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Un-standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-based Classroom

reviewed by Ramin Farahmandpur - 2006

coverTitle: Un-standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-based Classroom
Author(s): Christine Sleeter
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746215, Pages: 224, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

We live inside government manufactured fears and uncertainties, when the rhetoric of war is used to silence opponents of the military invasion and occupation of Iraq; when hate-filled radio hosts, Fox News television pundits, and fundamentalist preachers join forces in slandering public intellectuals; and anti-war activists Ward Churchill, Cindy Sheehan, and Pennsylvania  congressman John Murtha muster the courage to raise moral and ethical objections against the war in Iraq; when the Bush administration continues to violate international human rights treaties by operating secret CIA prisons (known as "black sites" often hidden in Soviet-era compounds in Eastern Europe) where "enemy combatants" are tortured; and when the National Security Agency is pointing its sophisticated arsenal of high-tech espionage devices  on American citizens inside the nation's borders.

In public schools, students and teachers are frequently reprimanded or suspended for openly criticizing the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policy.  One well-known example is that of Bretton Barber, a 16-year-old from Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Michigan, who expressed his disagreement with the war in Afghanistan.  Barber was sent home for wearing a T-shirt that had a picture of President Bush with the words “International Terrorist” printed on it.  School officials gave Barber an ultimatum: Turn the shirt inside out, take it off, or return home.  Instead of complying with what he felt to be an infringement on his freedom of speech, Barber decided to go home.  Another case involved David Dial, a 17-year-old from Legacy High School in Denver, who was suspended for one day from school after he decided to organize an international walkout on March 5, 2003, in opposition to the war in Iraq by posting fliers on the school walls instead of the community information table.  

As the drums of war drown out dissent and as accountability and testing regimes are imposed upon public schools, it becomes imperative that teachers and educators offer students a curriculum that enables them to conceptualize, analyze, theorize, and critically reflect upon their experiences in the world.  More importantly, teachers need to introduce students to a "language of critique" and a "language of possibility" so that they can engage in a dialectical reading of the word and the world.

In the wake of the standards-based reform movement, Christine Sleeter’s Un-standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-based Classroom is a timely and important book on how to design and develop multicultural curriculum.  Using data collected from teachers enrolled in the classes she taught, Sleeter shows the steps teachers took in planning and developing multicultural curriculum for their classrooms.  Sleeter maintains that multicultural curriculum provides students and teachers an opportunity to participate in building a multicultural democratic society.  In addition, it holds the promise of improving and raising the academic achievement of students.  The reason Sleeter focuses on school curriculum is because it reflects public knowledge and provides a forum for students, teachers, and parents to engage in sustained and meaningful dialogues over the most pressing social, political, and cultural issues facing schools and society.

In her book, Sleeter discriminates between high standards and the standardization movement.  Whereas high standards refers to the “level of quality” or “excellence” of students’ academic achievement and performance, Sleeter identifies the standardization movement as part of the bureaucratic efforts by the federal and state governments to regulate what counts as knowledge, whose knowledge the school curriculum represents, and what purpose school knowledge serves.  Sleeter believes that the current standards-based reform movement is reducing diversity of knowledge to a discrete body of measurable and objectifiable information that students are required to master.  The other danger associated with the standards-based curriculum, Sleeter contends, is that it drowns out alternative viewpoints and perspectives and leaves no room for raising moral and ethical questions that are pertinent to the existence of democratic values and beliefs in public schools.

Sleeter provides an historical overview of the standards-based reform movement.  She explains that the standards-based reform movement began as far back as the early 20th century when early curriculum theorists like Ellwood Cubberley and others attempted to align school curriculum to the needs and demands of the U. S. economy by developing a scientific approach to designing and planning school curriculum.  From the 1950s to the 1970s, with the Cold War in full swing, the “back to basics” movement gained momentum in teacher education programs and graduate schools of education.  Once again, supporters of the movement were determined to make certain that school curriculum reflected not only the ideologies and political views of the dominant groups in the United States, but that it also prepared students for employment in the growing military industrial complex to defend the country against the so-called "communist threat."  Sleeter attributes the origins of the current standards-based movement to the Nation at Risk report published in 1983.  The report blamed schools for the weak economic performance of the United States against its Asian and European rivals.  The driving forces behind the recent educational policies of the No Child Left Behind act passed in 2001 are neoliberal social and economic policies that favor flexibility, efficiency, outsourcing, and downsizing methods of production.  Under the neoliberal economic model, schools must perform similar to corporate entities.  Just as the Dow Jones Industrial Average measures the performance of companies and represents the pulse of Wall Street, so too the Adequate Yearly Progress report rates and ranks the performance of public schools.  One understated consequence of the No Child Left Behind laws is that the state can indefinitely close or restructure "underperforming schools" that fail to meet the requirements established by the A.Y.P.

