Equity and Opportunity:
Profoundly Multicultural Questions
Sonia M. Nieto, Educational
leadership, Volume 60 Number 4,
December 2002/January 2003,
We must address the deeply ingrained inequities of today's
schools by asking difficult questions related to equity and
Educators must ask themselves profoundly multicultural
questions, that is, troubling questions about equity, access,
and fair play—questions that examine the sociopolitical
context of education and school policies and practices. Who is
taking calculus and other academically challenging courses?
Are programs for bilingual or special education students
placed in the basement? Who is teaching the children—for
example, why aren't highly qualified teachers teaching
children in low-income districts? How much are children
worth—do we value some children over others? Until we confront
these broader issues and do something about them, we will be
only partially successful in educating young people for the
I still recall the question that my friend Maddie, also an
educator, asked me a number of years ago when I was describing
an initiative to bring a multicultural program to a particular
urban school district. A supporter of multicultural education,
she was nonetheless becoming frustrated by the ways in which
many districts were implementing it. She was especially
concerned that many students from that particular district
were doing poorly in school, and she asked impatiently, "But
can they do math?"
Her question stayed with me for a long time—and prompted me to
think about what it means to provide an education that is both
multicultural and equitable (Nieto, 1999). Sadly, issues of
equity and access are not always linked with multicultural
education. Sometimes, multicultural education is seen as
little more than a way to promote self-esteem, or simply as a
curriculum that substitutes one set of heroes for another.
When that happens, we may end up with young people who feel
good about themselves and their heritage but who have few
skills that prepare them for life; or alternatively, who know
how to do math and science and read, but who know little about
their cultural backgrounds and are even ashamed and
embarrassed by them.
Let me make clear that I strongly believe in multicultural
education. That first exhilarating course that I took on the
subject nearly 30 years ago put into words many of the ideas I
had wanted to express since becoming a teacher. More recently,
the term culturally responsive pedagogy has come into use and
been advocated persuasively (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings,
1994). An outgrowth of multicultural education, culturally
responsive pedagogy is founded on the notion that—rather than
deficits—students' backgrounds are assets that students can
and should use in the service of their learning and that
teachers of all backgrounds should develop the skills to teach
diverse students effectively.
Despite my great support for these philosophies, however, I am
also concerned that they can be used in simplistic ways that
fail to address the tremendous inequities that exist in our
schools. For example, to adopt a multi-cultural basal reader
is far easier than to guarantee that all children will learn
to read; to plan an assembly program of ethnic music is easier
than to provide music instruction for all students; and to
train teachers in a few behaviors in cultural awareness or
curriculum inclusion is easier than to address widespread
student disengagement in learning. Although these may be
valuable activities, they fail to confront directly the
deep-seated inequalities that exist in schools. Because they
are sometimes taken out of context—isolated as prepackaged
programs or "best practices"—multicultural education and
culturally responsive pedagogy can become band-aid approaches
to serious problems that require nothing short of major
I define multicultural education as an anti-racist education
that is firmly related to student learning and permeates all
areas of schooling (Nieto, 1994). It is a hopeful way to
confront the widespread and entrenched inequality in U.S.
schools because its premise is that students of all
backgrounds and circumstances can learn and achieve to high
levels, and—even more essential—that they deserve to do so.
Multicultural education needs to be accompanied by a deep
commitment to social justice and equal access to resources.
Multicultural education needs, in short, to be about much more
than ethnic tidbits and cultural sensitivity.
For instance, although educators may call attention to the
fact that the curriculum in U.S. schools is becoming more
multicultural (an overblown claim in any event), they may
neglect to note that the achievement gap between white
students and students of color is growing. Although the gap
was reduced by about half between 1970 and 1988, it has been
widening since then. The reversal is evident in grades, test
scores, dropout rates, and other indicators, and it has taken
place in every type of school district and in all
socioeconomic groups (D'Amico, 2001). Just one example: The
average 12th grade low-income student of color reads at the
same level as the average 8th grade middle-class white student
(Kahlenberg, 2000). In terms of high school completion, 88
percent of white students have graduated from high school, but
the rate for Hispanics is just 56 percent (U.S. Census Bureau,
2000a). Given these alarming statistics, the claim that
education is equally available to all is more of a fiction
than ever. Multicultural education and culturally responsive
pedagogy by themselves cannot solve these problems.
It makes sense, then, to look carefully at two factors besides
cultural differences that influence student learning: the
sociopolitical context of education, and school policies and
practices. The former includes societal ideologies,
governmental policies and mandates, and school financing.
