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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Schools Fit for All

How do we think about diversity in the classroom? Many educators understand differences as a natural and desirable way to enrich student learning.

The growing diversity in U.S. schools is undebatable. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (1998), one in every three students currently enrolled in elementary or secondary school is of a racial or ethnic minority. Demographers predict that students of color will make up about 46 percent of the U.S. school-age population by 2020 (Banks & Banks, 2001). By 2035, this group is expected to constitute a numerical majority of K–12 students. Children of immigrants make up approximately 20 percent of the children in the United States, bringing a host of cultural and language differences to many classrooms (Dugger, 1998).
The number of school-age children who speak a language other than English at home and have difficulty speaking English was 2.4 million in 1995, or 5 percent of all school-age children (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1998). Growing numbers of migrant families whose children attend school intermittently also present challenges to schools. In addition, one in five children under the age of 18 currently lives in poverty.
Children live in a variety of settings and with many different types of families. Fewer than half of the children in the United States live with both biological parents, and 59 percent of all children will live in a single-parent household before they reach the age of 18 (Salend, 2001). Approximately 6 to 14 million children live in families headed by gay or lesbian family members (Russo, 1997), and between 10 and 20 percent of school-age youth identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. One to two percent of U.S. children have been adopted, increasingly from other countries (Meese, 1999). Finally, 500,000 children live with foster families (Noble, 1997).
At the same time, efforts toward mainstreaming and inclusion have brought hundreds of thousands of new students who are identified as mildly, moderately, or significantly disabled back to general-education classrooms. Approximately 11 percent of school-age children, or 5.3 million students, are classified as disabled (U.S. Department of Education, 1995). Many of these students were previously served in special programs, sometimes in separate schools, or were completely unserved; their return to neighborhood or community schools represents another major shift in the school population.

Heterogeneous Classrooms

Teachers today face classrooms with diverse student populations and are expected to be culturally sensitive and to have skills for teaching a wide range of students (Holmes Group, 1990; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Sleeter & Grant, 1999; Zeichner, 1993, 1997). Although social changes, legislative decisions, and educational innovations now make the heterogeneity of classrooms more apparent, the truth is there was never such a thing as a homogeneous classroom; our schools have always been diverse (Sapon-Shevin, 1999).
Unfortunately, discussions of multiculturalism and diversity have been largely separate from those about the inclusion of students with disabilities (Sapon-Shevin & Zollers, 1999). This division is obvious in the professional literature, in the promotion of separate conferences, and in the ways in which teachers are prepared: They are often required to take one course in multicultural education and another in mainstreaming or inclusion. This bifurcation tends to impede our ability to think critically about the ways in which diversity issues are connected and about how they can be addressed in an integrated manner.
Linking disability and race can be highly problematic: For example, labeling blindness and blackness as "differences" can result in racist conceptions of difference as deviance and something needing to be fixed (Ball & Harry, 1993; Pugach & Seidl, 1999). But if we conceptualize disability as a social construct, closely linked to political, cultural, social, and economic demands and limitations, then we can link the disability agenda to a broader diversity mandate (Sapon-Shevin & Zoller, 1999). Looking at all differences within this more inclusive framework can help us understand effective approaches to difference: valuing multiple identities and communities, involving families in children's lives and schooling, and avoiding the slippery slope of partial inclusion.
Although some schools label a few of their classrooms inclusive, all classrooms are heterogeneous. We must move beyond discussions of diversity as a problem in the classroom to a conception of differences as natural, inevitable, and desirable, enriching teaching and learning experiences for teachers and students alike. We must also recognize that opportunities to address diversity and redress inequity can occur every minute. What, for example, is the responsibility of a teacher to instruct students about religious diversity in a school whose students are all Christians? What do students need to learn about race and racism in a school that is predominantly white? Or African American? What commitments to end oppression and injustice do we want students to have, and what skills will they need to translate those commitments into action?
The implications of diversity for teachers, schools, and education include changes in curriculum, pedagogy, teacher education, and school organization and climate. What will schools and classrooms look like if we take seriously a commitment to diversity and social justice in every aspect of the day and in every learning opportunity?


