Ethnic studies or multicultural education?

“Multicultural education is more on the surface, ethnic studies goes deeper.”

“Ethnic studies is for one group, multicultural education is for everyone.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“They’re very different from each other.”

None of these statements is completely true, but we hear them. Which of the following definitions do you think refers to ethnic studies, and which to multicultural education?
  1. A “form of education or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds.”
  2. “The interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, as understood through the perspectives of major underrepresented racial groups in the United States.”
  3. “The interdisciplinary study of difference—chiefly race, ethnicity, and nation, but also sexuality, gender, and other such markings—and power, as expressed by the state, by civil society, and by individuals.”
Now click on the following sources to find out what each statement above referred to:

How did you do matching the definitions with multicultural education or ethnic studies as used on the three websites above? As you can see, these definitions overlap considerably. While there is no single definition for either multicultural education or ethnic studies, we prefer NAME’s definition for multicultural education. But as we will show below, for about 40 years each area has drawn on and contributed to the other; they are not entirely separate and never have been.

History of ethnic studies and multicultural education

In the US, both ethnic studies and multicultural education have roots in the writings of African American scholars such as W. E. B. DuBoisCarter G. Woodson, and Anna Julia Cooper who analyzed the impact of racism (and sexism, in the case of Cooper) on African Americans’ lives and consciousness. According to Banks (1996), over a period of about 90 years, African American writers produced a continuous body of scholarship that African Americans read and used, but Whites generally ignored. The Institute of the Black World, founded by Vincent Harding and Stephen Henderson in Atlanta in 1969, for example, drew on Black intellectual resources within Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Atlanta area, coming to serve as an activist Black Studies think tank (White, 2012).

The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 led to desegregation of schools and other institutions, opening floodgates of suppressed hopes and expectations. African Americans, followed by Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and Asian Americans, sought to redefine how race works, what it means to be American, and what it means to be a member of a group that experiences oppression on the basis of race or ethnicity. Curriculum was an important tool. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front coalition was formed on the campuses of San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley to demand inclusion, access, democracy, and autonomy for students and faculty of color. This movement quickly spread across California, and then to university campuses across the rest of the US.

The ethnic studies movement on university campuses supported what became the multicultural education movement in elementary and secondary schools. African American parents and educators confronted massive White resistance to school desegregation and additional forms of racism, such as White educators’ perception of Black children as culturally deprived and/or mentally retarded, and White-dominant curricula. (In response, during the 1970s and early 1980s, textbook publishers addressed the most glaring omissions and stereotypes, adding more people of color, especially African Americans.) As students from multiple communities of color experienced personal and institutional racism in school, multiple ethnic groups began to work collectively to restructure education more holistically; this became the multi-ethnic education movement (Gay, 1983). According to James Banks (1996), subsequently “other groups who considered themselves on the margins of society [particularly women and people with disabilities] began to demand that the school curriculum – and later other aspects of the school – be changed” (p. 40). This broader reform umbrella became the multicultural education movement.

While in the U.S., multicultural education and ethnic studies have been largely complementary, this has not been the case in many other countries. In Canada, for example, in 1971 ethnic studies was established with the formation of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association/Société Canadienne d’Études Ethniques. The same year, Canada adopted its national Multicultural Policy, designed to complement the 1969 Official Languages Act that placed multiculturalism within an English–French bilingual framework. This framing elevated the significance of English and French, while marginalizing other immigrant groups and Indigenous nations, and denying the significance of race and racism as it constructed multicultural education as a way for White educators to ‘manage’ the ‘problems’ brought about by ethnic minority students (Haque, 2014; James, 2001). Aboriginal Canadians saw the policy as ignoring them entirely, and particularly their efforts to control their own education. Canadians of color saw it as ignoring racism. In response, communities with significant Black populations began to celebrate Black History month, and African–Canadian scholars began to distinguish between multicultural, and antiracist education, which grew from community activism. By the 1990s, James (2001), Dei (1996), and others had articulated an anti-racist framework that focused on dynamics of power rather than cultural symbols, and that supported African–Canadian parents’ advocacy for African-centered, rather than multicultural, education.

Ethnic studies in K-12 schools

Until recently, a major difference between ethnic studies and multicultural education was that the former was found mainly at the higher education level, while the latter was found mainly at the K-12 level (with the exception of multicultural education coursework in professional programs such as education and counseling). That is no longer the case, as ethnic studies has become an active movement to transform K-12 schooling in many school districts.

Ethnic studies at the K-12 level initially took the form of African-centered schools founded mainly in the 1970s. In these schools, curriculum is constructed around experiences, accomplishments, and perspectives of peoples of African descent, and relationships between students and teachers are built intentionally on respect. Examples of these schools that are still in operation include: In addition, beginning in the 1970s, many high schools offered electives in African American history and literature, and textbooks for these courses began to appear.

The most well-known contemporary ethnic studies program at the K-12 level was the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, which was in existence from 1998 until the state enacted legislation banning it in 2010. In this Multicultural Perspectives article, Julio Cammarota discusses the most well-known part of the Mexican American Studies program – the Social Justice Education Project – in relationship to how it connected multicultural education with critical pedagogy. The film Precious Knowledge provides an inside peek into classrooms, as well as the political struggle the program faced, as the trailer below illustrates.