School policies and practices—specifically, curriculum,
pedagogy, tracking, testing, discipline, and hiring—can also
either promote or hinder learning among students of different
Besides focusing on matters of culture and identity, educators
also need to ask profoundly multicultural questions—that is,
troubling questions that often go unanswered or even unasked.
The answers tell us a great deal about what we value because
the questions are about equity, access, and social justice in
education. Here are a few of the questions that we must
address if we are serious about giving all students of all
backgrounds an equal chance to learn.
Who's Taking Calculus?
I use "calculus" as a place marker for any number of other
high-status and academically challenging courses that may open
doors for students to attend college and receive advanced
training. For instance, we find that although slightly more
than 12 percent of white students are enrolled in calculus,
only 6.6 percent of African Americans and 6.2 percent of
Latinos and Native Americans are enrolled. In the case of
physics, the numbers are 30.7 percent for whites, 21.4 percent
for African Americans, 18.9 percent for Hispanics, and 16.2
percent for Native Americans (National Center for Education
Statistics [NCES], 2002). This situation has serious
implications for reforming such policies as rigid tracking,
scheduling, and counseling services. Access to high-level and
demanding academic courses has a long-term and dramatic effect
in terms of college attendance and subsequent quality of life.
For instance, the 2000 U.S. Census reported that annual
average earnings for those with a bachelor's degree were
nearly double the amount for those with just a high school
diploma: $45,678 compared with $24,572 (U.S. Census Bureau,
Which Classes Meet in the Basement?
Language-minority students and students with special needs are
too often hidden away in the basement—or in the hall closet,
or the room with the leaky ceiling on the fourth floor, or the
modular unit separated from the rest of the school.
Administrators offer seemingly logical reasons for placing
these students in these areas: There's no other available
space in the building; these students were the last to arrive
and therefore need to be placed where there's room; now
they're closer to the English as a Second Language teacher.
But placing programs for marginalized students in less
desirable places is a powerful metaphor for the low status and
little attention that they receive. It also serves in many
cases to segregate these students from the so-called "regular"
(English-speaking) or so-called "normal" (non-special needs)
students, in this way creating an even greater gulf between
them and the rest of the school.
The continuing segregation of students on the basis of race
and ethnicity is a trend that has been escalating for the past
20 years. According to Gary Orfield (2001), most of the
progress made toward desegregating schools in the two decades
prior to 1988 has been lost in the past 15 years. For African
Americans, the 1990s witnessed the largest backward movement
toward segregation since the Brown v. Board of Education
decision. Latinos are now the most segregated of all ethnic
groups—not just in race and ethnicity, but also poverty. U.S.
schools are becoming more separate and unequal than ever.
Who's Teaching the Children?
The question of who is teaching the children is inextricably
linked to matters of social justice in education. Teachers
working in poor urban schools tend to have less experience and
less preparation than do those in schools that serve primarily
white and middle-class students (Editorial Projects in
Education, 1998). In addition, poor urban districts are more
likely to hire teachers out of field than are suburban and
middle-class school districts (David & Shields, 2001). These
situations would be deemed unacceptable in more affluent
Related to teachers' experience and training is the issue of
teachers' race and ethnicity. Although all educators—teachers,
administrators, curriculum coordinators, and others—need to
develop the attitudes and skills to be effective with our
increasingly diverse student population, we need a concerted
effort to recruit a more diverse faculty. At present, the
number of students of color in U.S. classrooms is growing
dramatically at the same time that the number of teachers of
color is declining. In 1972, just 22 percent of students in
public schools were considered "minority"; by 1998, it was 37
percent (NCES, 2000a). The teaching force, on the other hand,
is about 87 percent white. These trends show little sign of
changing (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).
The growing gap is problematic because mounting evidence
indicates that a higher number of teachers of color in a
school—particularly African American and Hispanic—can promote
the achievement of African American and Hispanic students (Clewell,
Puma, & McKay, 2001; Dee, 2000). In fact, one study found that
a higher number of teachers of color can have an even greater
impact on the achievement of white students (Meier, Wrinkle, &
Polinard, 1999). Another study found that having same race and
gender role models was "significantly and consistently
predictive of a greater investment in achievement concerns" on
the part of young people (Zirkel, 2002, p. 371).
Associated with teacher quality is the question of teachers'
influence on their students. The proof is growing that all
teachers—regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender—who care
about, mentor, and guide their students can have a dramatic
impact on their futures, even when these students face
tremendous barriers related to poverty, racism, and other
social ills (Flores-González, 2002; Noddings, 1992;
Valenzuela, 1999). Stanton-Salazar, for instance, suggests
that mentoring and support from teachers can provide students
with the social capital they need to succeed, thus creating
networks that "function as pathways of privilege and
power"—pathways not generally available to poor students of
color (1997, p. 4).
