Politics of Multicultural Teacher Education

By Gay, Geneva | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Politics of Multicultural Teacher Education

Gay, Geneva, Journal of Teacher Education

Politics in teacher education is becoming more conspicuous, contentious, and extensive. This is due, in part, to the growing complexity of the enterprise and to the demands of a widening range of stakeholders. Concerns about the persistently low levels of achievement for students of color, mandates for testing as measures of accountability and competence of both students and teachers, and how to deal effectively with diversity and social justice issues are heightening the political dimensions of the education enterprise. Multicultural education in teacher preparation and PreK-12 classroom practice is both a victim and a player in these dynamics.

Several reasons explain why these issues are inherently political. Some that relate specifically to multicultural education in preservice teacher preparation are examined in the remainder of this discussion. They involve tensions among competing constituencies, values, programs, and practices about the place and character of ethnic, racial, social, cultural, and linguistic diversity in teacher education. Invariably, these debates are about the redistribution of power between the defenders of the status quo and advocates of change and different conceptions of new directions for teacher education.


Politics is not perceived favorably by many educators. They counter descriptors of attitudes and activities as political with statements that they are simply doing what is best to ensure educational success for their particular groups and issues of interest. Stone, Hering, Jones, and Pierannunzi (2001) explained that these dispositions exist because "politics, in American thought, has come to be too closely associated with the wheeling and dealing, backroom maneuvering, and sometimes cynical corruptions of the machine-style politics that dominated many large cities around the turn of the last century" (p. 3). This form of politicking "elevates materials incentives over higher ideals ... and substitutes party and group interests for the pursuit of a broader public good" (Stone et al., 2001, p. 3). It is considered a threat to the existing power structure and a necessary evil of the change process to be banished as quickly and completely as possible once that goal is accomplished (Stone et al., 2001). Sergiovanni (2003) called these attitudes and practices a "politics of division" in which different stakeholders compete for advantage and trade their compliance and goodwill for things they want. It resembles "a game of bartering where self-interest is the motivator" and the purpose is to "win more for yourself than you have to give back in return" (Sergiovanni, 2003, p. 283).

However, politics in education is not always negative. As Stone et al. (2001) noted, "Politics ... can be a critical tool for discovering and mobilizing collective action" (p. 8). Rather than always being the "opportunistic pursuit of personal gain or partisan advantage," politics can be a form of "civic mobilization" for communities to identify and pursue goals (Stone et al., 2001, p. 8). Sergiovanni (2003) added that the focus of analysis and action can be shifted to a "politics of virtue motivated by shared commitment to the common good and guided by protections that ensure the rights and responsibilities of individuals" (p. 284).

These dispositions play out in action somewhat differently depending on particular issues and constituencies. One of the most prominent issues now is disparities in the achievement of students from different ethnic groups and how they are affected by the preparation and proficiency of classroom teachers. As the need for multicultural education grows and competes with other reform initiatives (such as the current standards movement), confusions surrounding it increase exponentially, which in turn exacerbates the political fervor. One expression of this dilemma is how to best prepare teachers to serve the general needs of all students and the unique needs of particular individuals and groups at the same time.

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