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34 E D U C A T I O N A L L E A D E R S H I P / M A R C H 2 0 1 5

Paul C. Gorski
and Katy Swalwell

feel like a visitor in my own
school—that hasn’t changed,”
Samantha said, confusion and
despair in her voice. We were
at the tail end of a focus group

discussion with African American
students at Green Hills High, a pre-
dominantly white, economically
diverse school. We had been invited to
conduct an equity assessment, exam-
ining the extent to which Green Hills
was an equitable learning environment
for all. We had asked Samantha and
a small group of her classmates how
they would characterize their school’s
two-year-old Multicultural Curriculum
Initiative, touted by school adminis-
trators as a comprehensive effort to
infuse a multicultural perspective into
all aspects of school life.

“I’m invisible,” Sean added, “but
also hypervisible. Maybe twice a year
there’s a program about somebody’s

food or music, but that’s about it. I
don’t see the purpose.”

Then Cynthia, who had remained
quiet through most of the hourlong
discussion, slammed her fist on the
table, exclaiming, “That multicultural
initiative means nothing. There’s
racism at this school, and nobody’s
doing anything about it!”

We found ourselves only a few
moments later in our next scheduled
focus group, surrounded by the
school’s power brokers: the prin-
cipal, assistant principals, deans, and
department chairs. Still taken—maybe
even a little shaken—by what we had
heard from the young women and
men who felt fairly powerless at Green
Hills, we asked the administrators
about the purpose of the Multicultural
Curriculum Initiative.

After a brief silence, Jonathan, the
principal, leaned back in his chair.
We had observed him over the past
few days interacting with students,
and it was clear he cared deeply about

them. The Multicultural Curriculum
Initiative was his brainchild, his baby.
Jonathan decorated his office door
with quotes about diversity and his
office walls with artwork depicting
diverse groups of youth. “We see
diversity as our greatest asset. That’s
what this initiative is all about. What
we aim to do here,” he explained with
measured intensity, “is to celebrate
the joys of diversity.” When we shared
with Jonathan the concerns raised
by the African American students,
he appeared confused and genuinely
concerned. “They said that?” he asked,
before interrupting a member of his
leadership team who had begun to
defend the initiative. “Maybe it’s time
to rethink this.”

Beyond Artwork
and Celebrations
If we’ve learned anything working
with schools across the United States,
it’s this: When it comes to education
equity, the trouble is not a lack of



Schools can commit
to a more robust
multiculturalism by
putting equity, rather
than culture, at the
center of the diversity

Gorski.indd 34 1/29/15 7:48 PM

A S C D / W W W . A S C D . O R G 35

multi cultural programs or diversity
initiatives in schools. Nor is it nec-
essarily a lack of educators who,
like Jonathan, appreciate and even
champion diversity. In virtually every
school we visit, we see attempts at
multi culturalism: corridors lined
with flags, student-designed posters
r epresenting the national or ethnic
origins of families in the community,
anti-bullying programs, or faculty

positions like “Diversity Director.”
The trouble lies in how so many

diversity initiatives avoid or whitewash
serious equity issues. It lies in the
space between what marginalized stu-
dents like Cynthia say their schools
need to do to help them feel less mar-
ginalized and what many of the adults
in those schools are comfortable doing
in the name of multiculturalism.

To better grasp this, put yourself in

Cynthia’s shoes. Imagine a world in
which, as a result of something over
which you have no control—say, your
racial identity, sexual orientation,
or home language—you’re made to
feel alienated or invisible at school.
Imagine that when you occasionally
see little shimmers of yourself reflected
in the curriculum, your identity or
culture is reduced to a stereotype—to
a sari, taco, or polka. Imagine the


Gorski_REV.indd 35 2/3/15 6:52 PM

36 E D U C A T I O N A L L E A D E R S H I P / M A R C H 2 0 1 5

glimmer of excitement you might feel
about the possibility that, when the
teacher mentions Martin Luther King
Jr., a real conversation about racism or
poverty might ensue, only to find that
even he has been sanitized down to I
have a dream. Imagine experiencing
racism, sexism, or class inequality in
the present while hearing about it in
school only in the past tense.

What would it feel like, given those
circumstances, to be pressed into par-

ticipating in celebrations of diversity
while nobody tends to your alienation?
That’s what many schools’ diversity
efforts feel like for students of color,
low-income students, English language
learners, and other students whose
voices historically have been omitted
from school curriculums. Meanwhile,
this brand of multiculturalism does
little to help students whose voices
historically have been honored at
school become aware of and question
their privilege. In both cases, we’re
doing a disservice to our students.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting
that something is inherently wrong
with celebrating diversity. We’re not
necessarily suggesting that schools
abandon the diversity parade or the
multicultural art festival. Our concern
is that, all too often, these sorts of
initiatives mask, rather than address,
serious equity concerns. They become
distinctly unmulticultural when we
don’t offer them alongside more
serious curricular (and institutional)
attention to issues like racism and
homophobia because they present the

illusion of multicultural learning even
as they guarantee a lack of sophisti-
cated multicultural learning.

What we are suggesting is that
at the heart of a curriculum that is
meaningfully multicultural lie prin-
ciples of equity and social justice—
purposeful attention to issues like
racism, homophobia, sexism, and
economic inequality. Without this
core, what we do in the name of multi-
culturalism can border on exploitative:

asking students and families who
experience these inequalities to allow
students and families who don’t expe-
rience them to grow their knowledge,
while the inequalities themselves go
un addressed. There’s racism at this
school, and nobody’s doing anything
about it!

Overcoming the “Culture” Fetish
In her article, “It’s Not the Culture of
Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture,”
Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) explains
how culture fetishism undermines
education equity. “Culture,” she
explains, “is randomly and regularly
used to explain everything” (p. 104).
It’s used, in effect, as a stand-in for
race, class, language, and other issues
that aren’t as comfortably discussed as
broad, vague “cultures.”

Many of the most popular frame-
works for creating more inclusive
classrooms and curriculums con-
tinue this culture fetish. In addition
to multi culturalism, we have
inter cultural and cross-cultural edu-
cation, cultural competence and

cultural proficiency, culturally relevant
pedagogy, and culturally responsive
teaching. And despite the fact that
social scientists debunked the concept
in the early 1970s, the “culture of
poverty” remains the dominant
framework in U.S. education circles for
understanding the lives of low-income

Of course, some focus on culture
is warranted. Culture is an important
aspect of student experience to con-
sider in efforts to create a meaningfully
multicultural curriculum and a more
equitable school. Moreover, some of
these frameworks, including cultural
relevance and cultural responsiveness,
are rooted in principles of equity
(Ladson-Billings, 1995). The chal-
lenge is to retain principles of equity as
central aspects of a multi cultural cur-
riculum that is truly meaningful, even
if—especially if—it feels easier or safer
to home in on more simplistic notions
of culture.

Embracing Equity Literacy
In our own teaching, as well as in our
work with schools and school districts,
we embrace a framework for both
multi cultural curriculum development
and bigger efforts to create equitable
classrooms and schools. We call this
framework equity literacy. Its central
tenet is that any meaningful approach
to diversity or multiculturalism relies
more on teachers’ understandings of
equity and inequity and of justice and
injustice than on their understanding
of this or that culture (Gorski, 2013).
It relies, as well, on teachers’ abilities
to cultivate in students a robust under-
standing about how people are treated
by one another and by institutions,
in addition to a general appreciation
of diversity (Swalwell, 2011). The
idea is to place equity, rather than
culture, at the center of the diversity

Key to developing equity literacy for
educators and students is cultivating

At the heart of a curriculum that is
meaningfully multicultural lie principles

of equity and social justice.

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A S C D / W W W . A S C D . O R G 37

four abilities (Gorski, 2013). These
include the ability to

n Recognize even subtle forms of
bias, discrimination, and inequity.

n Respond to bias, discrimination,
and inequity in a thoughtful and equi-
table manner.

n Redress bias, discrimination, and
inequity, not only by responding
to interpersonal bias, but also by
studying the ways in which bigger
social change happens.

n Cultivate and sustain bias-free and
discrimination-free communities,
which requires an understanding that
doing so is a basic responsibility for
everyone in a civil society.

Part of the difficulty
with implementing a
curriculum that grows
these abilities in
young people
is that we
educators must
first grow them in
ourselves. We might
start by ensuring that
professional development
related to multiculturalism
focuses not only on cultural
competence or diversity awareness,
but also on recognizing sexism
and ableism, for example; not on a
mythical “culture of poverty,” but on
responding to economic inequality;
and not on how to help marginalized
students fit into school cultures they
experience as alienating, but on how
to redress the alienation by making
changes in our own practices and

We recognize this is a daunting
task, and we understand the pressure
of feeling here’s one more thing I need
to squeeze into an already packed
workday. But then we remember Cyn-
thia’s exhortation: “There’s racism at
this school, and nobody’s doing any-
thing about it!” We don’t have control
over everything, but to the extent that
we do influence the curriculum, we

feel an urgency to avoid the kind of
well-intended complacency we found
at Green Hills High.

The good news is that there are
many powerful models for what a
curriculum oriented around equity lit-
eracy looks like in practice (see “Great

Equity Literacy Resources,” p. 39).
Teacher-led organizations around the
United States have developed rich
databases of curriculums that can (and
should) be modified for local contexts.
Nobody needs to start from scratch.

Five Guiding Principles
It can be difficult to paint a precise
picture of what an equity literacy
curriculum looks like because, like
all curriculums, it will look different

depending on contextual factors.
What we can say is that, rather than
a list of facts or historical figures that
everyone should know (as in E. D.
Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” lists), an
equity literacy curriculum focuses on
essential questions like these: What
makes something equitable or inequi-
table? What (local, regional, global)
in equities exist? How have they
changed over time, and why? What
individual and collective responsi-
bilities do we have to address them?
These questions require both evidence
and ethics to debate. They fit well with

the inquiry approach to education
promoted by recent curriculum

frameworks, such as the
College, Career, and Civic

Life (C3) framework.
As we plan cur-

riculum for our
students and
work to develop

our own skills and
knowledge related to

equity literacy, it’s useful
to keep the following five

principles in mind.

Principle 1. Equity literacy is
important in every subject area.
When we teach with and for equity
literacy, we’re not abandoning content.
Rather, we’re teaching content (when
feasible) through an equity lens. One
of our favorite resources for teaching
through an equity literacy lens is Eric
Gutstein and Bob Peterson’s Rethinking
Mathematics (Rethinking Schools,
2013). In it, these educators provide
multiple examples of teaching math
in a way that develops students’ math-
ematical abilities while also helping
them see math as a powerful analytical
tool for addressing social problems.

For instance, students can develop
formulas for how best to calculate a
living wage, examine historical trends
in wealth and poverty, or map income
data in their own communities. Their

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38 E D U C A T I O N A L L E A D E R S H I P / M A R C H 2 0 1 5

findings can become fertile ground for
rich discussions, deliberations, and
debates about the nature of economic

Principle 2. The most effective equity
literacy approach is integrative and
It’s easy to see how equity literacy
naturally favors interdisciplinary
inquiry. As we see in the math
example above, students would
also engage with reading, writing,
speaking, history, and civics.

Science, technology, engineering,
and the arts similarly could be tapped
as students grapple with real-world
equity issues in their communities.
Sánchez (2014) describes an inter-
disciplinary project in which teams
of students at a high-poverty school
examined challenges in their racially
segregated and economically strained
community. One group, the Park
Fixers, was frustrated “with having
insufficient and unsafe equipment
for students to play on during recess”
(p. 185). Group members were also
concerned that the children who lived
in an adjacent low-income housing
project had no place to play.

