Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Ethnicity, Race and Education: An Introduction

reviewed by Rachel Endo - May 21, 2012

coverTitle: Ethnicity, Race and Education: An Introduction
Author(s): Sue Walters
Publisher: Continuum, New York
ISBN: 1847062326, Pages: 192, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Ethnicity, Race and Education: An Introduction by Sue Walters provides a substantive overview of persistent issues, problems, and trends related to studies of ethnicity and race in educational research that have largely remained unresolved in debates about large-scale reform. The term race is cited in quotes to illustrate that it “has no scientific validity” (p. 7) but also to point out “that people attach [meaning] to colour and/or physical characteristics” (p. 8). Three themes anchor the conceptual framework in this book: (1) how ethnicity and race have impacted the educational experiences of historically marginalized populations in the British context; (2) how the widespread misuse of these terms has shaped uneven academic outcomes among diverse populations; and (3) how educational institutions perpetuate social inequalities, in addition to how individuals within these structures—parents, students, and teachers— have challenged oppressive practices by taking action at both the collective and individual levels. Each chapter integrates “reflection activities” in which readers reflect on and respond to prompts that highlight crucial issues in education. These exercises are valuable for guiding readers to identify the belief systems underlying their assumptions and prior knowledge about the topic at hand. Each chapter also includes a list of additional suggested readings and web-based sources. In all, this book effectively summarizes a diverse representation of studies from the past 30 years and introduces a range of topics, including the complex (and multiple) causes of uneven academic outcomes, ethnic monitoring, and the relationship between educational experiences and identity formation.

The introduction section and Chapter 1 are devoted to untangling the contested meanings behind the terms ethnicity and race. Walters critiques clinical theories of human difference, especially the idea that race is a fixed category that neatly defines a particular group’s academic abilities and behavioral characteristics. She provides a brief but integrated overview of the social construction of human differences by comparatively analyzing racial formations in both the European and North American contexts. Furthermore, Walters points out that ethnicity and race are often misused in educational studies to make judgments about a group’s collective propensity toward educational success or presumed lack thereof, which has remained a persistent concern among scholars who have also challenged deficit theories (Lee, 2005; Massey & Denton, 1993). Although Walters introduces key terms like ethnicity, race, and racism, what is missing from her definitions are perspectives from critical multiculturalists who specifically focus on the systemic impact of White privilege in the schools that mirrors the systems of advantage and disadvantage in racially stratified societies (Tatum, 1997). Consequently, with the given definitions, readers who are not familiar with debates in the subfield of critical race theory in education may not grasp how White privilege has played a central role in terms of how racism has operated from both the individual and structural levels. Such specific perspectives are needed to truly understand the complex causes of racial disadvantage, particularly in the educational context.

Chapter 2 summarizes the findings of prominent quantitative studies that were published from the 1970s to the 2000s while offering insightful critiques about how achievement has been defined and measured over time. Walters also notes how both classic and contemporary studies in education have led to the creation of polarizing labels such as disadvantaged, non-White, and underachievement. She notes that the very definitions used in research to explain racial disadvantage in education are inherently problematic and need to be challenged. The author further brings our attention to common design flaws made by educational researchers who study ethnicity and race in education, including the prevalence of inconsistent definitions, sampling errors, and weak conceptual analyses. She offers helpful recommendations, such as the need to disaggregate data to ascertain how additional factors such as class and gender may further inform the conclusions and results of research studies. Although the decade-by-decade analyses offer an in-depth portrait of specific events, it would have been helpful if Walters had provided even a brief overview of the sociopolitical climate during these eras to contextualize how the research she references may have been informed by current events and public opinion of the times. Some of the content in Chapter 5 that analyzes the impact of national educational policies could have been effectively integrated in this chapter to provide readers with a more seamless context for understanding the belief systems that shaped the direction and scope of these individual studies.