How Much Are Children Worth?
What do we pay for education, and how does the answer differ
according to students' race, ethnicity, social class, and
above all, home address? The well-known facts are that school
financing is vastly unequal and that students with wealthier
parents are fortunate to live in towns that spend more on
their education, whereas young people who live in financially
strapped urban or rural areas are much less fortunate (Kozol,
1991). Regrettably, the children who need the most get the
fewest funds and resources (NCES, 2000b).
We also need to ask what our most vulnerable students are
worth in terms of attention and care. A recent court case is a
good example of the low value placed on students who attend
poor urban schools. In June 2002, an appeals court in New York
State ruled that youngsters who drop out of the New York City
schools by 8th grade nevertheless receive "a sound basic
education" (cited in González, 2002). The result of this
astonishing ruling was to overturn a 2001 landmark decision
that had found the state's formula for funding public schools
unfair because it favored schools in suburban areas. The
majority opinion in the appeals ruling, written by Judge
Alfred Lerner, said in part,
the skills required to enable a person to obtain employment,
vote, and serve on a jury are imparted between grades 8 and 9.
(cited in González, 2002)
Although Judge Lerner conceded that such a meager education
might qualify young people for only the lowest-paying jobs, he
added, "Society needs workers at all levels of jobs, the
majority of which may very well be low-level" (cited in
González, 2002). I am left wondering whether Judge Lerner
would want this level of education for his own children or
would think it fair and equitable.
These, then, are some of the profoundly multicultural
questions that I suggest we ask ourselves. Certainly they are
not the only questions that we can ask, but they give us an
inkling of the vast inequities that continue to exist in U.S.
public schools. My questions are not meant to diminish the
noble efforts of educators who struggle daily to reach
students through culturally responsive education or through an
accurate representation in the curriculum of students'
histories and cultures. But as we focus on these
approaches—approaches that I wholeheartedly support—we also
need to ask troubling questions about equity, access, and fair
play. Until we do something about these broader issues, we
will be only partially successful in educating all our young
people for the challenges of the future.
Clewell, B. C., Puma, M., & McKay, S. A. (2001). Does it
matter if my teacher looks like me? The impact of teacher race
and ethnicity on student academic achievement. New York: Ford
D'Amico, J. J. (2001). A closer look at the minority
achievement gap. ERS Spectrum, 19(2), 4–10.
David, J. L., & Shields, P. M. (2001). When theory hits
reality: Standards-based reform in urban districts, final
narrative report. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
Dee, T. S. (2000). Teachers, race, and student achievement in
a randomized experiment. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of
Editorial Projects in Education. (1998). Education Week:
Quality counts 1998. Bethesda, MD: Author.
Flores-González, N. (2002). School kids, street kids: Identity
and high school completion among Latinos. New York: Teachers
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory,
research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
González, J. (2002, June 27). Schools ruling defies logic. New
York Daily News, p. 24.
Kahlenberg, R. D. (2000). Economic school integration (Idea
Brief no. 2). Washington, DC: The Century Foundation.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America's
schools. New York: Crown.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful
teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Meier, K. J., Wrinkle, R. D., & Polinard, J. L. (1999).
Representative bureaucracy and distributional equity:
Addressing the hard question. Journal of Politics, 61,
National Center for Education Statistics. (2000a). Editorial
projects in education, 1998. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2000b). Trends in
disparities in school district level expenditures per pupil.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of
Educational Research and Improvement.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Digest of
education statistics, 2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Nieto, S. (1994). Affirmation, solidarity, and critique:
Moving beyond tolerance in multicultural education.
Multicultural Education, 1(4), 9–12, 35–38.
Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes: Creating
multicultural learning communities. New York: Teachers College
Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An
alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College
Orfield, G. (2001). Schools more separate: Consequences of a
decade of resegregation. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights
Project, Harvard University.
Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (1997). A social capital framework for
understanding the socialization of racial minority children
and youth. Harvard Educational Review, 67(1), 1–40.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2000a). Educational attainment in the
United States: March 1999 (P20-528). Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Commerce.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2000b). Educational attainment in the
United States (Update): March 2000. Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Commerce.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2001). Statistical abstract of the United
States: Education [Online]. Available:
Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican
youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Zirkel, S. (2002). "Is there a place for me?": Role models and
academic identity among white students and students of color.
Teachers College Record, 104(2), 357–376.
Sonia M. Nieto is Professor of Language, Literacy, and
Culture, Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum
Studies, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA