Many adults in the U.S. likely remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in school and celebrating Black History Month in February each year.
But they’re also likely to remember little else about African American culture or history, and the achievements of other notable Black Americans — because they probably weren’t taught it in the classroom.
According to UNLV researchers Dr. Christine Clark and Dr. Norma A. Marrun, multicultural education in K-12 schools has become reduced to “heroes and holidays” or “token” month celebrations by design. It’s a design they’re hoping to change through their work leading UNLV’s newly reactivated Center for Multicultural Education (CME).
“That’s most of the Black history that children get in elementary school,” said Marrun. “It’s one hero – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s pretty much it, right? There’s 400 years of history and you get to learn about one man.” And, Marrun adds, the way children learn about Dr. King is also superficial.
In a recent policy paper proposal examining the importance of Ethnic Studies curriculum in the educational success of Black and Latinx students in Nevada, Marrun and Clark write that the absence of Ethnic Studies in PK-12 and teacher education is an “example of curricular segregation that perpetuates inequitable educational outcomes for students of color.”
A robust Ethnic Studies curriculum, they and other scholars document, bolsters academic confidence among students of color, “leading to increases in school attendance, grade point averages, graduation rates, academic math scores, and college enrollment.” Ethnic Studies courses also build social and political awareness among students of color, Marrun and Clark note.
We caught up - virtually - with Clark and Marrun to learn more about their efforts in reactivating the CME, what multicultural education, especially critical multicultural education, is, and why it’s so important for American schools to take up the mantle of addressing educational inequities, especially as calls for social justice reform, spurred by the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police, continue.
What is multicultural education, and how did it emerge from Ethnic Studies?
Marrun: Ethnic Studies emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was young people, like we see today, who were demanding the justice that is still being demanded through the Black Lives Matter movement. They wanted textbooks that were telling their history, not just an endnote, or a margin note. They wanted more teachers and professors who looked like them. They wanted advisors who understood where they came from, their communities.
So, the education system failed a lot of students of color during the Civil Rights Movement, students who were asking for an education that was going to prepare them for college and beyond: an education that would include their history, their knowledge, their culture, and their arts. Out of those demands came multicultural education. It’s about providing a rigorous education that is centered around the experiences of the students that you’re teaching.
Why is it important for multicultural education to be critical or sociopolitically-located, consistent with its Ethnic Studies roots?
Clark: Sociopolitically-located is a term that was notably used by Dr. Sonia Nieto to describe multicultural education, and what it means is that when we have a conversation about anything, we’re locating everything in its historical context — the Civil Rights Movement and pre-Civil Rights, peoples’ struggle to be treated as fully human in our society. We can’t really talk about multicultural education outside this historical context and its connection to past and continuing power, privilege, oppression, and discrimination. Today we also use the word “critical” to convey multicultural education’s connection to history and related concerns about power.
And that’s why we would say multicultural education must be linked with Ethnic Studies, otherwise we erase the fact that what’s happening today has a connection to the past that has to be understood for educational equity and justice to be achieved.
Marrun: An unfortunately strong example of this historical context is the murder of George Floyd. If we look back in time, a lot of scholars have connected his recent death to the fact that lynching has never ended - the lynching of Black and Brown people continues. It’s just that laws are different, and there’s all this coded language to hide behind. But when you look at who’s been creating the laws, it’s majority white males who are creating the laws to benefit themselves and their interests - and they have been doing so for 500 years. Today, it is largely these white men who continue to make laws that have negative impacts on Black, Brown, and other minoritized communities.
Why does multicultural education get ‘watered down’ into what has been described as a “heroes and holidays” phenomenon in U.S. schools?
Marrun: It’s this idea that we only get to hear about a few heroines/heroes who are taught “safely” or in a “white-washed” way - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chávez, Rosa Parks – and we get to superficially celebrate a few “cultural” holidays.
Many teachers, when they say that they know what multicultural education is, they usually interpret it through the lens of teaching in a white-washed way about heroines/heroes. These are heroines/heroes who are painted as very peaceful (even if they weren’t); for that reason you would rarely see a teacher discuss Malcolm X, for example, because he would never be considered peaceful (even though he was in many ways), and because he is considered too radical. In terms of holidays, a class might celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month for example, and do so with a “tacos and piñata” event.
Clark: Even in the way we are taught about the safe holidays, or the safe heroines/heroes, it decontextualizes them. It takes people out of history, and out of their commitment to the work.
When students hear about the March on Washington, they hear about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But we take out the part that the March was focused on jobs and economic freedom, and that Dr. King was talking about building a multiracial movement for economic justice, which posed a real threat to those with disproportionate economic power. We don’t read his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” where he confronted eight white clergymen who falsely characterized Civil Rights protests as vitriolic and violent, instead of the actual vitriolic and violent actions being taken against Dr. King and the protestors because of the positions he/they were taking on race and economic justice.
We learn a “safe” version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; we learn a “safe” version of Rosa Parks – to perpetuate the false narrative that the United States and white Americans generally are fair and just.