Chapter 3 summarizes findings from several qualitative studies specific to the schooling experiences of diverse student populations. The findings show a range of perspectives on the causes of the achievement gap and the schooling experiences of culturally diverse students. In Chapter 4, Walters challenges us to rethink our assumptions about credibility, objectivity, and values in educational research while offering insights about what researchers who study ethnicity and race need to consider in their approaches, including being cognizant of power dynamics in the process of knowledge production. In these chapters, the author heavily relies on presenting the information using single-study summaries in which the main points could have been more effectively synthesized to show readers key connections among and between studies, as well as divergent viewpoints that would highlight how many of these complex debates lack clear solutions. Also, Walters does not explicitly disclose the process by which she identified the key scholars or studies in these chapters, which is somewhat problematic because she categorically critiques the premise of educational inquiry as an intentional process that is never a bias-free endeavor. That is, it would have been especially helpful if she situated her own identity as a scholar who researches ethnicity and race in education, as well as the parameters for how she arrived at her decision to use a certain set of scholarly perspectives and studies over others.

Chapter 5 discusses how various institutions and organizations, in addition to marginalized communities themselves, have taken action to shape educational policies at multiple levels from the institutional, to local, to national, from the 1960s to the present. Walters provides multiple examples of how communities, organizations, parents, students, and teachers have formed alliances to demand changes to curricula, instructional practices, and institutional policies, all of which powerfully illustrate the multiple ways that different stakeholders have addressed and contested racial disparities in education. The reader is then introduced to the central philosophical differences between antiracism education and multicultural education as institutionalized school initiatives. Walters effectively highlights the limitations of both approaches while also discussing their continued potential to promote inclusive classrooms and remedy (at least in part) the legacy of racial disadvantage in schools.

A few additional conceptual gaps stood out that are worth noting in brief. First, Walters does not mention the reality that the key decision makers in education tend to be White, ranging from the front lines (teachers and school administrators) to stakeholders at the external level (educational researchers, politicians, policy makers, and school board members). The exclusion and underrepresentation of stakeholders of color in decision-making processes and formal structures in education are persistent concerns that impact the state of education for diverse student populations. Another related point is that the author does not consistently refer to teachers as White; for instance, a quick scan of the chapters reveals that the stand-alone term teacher without a racial qualifier is present on pages 29, 73, 106, 142, and 145. Although the teaching force in most European and North American countries is predominantly White (Cross, 2005), equal application of racial terms should be used when referencing any population, including parents, policy makers, students, and teachers. McLaren (1995) rightfully noted, “Perhaps white culture’s most formidable attribute is its ability to mask itself as a category” (p. 52). In alignment with Walters’s belief that we all must be careful with our definitions, using consistent language is certainly a simple step to decenter the assumption that Whiteness is an authoritative and normative representation of the teaching profession. Finally, although Walters recommends several print and web-based materials, including articles, books, databases, and reports, more practical resources for teachers, such as lesson plans on how to teach about race/racism in the classroom and instructional strategies that have been proven to reach diverse learners, would have been valuable to offer concrete recommendations to the professionals who are on the front lines working with students.

Ethnicity, Race and Education: An Introduction rightfully rejects the premise that racial disadvantage is an isolated problem that only impacts a few individuals. Rather, the inequalities and inequities that persist in schools are major social pathologies that are failing millions of young people, who are being robbed of educational opportunities that will directly impact their future employment and quality-of-life prospects. Throughout, Walters urges us to carefully assess the merits of educational research and social debates pertaining to ethnicity and race rather than simply accept information only at face value. In all, this book would be well-suited as a supplemental resource for instructors who teach courses in educational foundations, multicultural education, research methods, and the sociology of education. The reflection activities are especially valuable for generating critical thinking among course participants, as well as providing readers with opportunities to discuss a host of crucial issues in education, including how individuals and institutions might begin to challenge educational inequalities shaped by ethnicity and race.


Cross, B. (2005). New racism, reformed teacher education, and the same ole’ oppression. Education Studies, 38, 263–274.

Lee, S. J. (2005). Up against Whiteness: Race, school, and immigrant youth. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McLaren, P. L. (1995). White terror and oppositional agency: Towards a critical multiculturalism. In C. E. Sleeter & P. L. McLaren (Eds.), Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference (pp. 33–63). New York: State University of New York Press.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 21, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16776, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:48:40 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Rachel Endo
    Hamline University
    E-mail Author
    RACHEL ENDO is chair of the Teacher Education Department at Hamline University. Her research interests include Asian American education; critical approaches to multicultural and urban education; and transnational studies of Asian America. She is currently working on a project focusing on Asian American education in transnational context, particularly looking at the multiple ways by which various Asian immigrant communities have structured supplemental education opportunities abroad and at home to facilitate opportunities for heritage-language maintenance and positive ethno-national identity formation.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue