Volume:9, Issue: 1

May. 15, 2017

Multicultural Education, Special Education, and Gender Equity in Education: Key Facets of Social Justice Education
Coles Burnette, Jamie L. [about]

ABSTRACT: While it may be tempting to silo issues of gender, (dis)ability, and race/ethnicity in education, as they each have their own specific concerns, at the heart of each of these areas (gender, [dis]ability, and race/ethnicity) lies the issue of equal access to education for all students. In turn, equal access to education for all students is a key component of Social Justice Education. Therefore, many of the concerns of multicultural (or, more nuanced, diversity education), gender equity in education, and special education fall under the umbrella of Social Justice Education, and as such complement each other.  After brief comments on important issues currently facing U.S. education, and an overview of the key tenets of Social Justice Education, attention will be given to the development, mission, and practices of multicultural education, special education, and gender equity, respectively, in education in the United States, and how each of these educational areas contributes to the goal of Social Justice Education.

KEYWORDS: education, social justice, multicultural, diversity, gender, disability.

Current Educational Context of the United States

With the new Presidential administration, education is currently at the forefront of policy discussions in the United States. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a proponent of school choice, which has remained controversial in the educational conversation. In short, school choice policies, which vary by state, make use of public funding (through the use of such means as tax credits and vouchers) in order to provide parents with alternatives to sending their child/children to traditional public schools, such as charter, magnet, and private schools.

Proponents of school choice say that it provides students, including those from low-income families, access to better educational opportunities than what may be afforded them in their local public schools. Opponents of school choice say that it negatively impacts public schools particularly because of some traditional public school alternatives not being required to hire certified teachers, in some cases blurring the lines between religion and state (Kamenetz, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/01/31/512507538/under-devos-heres-how-school-choice-might-work); and that it often diverts federal educational funding (such as Title I that provides money for school districts with many low-income students) away from public schools to private ones. Further, for its opponents, school choice exacerbates concerns about the new administration’s budget plans to cut funding to the Department of Education by 13.5% (or $9 billion dollars) (according to the National Education Association, http://www.nea.org/home/1019.htm).

Although it is clear that there are fundamental ideological differences on both sides of this issue, at the heart of the school choice debate is how to ensure that all students have access to the best education possible, which in turn, is a key concern for Social Justice Education: the focus of this discussion.

Social Justice Education

There are two keys to understanding social justice education: a defined concept of social justice, and understanding that schools are social transmitters and vehicles of socialization.

Social justice is understood as both a goal and a process. According to L.A. Bell in “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice Education” (2007), the goal of social justice can be understood as follows:

equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs… in which distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. (as cited in Sommers, 2014, p. 10)

Further, according to Sommers (2014) citing Bell, the process of social justice is described as follows:

The process of attaining the vision of social justice is complex, continuous, and, at times frustrating and overwhelming. It entails actions that are “democratic and participatory, inclusive and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change” [Bell 2007, p. 2]. Therefore, when transmitting the ideas and ideals of what is understood as the dominant culture, schools also “perpetuate inequalities and social injustices that exist in society.” (p. 9)

So then, social justice is a continuous process which goal is to ensure that all groups in a society can participate equally, that all groups have equal access to and distribution of resources, and that all groups are physically and psychologically safe.

Connected to the idea of social justice, then, for social justice education advocates is the understanding that a school is a social transmitter and a vehicle of socialization in a society, and as such, it has the capacity to transmit not only the ideas and ideals of the dominant culture, and socialize its students accordingly, but it also has the capacity to perpetuate the injustices and inequities of a society (Sommers, 2014, p. 9). However, proponents of social justice education call for schools to utilize its role as a social transmitter conversely: not to perpetuate injustice but to serve as places that embody the democracy of a diverse population, of which ideal social justice is a part (Sommers, 2014, p. 10).

How, then, do schools accomplish the work of social justice through social justice education? According to L.A. Bell in “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice Education” (2007, p. 2), the goal of social justice education is to, as follows:

enable people to develop the critical analytical tools necessary to understand oppression and their own socialization within oppressive systems and to develop a sense of agency and capacity to interrupt and change oppressive patterns and behaviors in themselves and in the institutions and communities in which they participate. (as cited in Sommers, 2014, p. 10)

Thus, social justice education in schools empowers all people to understand the systems, structures, organizations, and institutions that oppress, and how they themselves have been socialized in those social arenas of oppression. It further allows them to develop their own sense of empowerment to be agents of social transformation, and so multicultural education, gender equity in education, and special education all contribute to the goals of social justice education.

From here, with this understanding of social justice and social justice education, attention will now be given to the three aforementioned areas of social justice education.