How have U.S. teacher education programs prepared educators to teach using culturally relevant and/or culturally responsive pedagogies?
Clark: For the most part, they haven’t. I think that’s part of the challenge. Teacher education, the profession of teaching, is durably white. This is not something that happened accidentally. Many people have argued that the intention — but especially the outcome — of the Brown v. Board of Education decision was to make the U.S. look good post-WWII.
The decision had less to do with concerns about justice, and more to do with concerns about our image in the international community. As a consequence, the Brown decision was leveraged in a way that served the interests of white individuals. After the decision, many historically Black schools were closed, Black teachers were fired, and it was very difficult for a Black teacher to get a job teaching in what became ‘integrated schools.’ So, it expanded the market for white teachers, eliminated the market for Black teachers and teachers of color, and as a result, nothing about how we prepare teachers to teach has changed.
The purpose of teacher education is really to perpetuate a particular narrative of who we are as a country, and what are the most important things for students to learn. So, we operate from the perspective of what’s most useful in terms of knowledge is what’s already in place, and the way that we teach that knowledge is based on what’s normative and what seems to work for white, at least middle-class kids, and then we aggressively promote the assumption that that works for everybody, even when we have voluminous evidence to the contrary.
I would argue that teacher education and teaching (especially in public educational settings) are sites of political struggle, precisely because how we teach young people and what we teach them will influence the decisions they make as voters and as consumers. And that those decisions have political and economic ramifications for perpetuating status quo power and privilege, and oppression and discrimination.
Since 2013, has the Black Lives Matter movement influenced corresponding movement in receptivity to Ethnic Studies-informed multicultural education?
Clark: I think the efforts to integrate Ethnic Studies-informed multicultural education have always been there. I think we’re just getting better at mobilizing those efforts.
One of the things you’ll hear from teachers is “I have to use this textbook. I have to follow the state standards. I have to go by this curriculum.” So, the idea has been to make other resources available to people, and increasingly there’s also been more sophistication about how it’s not enough just to have a book or resources. If you give someone educational materials, but they’re not prepared to teach as curriculum what’s reflected in those materials, then even if they have them they don’t know what to do with them. The Zinn Education Project, for example, produces free resources that have been uniquely adapted for teachers by content area and grade level so that teachers get scaffolding — in the way that they really should be getting it from teacher education programs — to effectively integrate different kinds of curricular materials into what they teach.
But I also believe that we are in this incredible moment right now, and people are listening in a way that I don’t feel like I’ve ever experienced before. I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s a wave we must ride for as long as we can. People are trying to leverage the moment to move the critical, sociopolitically-located, Ethnic Studies-informed multicultural education agenda forward. And I say we owe a debt to Mr. Floyd. The utter inhumanity and brutality of his murder has moved us in a way that is allowing folks to listen differently than they’ve listened before.
Does Ethnic Studies and multicultural education curriculum help students succeed?
Marrun: One of the most powerful examples has been in Tucson, Arizona where Ethic Studies was implemented at the high school level across the curricula, and it was working really, really well. Students were graduating, students were learning about their history, their GPAs went up, their attendance rates were up. They were enrolling in college and attending, and I think one of the biggest surprises was that they started doing really well in math.
These courses were empowering students. They were feeling academically challenged, and teachers had these high expectations for them. The students gained confidence in their abilities and it started to show up in math and all of these other content areas.
Clark: The documentary “Precious Knowledge” tells the story of how these efforts were designed at the request of the school district to improve math and English scores of Latinx students and when those scores not only went up, but surpassed the scores of white students, the efforts were attacked as “unAmerican” and “seditious.” The program was then systematically dismantled and state lawmakers worked to “outlaw” Ethnic Studies in schools. Nevertheless, the efforts of local teachers, families, and students, university faculty, and school boards have enabled elements of the program to be rebuilt; these efforts are on-going.
Why is UNLV’s Center for Multicultural Education being reactivated now? What has the center accomplished in recent years, and what do you hope the center will accomplish moving forward?
Clark: In 2004, Dr. Porter L. Troutman, professor emeritus in the UNLV College of Education, founded the CME. It’s important to acknowledge the role he played in establishing the center, to think about the historical context in which he did that. At the moment that it was established, it was much more difficult to establish than it would be today.
Dr. Troutman founded a journal and sustained it for many years. He brought together groups of people on campus in order to have conversations on how to create change — change in the College of Education, and campuswide — to improve educational outcomes for students of color in K-12 schools and higher education. We definitely want to build on that work. We want to build on those roots.
Marrun: Through our work with the CME, and through research, teaching, service, and advocacy, we hope to dismantle systems of educational oppression that disproportionately and negatively affect marginalized and minoritized students.
We’re super excited, and I think the hope for me is that we are able to realize, as one of the biggest goals for the center is that it stays around and continues to grow and becomes a space where people who engage with it can grow intellectually and consciously. And not just UNLV students and faculty, but people in the community. I hope the CME can become a large physical space — that extends learning and promotes educational activism.