With guidance from teachers, the
Park Fixers applied a wide variety
of skills and an impressive depth of
knowledge to address this community
challenge they had identified. The
students used video and still photog-
raphy to document the conditions
of the park. They used language arts
and math skills to craft community
surveys, distribute them, and analyze
the results. They practiced com-
munication skills by composing and
sending letters to several key com-
munity members. They even worked
with an urban design specialist who
helped them capture their vision for a
new park in blueprints. Finally, they
delivered both oral and written reports
to their teachers that incorporated all
the material they had gathered.

Teachers considering similar
approaches shouldn’t feel discouraged
if students don’t see the fruits of
their efforts within the school year.
As Schultz (2008) notes, “spec-
tacular things happen along the way”
when students are engaged in this
kind of work; the process is just as
important—if not more important—
than the actual outcome of their

By engaging students in this way,
the teachers modeled equity literacy.
They acknowledged what the stu-
dents knew all along—that they were
targets of bias and inequity. What
was happening to their park wasn’t
happening to the parks in wealthier
neighborhoods. The teachers also
helped strengthen students’ equity
literacy by integrating lessons about
math, writing, and other subjects with
an opportunity to apply academic
skills to redress this inequity. Culti-
vating equity literacy is most effective
when it’s integrated into the broader
curriculum rather than segregated
into disconnected activities and when
it’s a schoolwide commitment rather
than isolated in one or two teachers’

Principle 3. Students of all ages are
primed for equity literacy.
Did we mention that the Park Fixers
were 3rd graders? The most common
rebuke we hear when we talk about
equity literacy goes something like
this: My students are too young to talk
about that stuff. If you’re thinking
the same thing, consider this: Even
preschool-age children have been
exposed to socializing messages about
themselves and one another—often
even at school. Many students already
knowingly experience bias and dis-
crimination, and those who don’t often
learn that it’s impolite to mention any
distinctions. For example, researchers
have found that children as young
as three or four already differentiate
racial categories—they’re not, as we
may want to believe, “color-blind”
(Olson, 2013; Winkler, 2009).

So when we say or think that stu-
dents are “too young” to talk about
issues like racism, it’s important that
we stop and reflect on whom, exactly,
we’re trying to protect. Are we pro-
tecting the students who are expe-
riencing racial bias by sidestepping
conversations about race, even as we
ask them to celebrate diversity?

In our experience, the younger we
start, the better. By integrating issues
of equity into the content at young
ages, we help all students develop
the skills and language they need to
explore complex and controversial
issues in a community of people who
may disagree about what’s going on or
what should be done about it. Equally
important, we demonstrate to stu-
dents who are the targets of bias and
inequity that their experiences matter,
and we offer them an opportunity to
challenge their peers’ mis perceptions.
As a result, they may experience
the more celebratory, surface-level
multicultural initiatives as safer and
more legitimate. Meanwhile, students
who enjoy more privileged identities
become better able to interpret the

Many initiatives
present the illusion

of multicultural
learning even as
they guarantee a

lack of sophisticated
multicultural learning.

Gorski.indd 38 1/29/15 7:48 PM

A S C D / W W W . A S C D . O R G 39

stereotypes and biases that feed any
misperceptions they might have about
the more marginalized people in their

Principle 4. Students from all
backgrounds need equity literacy.
Many of the common examples of
equity literacy in action come from
high-poverty schools serving large
percentages of students of color
and nonnative speakers of English.
Un fortunately, this can lead some
people to believe that white and
wealthy students wouldn’t benefit
from a curriculum informed by equity
literacy. In fact, these students may
have the steepest learning curves
when it comes to learning about bias,
discrimination, and inequity. Tradi-
tional forms of multicultural education
that focus on celebrating diversity
rather than equity can reinforce their
misunderstandings by feeding the
assumption that celebrating diversity
is enough—that everybody is starting
on a level playing field.