What constitutes multicultural education? Ball and Harry (1993) warn that "multicultural education is fast becoming a euphemism for the education of black and/or Latino children in urban and inner-city settings" (p. 430). Multicultural education must be rooted in a far more political understanding of power and difference and in a growing acknowledgment of each person's membership in multiple communities—not just those based on racial and ethnic identities, but also others, such as the deaf community or the gay community.
We advocate moving away from a contributions or additive approach, in which we teach limited, often superficial content on differences in isolation (Banks, 1997). We must situate multicultural education within an activist framework, enabling students not only to view concepts, issues, and events from diverse perspectives, but also to link their analyses to actions related to injustice, prejudice, and discrimination.
How is curriculum structured? The use of integrated curriculum, projects, and learning centers; the creation of multilevel curriculum units; and the recognition of multiple intelligences are all necessary responses to student diversity. When teachers design their own curriculums—free from the constraints of a single textbook, rigid expectations of students, and limited resources—their collaborations generally yield participatory, multisensory, and cooperative curricular units and activities. For example, a science unit on walls and bridges can become a broader project about how people have used walls and bridges throughout history, including the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and the Vietnam War Memorial. Students might interview community elders about the role that bridges played in their past. Lessons could easily embed state and national curriculum standards and link assessment directly to the curriculum (Fisher, Sax, & Pumpian, 1999; Udvari-Solner, 1994).
How is diversity represented? The curriculum must acknowledge student and family diversity. The books in the book corner, the posters on the wall, the Web sites that students use, and class videos should all reflect diversity. When students discuss families, for example, or when parents and guardians participate in the life of the school community, how is family diversity represented? Does the unit on careers take into account that some students have parents who are unemployed, in jail, deceased, or employed in activities that students are not comfortable sharing? Does the class field trip make financial demands that some families will find embarrassing?


Whole-class instruction that demands identical student responses to the same material delivered in one format is consistent neither with our current understanding of student diversity nor with our changing models of teaching. We must ground our strategies of teaching in our understanding of students' multiple identities and communities. Modifying the physical demands of the Christmas craft activity, in which children make jewelry boxes for their mothers, to accommodate Tashara (who has cerebral palsy) is of limited value when Tashara is Muslim, doesn't celebrate Christmas, and lives with her single, adoptive father. Designing a rich, multilayered curriculum, sensitive to cultural and language differences, but then requiring all students to complete identical learning tasks at the same rate and with the same proficiency fails to honor differences in learning styles, skills, and needs. By using diverse teaching strategies, teachers not only improve their chances of reaching every learner, but also model respect for diversity and help students understand that people are different and learn differently.
Cooperative learning. Cooperative learning is an optimal way to teach students with different abilities in the same classroom (Cohen, 1994; Putnam, 1993). Although research on cooperative learning has always validated the importance of heterogeneous grouping, the concept of heterogeneity has recently included learners who were previously segregated in special classes or separate programs. Cohen's research (1994) demonstrates that cooperative learning groups work best when they address differences in student status related to gender, race, and ethnicity. A cooperative lesson that is well designed pedagogically but that focuses on the accomplishments of white men does not do justice to the possibilities of cooperative learning as liberating pedagogy (Sapon-Shevin & Schniedewind, 1989/90, 1992).
Peer tutoring. Another important way to address different skill levels and to respect difference is for students to engage in peer tutoring or teaching (Udvari-Solner, 1994). But teachers must be careful that all students get a chance to be the teacher or leader so that no one is stuck permanently in the role of receiving help. In inclusive, heterogeneous classrooms where the range of skills is broad, it is particularly important that relationships are reciprocal (Van der Klift & Kunc, 1994).
Multilevel teaching. To teach a wide range of students within one classroom, teachers need to organize classroom learning activities so that all students can participate meaningfully. A unit on Thanksgiving, for example, could include not just a broad curriculum (such as perspectives of Native Americans, historical controversies, and legacies of colonialism), but also a diverse set of teaching and learning experiences. The unit could incorporate learning tasks, such as interviewing, journal writing, surveying, reading, writing, cooking, and graphing, so that all students participate and learn, even if their oral or written skills are not at grade level. Teachers could embed Individual Education Plan (IEP) objectives for particular students within the differentiated curriculum, rather than modify the fixed curriculum for only one or two students (Udvari-Solner, 1994).

School Organization and Climate

Our goal is not to make differences invisible. Just as we have rejected the goal of color blindness as both undesirable and unrealistic, we do not want to minimize or ignore student differences or to encourage students not to "see" one another fully. We must be critical of those who propose that in a "good" inclusive classroom, we cannot tell who the students with the disabilities are. This objective suggests differences are negative, discourages teachers from taking differences into account, and denies both teachers and students opportunities to become active allies against prejudice and discrimination (Sapon-Shevin, in press).
School organization. Structuring classrooms in ways that facilitate interactions across differences supports the increased heterogeneity of schools. Such practices as looping, multi-age classrooms, and team teaching model positive values of diversity and increase the likelihood that students will encounter classmates and teachers who are sensitive to individual differences.
School climate. How is diversity represented throughout the school? What is on the walls? What is the content and format of school assemblies? Do African Americans help students learn about the civil rights movement? Whose customs or holidays are represented in the hallways? Whose languages are spoken in the school? If there are non-English speakers, are there signs or posters in their languages? Are other languages represented even in monolingual schools?
Our language. How do we talk about differences? How do teachers refer to the resource room or the bilingual program? How do teachers explain why only some students are chosen for the gifted program? How do they respond to students who are struggling or failing? Students can become critics of stereotypes and misinformation that they hear or read. One teacher asked students to bring in cartoons containing words like idiot and imbecile and discussed such concepts as smartness and stupidity. Another teacher sent her students to the local card shop to look at stereotypical presentations of Native Americans at Thanksgiving. They discussed the consequences of such widespread dissemination of misinformation.
All-school activities. Consider the diversity of groups represented during activities and assemblies. Do certain students (athletes, for example) feel privileged, whereas other students feel that they have nowhere to go or don't belong? Is there an antiracism student group? A gay-straight alliance? A Hispanic culture club? Does the school promote multiculturalism during school assemblies and throughout the year? Are successful African American community members, women, and people with disabilities invited to address students in ways that emphasize their achievements?

Teacher Education and Support

Creating schools and classrooms that put student diversity at the center requires changes in preservice and inservice teacher education and in the ways that teachers receive support. Zeichner (1993) proposed key characteristics of teacher education programs that prepare teachers for cross-cultural, inclusive instruction. These include teaching students about the dynamics of prejudice and racism; emphasizing sociocultural research knowledge about the relationships among language, culture, and learning; exposing students to successful examples of teaching ethnic- and language-minority students; and embedding instruction in a group setting that provides both intellectual challenge and social support.
Teacher education faculty should assess whether their programs evenly or consistently include these characteristics; how they educate and support one another and garner support; how students view the content of their own programs; and whether a focus on diversity contributes to student success in teaching and a willingness to seek employment in diverse settings.
  • Think critically about curriculum and instruction, examining who benefits and who loses from any particular curricular perspective or teaching strategy. Model pedagogy in schools of education on the best, most inclusive teaching practices that teachers use in schools.
  • Incorporate a commitment to diversity within every class instead of isolating such content in a single course. Provide teachers with experience in developing differentiated instruction and encourage them to think about student diversity as they design, teach, and assess their lessons.
  • End the artificial boundaries between regular education, special education, and gifted education, replacing such programs with inclusive teacher education models that value diversity (Sapon-Shevin & Zollers, 1999).
We can apply similar objectives to inservice teacher education. We must replace single-shot inservice programs on student diversity or multicultural education with ongoing, systematic teacher development.