In planning and designing multicultural curriculum, Sleeter identifies four key curriculum questions.  First, what purpose does school curriculum serve?  She argues that school curriculum should aim toward social improvement, equity, and social justice.  Multicultural curriculum provides teachers, students, and parents with tools and skills that can help them gain a deeper understanding of racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of injustice in their communities and to fight against them.  Second, what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge should be part of the school curriculum?  Sleeter believes multicultural curriculum taps into the diverse viewpoints and "funds of knowledge" from all social groups.  Third, how can teachers organize the learning experiences of students?  Sleeter suggests drawing upon the cultural knowledge, learning processes, and the language of students.  Finally, what tools and methods should be used to evaluate curriculum?  Sleeter agrees with holding students accountable and demanding nothing short of high expectations from them; but the evaluation criteria must also be fair and broad, encompassing the knowledge and experiences of all students.

From the standpoint of the standards-based reform movement, the purpose of school curriculum is to make the United States more competitive in the global economy and to promote cultural and linguistic homogeneity by teaching “traditional discipline-based concepts” in schools.  How should school knowledge be selected?  Sleeter views the current standards as a consensus document, which dictates what students should know and be able to accomplish.  In response to the third question, Sleeter writes that the standards-based curriculum employs methods and practices similar to the banking model of instruction which views students as empty vessels.  Finally, the standards-based reform movement uses criterion referenced standardized tests to evaluate what students know and how well they know it.

Sleeter notes that "un-standardizing" school curriculum, and developing and designing multicultural curriculum, begins by teachers reflecting on their values, beliefs, and assumptions using a variety of strategies including: “(1) studying the concepts of ideology and epistemology, (2) reading the works written from multiple ideological perspectives, (3) engaging in structured or semi-structured personal interactions that challenge teacher thinking, (4) analyzing epistemological and ideological assumptions in documents, and (5) engaging in reflective writing” (p. 33).

Sleeter writes that teaching students the content standards requires teachers to examine the ideological assumption and underpinnings of such documents.  All texts must be deconstructed, questioned, and analyzed for their ideological, political, and cultural assumptions.  For instance, in examining the History–Social Science Framework and Standards for California Public Schools, Sleeter found that the content standards promoted “national loyalty” and “patriotism” infused with a “Eurocentric” view of the world.  There were few contributions from people of color or women.  She concluded that from the 96 Americans mentioned in the History–Social Science Framework, while 82 % were male only 18 % were female.  Equally disturbing is the underrepresentation of people of color.  Sleeter found that 77 % of the contributions mentioned were by Euro-Americans, while the rest were by African American, Native American, Latinos, and surprisingly no Asian Americans.

In contrast to the standards-based movement that is driven by mainstream and traditional curriculum, Sleeter writes that multicultural curriculum is grounded in transformative intellectual knowledge—knowledge that arises from the experiences and culture of diverse communities of people.  Transformative intellectual knowledge extends beyond Eurocentric and mainstream forms of knowledge embedded within textbooks and school curricula.  It also embraces knowledge and experiences of subjugated and marginalized groups.  As such, Sleeter distinguishes between standards-driven and standards-conscious curriculum planning.  Whereas the former uses the standards as a platform to teach students the "big ideas" and "concepts," the latter incorporates students’ and teachers’ knowledge and interests and uses the standards only as a teaching tool.  Finally, Sleeter favors culturally relevant assessment along with performance assessment to measure the academic achievement of students.  Culturally relevant assessment recognizes and values students’ cultural knowledge, linguistic skills, and experiences.

Un-standardizing Curriculum is an indispensable book for educators who are interested in designing and developing multicultural curriculum and in promoting equity, diversity, and social justice in their classrooms.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1548-1552
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12278, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:41:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Ramin Farahmandpur
    Portland State University
    E-mail Author
    RAMIN FARAHMANDPUR is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Policy, Foundations and Administrative Studies at Portland State University. His interests include critical pedagogy and multicultural education. He is the coauthor of Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism: A Critical Pedagogy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).
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