One of the major goals of the American school system is to provide all children with equal educational opportunity. However, with regard to minority students, meeting this particular objective has presented a real challenge to educators as they have been confronted with the task of reshaping education in the multilingual, multicultural society that characterizes the United States.
Many significant events contributed to the need of school reform. The Civil Rights movement launched by African Americans in the 1960’s, which resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, triggered major social changes in the direction of equality and justice for all. Consequently, the US Department of Education was charged “…to conduct a survey on availability of equal educational opportunity and to provide technical and financial assistance to school boards in carrying out plans for the desegregation of public schools” (Zephir,1999:136).
Changing immigration patterns also occurring since the 1960’s brought educational issues to the forefront of discussion. In 1968, the first Bilingual Education act was passed in an attempt “…to provide short-term help to school districts with high concentrations of students from low income homes who had limited English-speaking ability” (Millward,1999:47). Moreover, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Lau vs. Nichols (a class action suit brought on behalf of Chinese-speaking children in San Francisco) that English-limited children who were being taught in English “…were certain to find their classroom experiences totally incomprehensible and in no way meaningful” (Stevens,1999:108). In consequence, schools were instructed to give special help to non-English-speaking students in order to guarantee their equality under the law with students who spoke English as their first language. In short, the social movement of the 1960’s gave rise to major educational changes; and it was in that context that the concept of ‘multicultural education’ originated.
The 1980’s saw the emergence of a body of scholarship on multicultural education by progressive education activists and researchers who refused to allow schools to address their concerns by simply adding token programs and special units on famous women or famous people of color. James Banks, one of the pioneers of multicultural education, was among the first multicultural education scholars to examine schools as social systems from a multicultural context. According to Banks “In order to maintain a ‘multicultural school environment’, all aspects of the school had to be examined and transformed, including policies, teachers’ attitudes, instructional materials, assessment methods, counseling, and teaching styles” (Mitchell,1996:110).
By the middle and late 1980’s, other K-12 teachers-turned-scholars provided more scholarship in multicultural education, developing new, deeper frameworks that were grounded in the ideal of equal educational opportunity and a connection between school transformation and social change. Meanwhile, the cultural landscape of the United States continued to become less visibly white Christian and more visibly rich with cultural, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, underscoring the necessity for everyone to develop a set of skills and knowledge that the present system was failing to provide all students. These included creative and critical thinking skills, intercultural competence, and social and global awareness.
The education system was not only plagued by unequal treatment of traditionally oppressed groups, but was also ill-equipped to prepare even the most highly privileged students to competently participate in an increasingly diverse society.
In the 21st century, at a time when it is reported that minority students already “outnumber white students in twenty-five of the nations twenty-six largest urban school systems” (Robson,1998:211), and when it is estimated that “minority groups, taken together, will outnumber the current white majority in the overall population by 2056” (Robson,1998:211), never has the discussion about multicultural education been more intense. At the same time, never has the necessity to address the needs of non-English speaking immigrant children been more imperative. In fact, according to Mitchell and Salsbury (1996) “the number of language-minority students in the United States was estimated at 9.9 million in 1994” (p.223-224).
Students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be disproportionately placed in special education programs and classes. Some groups of students are under-represented in special education and over-represented in programs for gifted and talented students. Such disproportionate representation of minority groups is an ongoing national problem. Disproportionate representation is a complex problem, and fixing it .