Designing for Diversity

Envision a house furnished in a particular style. We evaluate each new piece in terms of its fit—will it go with the general design? How will it affect the overall atmosphere? If it won't fit, if it causes us to abandon all the other pieces that we already value, the new addition may not be consistent with our overall design.
When we think about the best practices that support culturally responsive teaching for social justice, we notice a pattern. Using authentic assessments, creating safe schools, mentoring beginning teachers, involving parents in their children's education—all these practices are compatible not only with a commitment to diversity, but also with one another. Practices that help teachers and diverse students work together are synergistic and mutually supportive. In contrast, some new directions and mandates in education are not consistent with this commitment to diversity and social justice. High-stakes testing, rigid standards, segregated gifted or special education programs, punitive disciplinary programs, teacher incentive programs that pit teachers against one another—none of these fits well with diversity-enhancing practices. We must keep the twin visions of diversity and social justice and actively resist practices and policies that push us in incompatible directions.
John Dewey (1916) defined imagination as the capacity to look at things as if they could be different. Maxine Greene (1999) extended that idea: If you say what might be, then you make intolerable what is. How, then, can we help teachers and school leaders see how schools, classrooms, teaching, and learning could be different? How do we develop habits of the mind and heart to respond constructively to diversity, ensuring that injustice and inequality become intolerable in our schools?

Ball, E. W., & Harry, B. (1993). Multicultural education and special education: Parallels, divergences, and intersections. The Educational Forum, 57, 430–437.

Banks, J. A. (1997). Teaching strategies for ethnic studies (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (2001). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Cohen, E. G. (1994). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

Dugger, C. W. (1998, March 21). Among young of immigrants, outlook rises. New York Times, pp. A1, A11.

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (1998). America's children: Key national indicators of well-being. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Fisher, D., Sax, C., & Pumpian, I. (1999). Inclusive high schools: Learning from contemporary classrooms. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Greene, M. (1999, February) Presentation at the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation, Woodstock, IL.

Holmes Group. (1990). Tomorrow's schools: Principles for the design of professional development schools. East Lansing, MI: Author.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Multicultural teacher education: Research, practice, and policy. In J. A. Banks & C. A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 747–759). New York: Macmillan.

Meese, R. L. (1999). Teaching adopted students with disabilities: What teachers need to know. Intervention in School and Clinic, 34(4), 232–235.

Noble, L. S. (1997). The face of foster care. Educational Leadership, 54(7), 26–28.

Pugach, M. C., & Seidl, B. L. (1998). Responsible linkages between diversity and disability: A challenge for special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 21, 319–333.

Putnam, J. W. (1993). Cooperative learning and strategies inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Russo, J. (1997, November). The school's role in demystifying the stereotypes of gay/lesbian headed families [Presentation]. At the annual meeting of the New York Federation of Chapters of the Council for Exceptional Children, New York, NY.

Salend, S. J. (2001). Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective and reflective practices (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1999). Because we can change the world: A practical guide to building cooperative, inclusive classrooms communities. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (in press). Making inclusion visible: Honoring the process and the struggle. Democracy and Education.

Sapon-Shevin, M., & Schniedewind, N. (1989/90). Selling cooperative learning without selling it short. Educational Leadership, 47(4), 63–65.

Sapon-Shevin, M., & Schniedewind, N. (1992). If cooperative learning's the answer, what are the questions? Journal of Education, 174(2), 11–37.

Sapon-Shevin, M., & Zollers, N. J. (1999). Multicultural and disability agendas in teacher education: Preparing teachers for diversity. Leadership in Education, 2(3), 165–190.

Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, C. A. (1999). Making choices for multicultural education: Five approaches to race, class, and gender (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Udvari-Solner, A. (1994). A decision-making model for curricular adaptations in cooperative groups. In J. W. Thousand, R. A. Villa, & A. I. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering students and teachers (pp. 59–78). Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

U.S. Department of Education. (1995). 17th annual report to Congress on the implementation of IDEA. Washington, DC: Author.

Van der Klift, E., & Kunc, N. (1994). Beyond benevolence: Friendship and the politics of help. In J. W. Thousand, R. A. Villa, & A. I. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning: A practical guide to empowering students and teachers (pp. 391–401). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Zeichner, K. M. (1993). Educating teachers for diversity. East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning.

Zeichner, K. M. (1997). Educating teachers for cultural diversity. In K. Zeichner, S. Melnick, & M. L. Gomez (Eds.), Currents of reform in preservice teacher education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mara Sapon-Shevin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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