Standards and Multicultural Education

Can teachers work with standards and multicultural education at the same time? Can multicultural education make standards-based teaching better for students?

In many, many schools and school districts, the huge amount of attention being given to Common Core Standards and tests (PARCC or Smarter Balanced) has eclipsed attention to teaching culturally and linguistically diverse kids, who are already or fast becoming the majority in schools. I frequently hear teachers say they lack time for multicultural education because they need to prepare their students for tests. Many administrators seem to believe that aligning their curriculum to Common Core will improve student learning far more than anything else they could be doing. I also frequently encounter the perception that multicultural education has little to do with academic teaching and learning.

Fixation on standards and tests, to the exclusion of attention to students’ diverse identities, interests, languages, and communities strikes me as very short-sighted. Although I am not a great fan of curriculum standards (which can steer curriculum away from non-dominant groups’ knowledge), standards can be taught from a multicultural perspective, and doing so well actually enhances student learning. And although I am even less a fan of standardized testing, I agree with Nolan Cabrera and his colleagues, in their 2014 article in the American Educational Research Journal, when they argued that, because standardized tests are part of the reality students must confront, test results are useful, even if they are not (nor should they be) the only way of assessing learning.

But to those who view curriculum standards and tests as the key to improving student learning, I emphasize: Students will do much better academically if we stop teaching to the test, and teach the students we have well. In a culturally diverse society, multicultural education is needed.

In my book Un-Standardizing Curriculum, I elaborate on a process I developed that helps teachers use their curriculum standards as a “backbone” for developing curriculum that is multicultural, academically rigorous, and meaningful to their students. Teachers begin by identifying central “enduring understandings” around which to plan content, using the concept of “backward design” developed by Wiggins & McTighe in their book  Understanding by Design. The idea is to select something that is focused enough to teach, broad enough to allow “room to maneuver,” and potentially meaningful to students.

Unstandardizing Curricculum Framework

The diagram above shows the various interrelated dimensions of planning and reflection in my curriculum design framework, for developing the central concept or “big idea” from multicultural and student-centered perspectives.

The term transformative intellectual knowledge, as described by James Banks, captures the “concepts, paradigms and themes” that emerged through burgeoning critical traditions of scholarship in such areas as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and disability studies. When we work with this concept as part of a graduate course, teachers complete a research paper based on scholarship written from the vantage point of one marginalized community, in relationship to the “big idea” they plan to teach; doing this substantially improves the quality of curriculum they develop. For example, a fifth grade teacher preparing to teach about the thirteen colonies researched history of the Haudenosaunee and Wampanoag in Massachusetts in order to develop a short unit based on contradictory (European vs. Indian) historical narratives. She needed guidance figuring out what to read, but the result was an excellent unit that did not incorporate the stereotypes so common when teachers try to add American Indians to the curriculum.

I ask teachers to find out about knowledge students bring to school from their homes and communities. Teachers interview their own students to find out what they already know, or believe they know, about the main idea for the curriculum. Usually these interviews reveal a combination of prior experience and knowledge that can be built upon, inaccurate assumptions, and questions students would like to explore. For example, a teacher who was interested in the concept of colonization discovered that half of her high school students had no idea what that concept meant. If feasible, I also guide teachers in learning some of the “cultural wealth,” in Tara Yosso’s terms, or “funds of knowledge,” as Luis Moll and Norma Gonzalez put it, of the communities their students come from. Doing this usually entails the teacher spending some time in the community. Teachers may discover important resources such as informal community organizations, religious organizations in which their students participate, or local artists.

In addition, the teachers learn from each other, which includes discussing difficult and sensitive issues such as racism. When the teachers are diverse, working through difficult conversations can be immensely fruitful, not only for their learning about the issues being discussed, but also for learning to facilitate such discussions with students.

The multicultural curriculum framework prompts teachers to consider the level of academic challenge in their curriculum. If students are not working on grade level, which often is the case, teachers can learn to scaffold complex academic learning, providing the stepping stones and supports students need. I ask teachers to aim toward university preparation, even if many of their students may not choose to go to the university. Aiming high combats low expectations that are common, and opens doors for students. Teachers commonly see students who are White and Asian, especially those from middle or upper-class backgrounds, as more teachable than those who are Black, Latino, and/or poor. These expectations need to be confronted directly. As a teacher, I have been amazed to see students struggle productively with academic work above what they usually get when it is interesting and relevant to them, and when the teacher offers help and temporary supports along the way.

Classroom-based, democratized assessment helps guide instruction by giving teachers as well as students feedback on learning, and allowing students to show what they know and can do. Unfortunately, teachers’ experiences with mandated over-testing results in many of them backing away from any assessment they are not required to do. Going back to the “big ideas” underlying curriculum is helpful. What does it look like to learn this idea? How can students show what they have learned? How can you, their teacher, figure out where they are struggling? (As a former LD teacher, I used to involve my students in thinking through how to assess their own learning informally, and they often came up with better ideas that I did!)

Finally, since teachers’ beliefs underlie much of what teachers do in the classroom and how they relate with their students, we spend considerable time examining teachers’ own beliefs and assumptions. One way of doing this is by writing about dilemmas teachers have experienced when teaching, and discussing why they resolved dilemmas the way they did.

Is all of this time-consuming? Yes it is, especially when new to teachers. However, in my experience, teachers have been so enthusiastic by their students’ learning and engagement, that they have seen the benefits. Which brings me back to the main point: students’ learning and experience in the classroom is contextual. Students bring to school their identities, life experiences, languages, curiosities, traumas, and all the other parts of their lives. So do teachers. How teachers relate to their students, and how they engage students in learning cannot be reduced to a standard formula. Standards do not prevent strong, exciting multicultural teaching. Neither do standards, themselves, enable such teaching.

Un-Standardizing Curriculum was published ten years ago, but remains highly relevant. Excessive focus on standards and tests, to the exclusion of students’ strengths and interests, and culturally diverse perspectives and bodies of intellectual knowledge, is not only short-sighted, but in the long run, I believe, counterproductive.


  1. T. Mitchell says:

    You are an amazing writer and activist. As an African American Doctoral Student, I am proud (and fond) of the work that you have done in the field of education. I look forward to reading more literature that stirs the minds of people everywhere, and ignites a passion for social, academic, political, and systemic transformation.

  2. Thank you so much! I greatly appreciate your note!!

  3. T. Mitchell says:

    Good Afternoon Dr. Sleeter,

    I pray that all is going well. I am writing because I would like to obtain permission to use your “Big Idea” diagram in my dissertation. It will be cited and referenced accordingly. Hope to hear from you soon. Have a great day! : )

  4. wmybwijesinghe says:

    Dear Christine,

    i already respect you’r ideas. bcz of there briefly discussion that what is that multi culture education and it’s clz room.


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