus on human relations (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). Educators have continually been encouraged to incorporate multicultural education into their curriculums; however, the manner in which they have responded to the racial, cultural, and linguistic shifts in student demographics has not been sufficient. As a result, a lack of cultural competence has left some students less prepared to achieve than others (Brown, 2007).
The achievement gap in education refers to systematic variances in learning ability between students from majority populations and students from minority populations (i.e. the disparity between students from high income families and students from low income families). The most significant effort made by the federal government to improve the nation's schools and student learning is the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Congress initially passed the first act in 1965 in conjunction with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives. Since then, every four or five years the Act has been reauthorized, each time expanding its scope (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004).
The ESEA was largely designed to address the achievement gap in multicultural education. However, improvement in the academic performances of poor and minority students has been slow over the last forty years. With President George W. Bush's lead, the 2002 reauthorization of the ESEA denoted a significant departure grounded in the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). NCLB is a federal plan instituted in 2001 with the intention of making schools more responsive to the needs of students. As such, it calls for schools to make annual gains in test scores. Its goal is to raise students' achievement levels to meet state-defined standards by the year 2014. It places an emphasis on educational quality and accountability, defining quality teaching as "effective knowledge and teaching of content area as well as classroom management skills." (Morrier, Irving, Dandy, Dmitriyev, & Ukeje, 2007, p. 32; Obiakor, 2007).
Raising student achievement across the board and eliminating the achievement gap between students from different backgrounds are key purposes of the NCLB. Almost 2,100 pages of the NCLB directive provide initiatives and directives for states and school districts. Though NCLB emphasizes accountability, a focus on cultural understanding is not included in the mandate (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004). Some students are still left behind, thereby furthering an achievement gap for multicultural education learners, even at the beginning of their education.
Describing the Gap
The U.S. Census shows appreciable differences between the academic achievements of racial groups. According to census data prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2005, among African Americans aged twenty-five and over, 81.5 percent had graduated from high school, and 12.5 percent had a bachelor’s degree. Among Hispanics aged twenty-five and over, only 58.5 percent had graduated from high school, and 8.5 percent had a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, among whites aged twenty-five and older in 2005, 90.1 percent had graduated from high school, and 19.7 percent had a bachelor’s degree. Asian Americans had a comparable high school completion rate to whites, at 87.7 percent, but outpaced all other groups in attainment of undergraduate degrees, at 31.8 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
In almost every academic subject, African American and Hispanic children continue to perform at lower levels in comparison to their white counterparts. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), 46 percent of white students versus 17 percent of African American and 22 percent of Hispanic students in eighth grade scored at or above proficient in reading. Similar statistics were noted for math scores: Forty-five percent of white students, 14 percent of African American students, and 21 percent of Hispanic students in eighth grade were considered proficient or better.
Though these disparities are real and well-known, they do not receive much attention from mandates like No Child Left Behind. Processes within these mandates do not consider cultural and linguistic differences in students when it comes to assessment, placement, categorization, or instruction (Obiakor, 2007).
The achievement gap in multicultural education also influences the number of children placed in special education programs (Obiakor, 2007). The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that there is some disproportion in public school enrollment and special education placements for minority groups. For example, African Americans represent 20 percent of special education placements, even though they represent approximately 17 percent of general public school enrollments. On the other hand, white students represent 43 percent of special education placements, while they make up 67 percent of general public school enrollments (cited in Obiakor, 2007).
Because many factors can influence achievement gaps in multicultural education, they must be considered prior to completing any formal assessments for a child. Educators must acknowledge students' diverse cultural experiences and respond appropriately.
Language is one factor that influences achievement gaps, particularly for Hispanic American students. Language is an important part of classroom instruction and plays an integral role in this setting. Hispanic students tend to view language as a unique part of their culture since they may switch between their native language, English, and a combination of both (Delgado & Rogers-Adkinson, 1999). Smitherman (2001) and Williams (1975) report that in urban, suburban, and rural schools, some of the languages students bring with them conflict with Standard English, making it difficult for these students to communicate with others. In addition, some African American children use Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English, a nonstandard form of English, to communicate in the classroom. Obiakor (2007) suggests that to appropriately evaluate the type of educational assistance a child needs, general and special educators must have a good understanding of students' linguistic skills and cultural environments.
Teachers also play a significant role in the achievement gap between minority and majority students. As a result of cultural biases, some teachers judge the behavior of minority students more deviant than that of majority students (Grossman, 2002; Sbarra & Pianta, 2001). Though parents rely on teachers to identify disabilities and areas of challenge for students, some teachers selectively exclude children who they feel are "different," and place them in special education classes (Skrtic, 2003; Utley & Obiakor, 2001). This behavior increases the achievement gap in multicultural learners.
General and special education teachers should seek appropriate training to ensure that they are culturally competent and can meet the needs of all their students. They should be creative with the design of their classrooms and curriculums, so that they can create a welcoming atmosphere for students, parents, and staff. Teachers should also learn about teaching methods that will support diverse groups of students to ensure that each child has a positive learning experience (Obiakor, 2007). These skills are necessary to avoid inappropriately labeling a student through a lack of cultural understanding, as labeling also plays a role in the level of achievement a student reaches.
Labeling can cause students to make incorrect assumptions about their own abilities (Obiakor, 1999). In many cases, students internalize the labels they are given and may act out according to these labels. Though some scholars argue that labels are needed to convey information to new teachers and other educators, they often end up influencing the multicultural achievement gap, causing students to continue to lag behind (Obiakor, 2007; Ysseldyke, Algozzine & Thurlow, 2000). Inappropriately labeling students can skew students' achievement levels and cause educators and students themselves to undervalue their abilities. For example, a teacher may believe that a student labeled mentally disabled cannot perform certain tasks. If this is the case, the labeled child may not be pushed to increase his or her abilities and thus be limited to a life of lowered expectations and minimal performance levels (Obiakor, 2007).
Lastly, many students from minority groups come to school with a history of oppression, marginalization, and racism that they have dealt with all their lives. These experiences may have occurred in general society, as well as in American education systems (Mitcham-Smith, 2007). Negative psychosocial stresses can be associated with these experiences (Carr, 2003; Zimmerman, 1995), causing low self-esteem and other mental health problems (Carr, 2003; Duran & Duran, 1995; Hanna et al., 2000; Potts, 2003). These factors influence student achievement and, in turn, impact the achievement gap for multicultural learners.
Teachers and other educators tend to be of the majority race, with ethnocentric and Americanized experiences and training. Unfortunately, when these educators have no multicultural education training, they are more prone to misunderstand cultural characteristics of students. Educators must understand these factors so that they may appropriately assess students' educational levels and achievements (Mitcham-Smith, 2007).
Closing the Achievement Gap by Enhancing School Guidance Programs
Many scholars have suggested a number of ways in which the multicultural education achievement gap may be closed.
Counselors are among the educators that tend to lack cultural competence and be ill-prepared to serve multicultural learners. For this reason, they have received a number of accountability mandates (Dahir, 2004; Dahir & Stone, 2003; Myrick, 2003; Paisley & McMahon, 2001). Legislators recognize that educators need to possess cultural competence not only for academic purposes, but also for serving students' nonacademic needs (Brown, 2007).
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