Multicultural or Diversity Education

It is important to understand that multicultural education itself is a broad designation that gives attention to issues of gender, race/ethnicity, culture, ability, religion, and sexual orientation in education. Additionally, in recent years, conversations among some educational theorists have favored the term “diversity education” instead of multicultural education with a more nuanced understanding of what equal inclusion and access means in a pluralistic society (Appelbaum, 2002, p.2). Since separate attention will be given to special education, and gender equity later, the focus here will be on current understandings of and approaches/practices in multicultural education.

Multicultural education today at its foundation echoes similar concerns and sentiments as social justice education (of which it is a part) overall. For instance, James Banks in Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (1996) says: “Multicultural education involves changes in the total school environment in order to create equal educational opportunities for all students” (p. 21). Further, when speaking about why multicultural education is necessary, Peter Appelbaum in Multicultural and Diversity Education: A Reference Handbook (2002) says:

An increasingly pluralist society demands a pluralist curriculum. Indicators of equality of opportunity and equality of educational outcomes call for responses to the diverse school population in order to achieve both types of equity. In assessment practices, this means establishing vehicles for all students to demonstrate what they have learned and what they can do, including enable students to be diverse in the ways in which they demonstrate their accomplishments. In the classroom and school community, multicultural and diversity education demand that all participants respect one another and work together to solve common problems; the accent is on supporting the academic development of all members of the classroom, and the responsibility of each participant in making the community a success. (p. 41)

Thus, multicultural education takes into account that society is diverse and pluralistic, and those realities demand that this diversity be reflected not only in equal access to education, but in how education is “carried out” in schools, which include equity in curriculum and assessment.

When it comes to understanding how multicultural education has been carried out in U.S. schools, Carl Grant and Christine Sleeter’s classifications (or types) of multicultural education have been useful. In Turning on Learning: Five Approaches for Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender, and Disability (2003), Grant and Sleeter lay out five approaches to multicultural teaching: “Teaching the Exceptional and Culturally Different,” “Human Relations,” “Single-Group Studies,” “Multicultural Education,” “Education that is Multicultural and Social Reconstructionist” (p. 8). While an in-depth explanation of each of these approaches goes beyond the possible scope of this discussion, it should be noted that both positives and critiques of the first four approaches have been pointed out in more detail in Shirley Sommers’ Narratives of Social Justice Educators: Standing Firm (2014, pp. 15-19). To summarize her points there, Sommers explains that the first four approaches fall short of the goals and processes of social justice and social justice education in that, for example, while celebrating or affirming diversity they either fail to address systemic issues that continue to oppress marginalized groups, or often over-simplify the diversity that exists even within said groups. As for the fifth approach, “Education that is Multicultural and Social Reconstructionist” (or “Multicultural Social Reconstructionist” – MCSR), Sommers finds that it is the most consistent with the goals and processes of social justice and social justice education. She states the following about MCSR:

“[it] considers inter- and intra-group variability. This approach encourages dissection and deconstruction of the dominant ideology, and its marginalizing effects on people of color, women of all colors, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities and those who are economically marginalized. Thus, this approach deals with the systemic nature of domination and oppression. It critiques socio-political norms and the role of school in masking asymmetrical power relations in the society. The multicultural social reconstructionist or MCSR [Martin 1993] approach also encourages students and teachers to be agents for social change.” (pp. 16-17)

Thus, it is the fifth approach that pushes forward the goals and processes of social justice education most poignantly. Further, carrying out this approach requires of teachers to possess what Kikanza Robins, et. al. define as “cultural proficiency” in Culturally Proficient Instruction: A Guide for People Who Teach (2006): “Holding esteem for culture; knowing how to learn about individual and organizational culture; interacting effectively in a variety of cultural environments” (p. 3). They state that there are five elements necessary in order to be culturally proficient: name the differences (assess culture), claim the differences (value diversity), reframe the differences (manage the dynamics of difference), train about differences (adapt to diversity), and change for differences (institutionalize cultural knowledge) (p. 3).

In sum, as it addresses the awareness and dismantling of oppressive systems and societal transformation, multicultural education contributes to the goals and processes of social justice and social justice education.

Gender Equity

Issues of gender equity easily fall under the category of both multicultural education and social justice education. However, given that there have been substantial strides with respect to closing the gender gap between men and women in education, it will be treated separately here.

As just stated, gender equity in education has come a long way. During the colonial period, women were educated inasmuch as it prepared them to be effective wives and mothers, and during the Revolution, the emphasis was on mothers educating their daughters in the values of the newly-formed U.S. (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 11). In the 19th century, enrollment of girls in school increased with the rise of common schools and greater acceptance of educating women. However, enrollment in higher education was still restricted to men with the Georgia Female College being the first to offer baccalaureate degrees to women in 1836, and Oberlin College being the first college to offer baccalaureate degrees to both men and women taking the same curriculum. Despite all of these advances, women continued to be marginalized into the 20th century with fewer workplace opportunities than their male counterparts, wage gaps (which still continue today, see http://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/ for actual statistics), and the lack of the right to vote which was not granted until 1920 with the 19th Amendment (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 11).

