The idea of “multicultural education” came out of the civil rights movement loaded with anti-racist, community-focused, and intellectually stimulating ideals. It was a powerful vision of the need for fundamental changes in schools and classrooms.
Over time, however, that original concept has too often been commercialized or watered down to make it palatable, effectively separating the actions associated with multicultural education from the vision of anti-racist, inclusive, and democratic schools.
Today, when people hear the words multicultural education, they often think of it as something to be added to an overburdened school curriculum, a chance to celebrate heroes and holidays from “other” cultures, or the inclusion of more people of color in materials in an effort to boost the self-esteem of children of color.
But multicultural education is much more than that.
Multicultural education recognizes inequality, racism, discrimination, and injustice as central to the experiences of young people and the adults who teach them. It is a fight against oppression based on race, ethnicity, language, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and physical ability. It recognizes that each of these factors permeates classrooms and schools and impacts teaching and learning in profound ways.
But multicultural education is not just about changing the curriculum or what books are on the library shelves. It is also about examining funding practices, discipline policies, school staffing, teacher training, teaching methods, course offerings, and how schools and communities interact. It is about social justice.
Individuals committed to multicultural education in Philadelphia recognize that the School District has resources that few other districts have – a student body characterized by immense diversity in language, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and religion, to name a few.
What does that mean in practice?
It means first recognizing children’s lives and experiences as assets to the learning process, rather than as deficiencies. It means challenging established power dynamics and creating opportunities for meaningful collaboration among diverse groups. It means pooling resources to support people working for educational equity – including students, teachers, administrators, and community members.
The School District has a track record of imagining and adopting bold new initiatives about multicultural education. Policy 102, the District’s “Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education” policy, adopted in 1994, is a case in point.
Created through a collaborative effort between District administrators and representatives of community organizations, Policy 102 made an unequivocal commitment to educational equity for all children and to schools that are inclusive, reflective, and respectful of all children.
While Policy 102 is one of the most far-reaching multicultural education policies in the country, its implementation and actual impact on classrooms have left much to be desired. At its best, it has guided some policy decisions, served as a support for teachers committed to the ideals of multicultural education, and introduced those ideals to others.
Yet the efforts that led to the adoption of the policy teach us that the key to advancing the ideals of multicultural education can be whittled down to one word – coalition.
Multicultural education is about re-imagining the world and changing the balance of power. It is always a work in progress and is not something that any individual can do on his or her own. It will be made real only with the meaningful participation of all members of the community.