Arizona State Bill 1108, which shut down the program, did not completely close down ethnic studies in Tucson. The district had been under court order to desegregate, which placed it under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Under the new Unitary Status Plan, the Office for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction was established. As of 2015, new courses are being written and taught, some from Mexican American viewpoints and others from African American viewpoints.

The Tucson experience ignited and strengthened movements for ethnic studies in other parts of the US, some of which had already taken root. For example, in California, the EthnicStudiesNow coalition, which has helped to coordinate efforts to establish ethnic studies in school districts across the state, maintains updated information on the status of requirements, programs, and courses being established around the state, and has been instrumental in over a dozen school districts in California adopting an ethnic studies graduation requirement. The Pin@y Education Partnerships program (PEP), started in San Francisco in 2001, has been instrumental in the institutionalization of ethnic studies in San Francisco Unified School District and a strong advocate for full implementation of ethnic studies throughout the state and the nation. PEP developed the Filipino Enrichment Pathway curriculum in San Francisco, and it has trained and mentored of hundreds of PEP teachers & students to enter higher education, teaching credential, graduate, and Doctorate programs around the nation.  In 2016, Center X at UCLA published a special issue of its online journal XChange, that highlights K-12 Ethnic Studies praxis in California.

In Texas, Tony Diaz, who established the organization Librotraficante (book trafficker) has been one of the leaders pushing for state support for K-12 ethnic studies courses. In Portland, Oregon, prompted by the work of students of color, all high schools will begin offering ethnic studies classes by 2018.

One can also find charter schools that are designed around the culture(s) of communities they serve. For example, the Anahuacalmecac autonomous charter school in Los Angeles and the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque are founded upon Native cultural knowledge of the tribes in the regions they serve.

Multicultural education in K-12 schools

While we are able to identify many classroom teachers, such as Pang Xiong and Marisol Moreno, who work actively with multicultural education in their classrooms, we are more hard-pressed to identify schools that not only have a set of multicultural education policies, but work to put the principles of multicultural education into practice. At the same time, some ethnic studies programming, by attending to more than one racial/ethnic perspective and to intersections between racism and other forms of oppression, “looks” like critical multicultural education.

For example, the San Francisco Unified School District ethnic studies curriculum is organized around manifestations of humanization and dehumanization, hegemony and counter-hegemony, oppression and social movements, and youth participatory action research, as shown in this early draft of its curriculum. These themes cut across experiences and perspectives of diverse historically oppressed communities, and are developed with reference to multiple communities within the San Francisco area. Another example is the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum, which is framed mainly in terms of critical pedagogy. You can view a clip of it here:

Research on the impact of ethnic studies and multicultural education

In 2010, the National Education Association commissioned Christine Sleeter to review research on the academic and social impact of ethnic studies on students; the review, which you can download, was published in 2011. Essentially, as Sleeter wrote, ethnic studies counters the traditional mainstream curriculum, which numerous content analyses of textbooks and standards find continues to marginalize African Americans, Latino/as, American Indians, and Asian Americans. As students of color proceed through the school system, research finds that the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many to disengage from academic learning (Epstein, 2009; Wiggan, 2007). For her research review, she located studies reporting data on the impact of sixteen ethnic studies projects on students on students of color, which were mainly at the middle and high school level. The kinds of outcomes that were studied were engagement in the classroom, academic achievement (mainly on state tests), and sense of personal empowerment. Fifteen of the 16 projects reported a positive impact on students of color. In varied curriculum areas (language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science), ethnic studies benefited student in observable ways: they became more academic engaged, did better on achievement tests, in some cases graduated at higher rates, and developed a sense of self-efficacy and personal empowerment.
Since that time, two additional rigorous statistical studies have found the achievement of secondary-level students of color to excel markedly when taking ethnic studies courses (Cabrera et al, 2014; Dee & Penner, 2016). It is important to note that in these projects, for the most part ethnic studies was linked with culturally relevant pedagogy, high academic expectations for students of color, and development of strong and supportive teacher-student relationships.

There has not been a comparable research review on the academic impact of multicultural education on students, probably because it is complicated to put into practice, even without assessing its impact. However, there are studies showing the impact of ethnic studies and multicultural education on students’ attitudes about racially and ethnically diverse groups. According to Sleeter’s review, many research studies (especially at the higher education level) find that diversity coursework generally has a positive impact on the racial attitudes of diverse student groups that include white students. With respect to the K-12 level, Okoye-Johnson’s (2011) meta-analysis of 30 studies comparing the impact of a multicultural curriculum or program with that of the traditional curriculum, on students’ racial attitudes found a multicultural curriculum to produce a large effect size. Further, when the multicultural curriculum is part of the school’s regular programming rather than extracurricular, it has a much more powerful positive impact on students’ racial attitudes.