The 20th century was marked by progress in the area of gender equity, and there were two major pieces of legislation that were watershed events: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in the workplace based on gender, and Title IX passed in 1972, which outlawed gender discrimination in schools and other federally funded institutions (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, pp. 11-12).

The effects of Title IX continue to be felt today, as women and girls have made significant progress in education. Positive strides and challenges include:

increased female participation in school athletics, fewer gender stereotypes in texts and curricular materials, and a gradual increase in the number of female administrators. Girls have also scored higher on writing achievement and the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. However, girls still struggle with access to technology and technological literacy, access to high-status fields, and equitable outcomes from schooling such as workforce and economic indicators. Research also suggests that girls continue to have poorer postsecondary outcomes than their male counterparts, and this holds particularly true for girls with disabilities (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 12; also see https://www.aclu.org/other/title-ix-facts-glance?redirect=womens-rights/title-ix-facts-glance for statistics on women’s progress and current challenges).

Current concerns are not limited to girls, but include issues that boys face in education which include lower reading and writing achievement, higher rates of high school dropout, grade retention, special education referrals, and disciplinary actions. Some possible explanations for this include the overwhelming predominance of female teachers (resulting in lack of role models for male students), instruction being tailored for girls, and many other proposed explanations (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 13).

In sum, while gender equity in education has made significant strides since the colonial days with shifts in cultural attitudes and legislation, there are still many challenges that both women and men face in education. Educators and policy-makers continue to study, research, and try to affect change in this area of education at all levels, including curricular, programmatic, and legislative, all of which contribute to the goals of social justice education.

Special Education

The final complementary piece of social justice education considered in this discussion is special education. Similar to gender equity in education over the last century, special education has also made great strides, but those strides have been quite recent. Until the 1970’s most states could refuse to enroll students that they deemed “uneducable,” and students with disabilities who were enrolled in school were either placed in programs with no or inadequate special services (Martin, Martin, and Terman, 1996, p. 26). However, three major pieces of legislation have helped advance the educational rights of students with disabilities: the Rehabilitation Act at Section 504 (1973), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA; 1975; formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act), and the American with Disabilities Act (or ADA; 1990). The Rehabilitation Act mandated that any institution receiving federal funding end discrimination in offering services to persons with disabilities. The ADA outlawed discriminatory practices against the disabled in public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and employment. (Martin, Martin, and Terman, 1996, p. 29) These two laws alone helped bring about great changes for individuals with disabilities, but it was the IDEA passed in 1975 that is the most comprehensive legislation for people with disabilities with respect to education. Here are ten major provisions for children and parents set forth by the IDEA as laid out by Martin, Martin, and Terman (1996, p. 32):

1. Notice of school’s proposed actions and of parents’ rights

6. Input in Individualized Education Program (IEP)

2. Consent to evaluate

7. Appeal to impartial hearing officer

3. Appropriate evaluation

8. The “stay put” provision (placement can only be changed by the IEP committee)

4. Independent evaluation

9. Private right of action in federal court

5. Consent to placement

10. Attorney’s fees (may be awarded to parents who prevail in court).

Special Education Today: Advances and Challenges

Currently, there are over 6.5 million children with disabilities being educated in American public schools, with significant increases in the number of students with disabilities completing high school and participating in postsecondary education (U.S. Department of Education, 2010 as cited in Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 15). However, there are still challenges that students with disabilities and educators face such as: the difficulties related to the federal requirements to ensure all students achieve the same academic standards, the perpetuation of negative assumptions about students with disabilities, and the disproportionate representation of minority students (Noltemeyer, Mujic, and McLoughlin, 2012, p. 17).


The three areas of education examined in this discussion: multicultural education, gender equity in education, and special education, all complement one another in that they all are a part of social justice education. The foci of each of these areas have been primarily, that all students have equal access to education, and equity in distribution of educational resources. Further, some approaches in multicultural education have the additional goal to empower students and educators to be agents of social transformation by naming and working to dismantle oppressive ideologies and social systems. As we continue to exist as a globalized and pluralistic society, ensuring that education and educational resources are available and equally distributed will continue to be at the forefront of educational concerns, and hopefully the principles of social justice education will continue to be embraced and implemented.

With respect to current educational policy issues, the core convictions of Social Justice Education will be especially relevant as issues of access to and resources for education for all students are examined in light of the new administration’s intention to expand school choice while cutting federal funds to the Department of Education. For instance, what will be done to ensure that diversity (ethnic, gender, and ability) in non-traditional public or private schools is not stymied? What about the effects of decreased federal funding on children who choose to remain in traditional public schools? With teacher certification and monitoring of student progress not being a requirement in some non-traditional public or private schools, how does school choice contribute positively to student learning in these cases? The voices of Social Justice Education proponents will be especially vital in addressing these questions, and in helping to hold our elected and appointed leaders accountable as educational policy moves towards the expansion of school choice.


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