Relationship with multicultural learning

More useful than the question of whether multicultural education or ethnic studies is “better” is the question of what practices impact most positively on students. Let us look at our five student outcomes in relationship to multicultural education and ethnic studies. One thing that will be come immediately evident is our intersectional approach: we consider the multiple identities and social relations that impact on students and their lives. While many ethnic studies and multicultural education teachers consider gender, class, and other identities and forms of relationships, not all do so.

Positive academic identities. The main question here is, what kind of classroom practices link students’ social identities (their ethnic identity, gender identity, language identity, etc.) with an identity as a strong academic learner. Ethnic studies programs that specifically work to disrupt negative images students of color have internalized about themselves can do this work well; Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Program did this very well. At the same time, students bring multiple identities into the classroom. For example, a class of Mexican American students likely contains small number of students who are wrestling with their sexual orientation, a struggle that will likely affect their academic work. Students may have internalized gendered identities about who is good in what. Thus, is it incumbent on teachers to get to know their students’ multiple identities, consider negative or limiting identities from the larger society they may have internalized, and work to build strong senses of self that connect who students are with full capabilities to learn academic material.

Positive social identities. This outcome attends to students being knowledgeable and affirming of their own multiple identities based on race/ethnicity, social class, language, religion, gender, and so forth. This outcome goes hand-in-hand with positive academic identities, in that both focus on how students understand and value themselves. Whether coming from a perspective of ethnic studies, gender studies, disability studies, or any other identity, the teacher needs to help students unpack their multiple identities, and explore how these intersect. It is likely that the language of multicultural education directs teachers to multiplicity more readily than the language of ethnic studies, but we also know ethnic studies teachers who do this well, and teachers who see themselves as multicultural educators but do not do so well.

Respectful engagement with diverse people. Unlike the two outcomes above, this one focuses on how students understand and engage with others. A multicultural education that intentionally helps students learn about, develop empathy with, and communicate with people who differ from themselves across multiple lines of difference can address this outcome well. An example would be a teacher helps build allies to LGBTQI students, in a classroom in which the majority of students are cisgender and heterosexual. At the same time, a mistake multicultural educators sometimes make is starting their work with students by focusing on appreciating the “Other” when the students do not love or appreciate themselves. All of us need to develop a positive sense of self before we can really engage positively with others.

Social justice consciousness. Under this outcome, students are able to identify and analyze varied forms of institutional discrimination and colonization, and their impacts on themselves as well as on others. This outcome entails shifting from understanding social inequalities in terms of stereotypes about what groups are “like”, or presumed characteristics of people, to focusing on the workings of unjust systems of power. While students generally understand these concepts more readily when applied to injustices they experience for themselves (so teachers often start here), we urge teachers to use that foundation to develop their understanding of how multiple forms of discrimination and oppression are linked, and to examine ways in which students may (perhaps inadvertently) act as perpetrators of discrimination. Although this outcome is fundamental to both multicultural education and ethnic studies, many educators who are comfortable with cultural celebration but not with concepts such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, do too little with it.

Social justice action. This outcome calls on students to learn to work collaboratively with others to actually make changes that support equity and social justice. Like development of social justice consciousness, learning to take action is fundamental to both ethnic studies and multicultural education. For many young people, learning to address real social justice problems in their schools and communities, using tools of education, is both academically and personally empowering, linking education with a significant purpose. Social justice action is fundamental to both ethnic studies and multicultural education. However, educators who have not yet become involved in working for social justice, themselves, may find this outcome difficult at first.


Banks, J. A., Ed. (1996). Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cabrera, N. L., Milam, J. F., Jaquette, O., & Marx, R. W. (2014). Missing the (student achievement) forest for all the (political) trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American student controversy in Tucson. American Educational Research Journal 51(6): 1084-1118.

Cammarota, J. (2011). The value of a multicultural and critical pedagogy: Learning democracy through diversity and dissent. Multicultural Perspectives 13(2): 62-69.

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2016). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dei, G. J. S. (1996). Anti-racism education. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Eligon, J. (2016, Feb. 28). Poor scores leave Afrocentric school in Chicago vulnerable. The New York Times.

Epstein, T. (2009). Interpreting national history. New York: Routledge.

Gay, G. (1983). Multiethnic education: historical development and future prospects. The Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8): 560–3.

Haque, E. (2014). Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework: a retrospective. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 46(2): 119–25.

James, C. E. (2001). Multiculturalism, diversity, and education in the Canadian context: The search for an inclusive pedagogy curricula. In C. A. Grant & A. Portera (eds.), Intercultural and multicultural education (pp. 175–204). New York, NY: Routledge.

Okoye-Johnson, O. (2011). Does multicultural education improve students' racial attitudes? Implications for closing the achievement gap. Journal of Black Studies 42(8): 1252-1274.

Sleeter, C. E. (2011). The academic and social value of ethnic studies. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

White, D. E. (2012). An independent approach to Black Studies: The Institute of the Black World (IBW) and its evaluation and support of Black Studies. Journal of African American Studies 16(1): 70-88.  

Wiggan, G. (2007). From opposition to engagement: Lessons from high achieving African American students. The Urban Review 40 (4), 317-349.