A growing body of research pro-
vides helpful examples of how to
engage more privileged students in an
equity literacy curriculum (Swalwell,
2013). In one elite K–8 private school,
teachers meet regularly in professional
development study groups focused on
race, gender, and social class to design
curriculum and share their work.
While the 8th grade teachers have
asked their students to examine real-
world historical and contemporary
wealth gap data, the 4th grade teachers
are inviting their students to share, in
journal entries, what they know about
being rich and poor, and the kinder-
garten teacher is designing a simple
simulation of unequal distribution of

The teachers are also compiling
a list of formal and informal ways
that class advantage goes unchecked
at their school—for example, how
morning meeting questions can

sometimes invite students to brag
about their material possessions. The
teachers’ ultimate goal is to help stu-
dents do more than simply “be nice”
to people with less privilege; they want
their students to understand the issues
involved and commit to working
toward a society with less economic

Principle 5. Teaching for equity
literacy is a political act—but not more
so than not teaching for equity literacy.
Another common rebuke we hear is
that teaching for equity literacy intro-
duces views about social justice into
the curriculum that don’t belong in
school. But is teaching about poverty
or sexism more political than pre-
tending that poverty and sexism don’t
exist by omitting them from the cur-
riculum? How might we explain the
politics of not teaching about these
issues when many of our students
are experiencing them, even within
school? How can we prepare youth to
be active participants in a democracy
without teaching them about the most
formidable barriers to an authentic

According to Hess and McAvoy
(2014), there’s no silver bullet for
engaging students in discussions about
important and often controversial
issues, but rather a series of factors
that teachers must weigh to introduce
these issues ethically and responsibly.
It’s important for teachers to consider
when to withhold or disclose their
personal views and how to frame
issues in relation to their students, the
subject matter they’re teaching, and
the community.

Ultimately, Hess and McAvoy con-
clude, classrooms should directly
engage students in answering the
question, How should we live together?
It’s a nonpartisan question like its
empirical cousin, How do we live
together? but a deeply political one
that’s essential in a diverse society
based on democratic principles and
committed to equity.

A More Meaningful Investment
As Cynthia taught us (“There’s racism
at this school, and no one’s doing
anything about it!”), students who
feel marginalized in our schools may
experience what we thought to be
meaningful multicultural curriculums

Great Equity Literacy

Here are some of our favorite—and
free—resources for an equity literacy

EdChange (
multi cultural/teachers.html)

Education for Liberation Lab


New York Collective of Radical
Educators (

SoJust (

Teachers for Social Justice (www

Teaching Economics As If People
Mattered (www.teachingeconomics

Teaching for Change (www
.teaching for

Teaching Tolerance (www

Zinn Education Project (http://

Gorski.indd 39 1/29/15 7:48 PM

40 E D U C A T I O N A L L E A D E R S H I P / M A R C H 2 0 1 5

as a purposeful avoidance of a more
serious reality. When we invest our
multi cultural energies in surface-level
cultural exchanges, fantasies of color-
blindness, or celebrations of white-
washed heroes while ignoring the
actual inequities many of our students
face, we demonstrate an implicit com-
plicity with those inequities.

We can avoid these pitfalls by
building our multicultural curriculum
efforts, not around cultural awareness
or cultural diversity, but around the
cultivation of equity literacy in both
ourselves and our students.�EL

Gorski, P. (2013). Reaching and teaching

students in poverty: Strategies for erasing
the opportunity gap. New York: Teachers
College Press.

Hess, D., & McAvoy, P. (2014). The
political classroom: Evidence and ethics

in democratic education. New York:

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a
theory of culturally relevant pedagogy.
American Educational Research Journal,
32(3), 465–491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). It’s not the
culture of poverty, it’s the poverty of
culture: The problem with teacher
education. Anthropology and Education
Quarterly, 37(2), 104–109.

Olson, K. R. (2013). Are kids racist? Psy-
chology Today. Retrieved from www

Sánchez, L. (2014). Fostering wide-
awakeness: Third-grade community
activists. In P. Gorski and J. Landsman
(Eds.), The poverty and education reader
(pp. 183–194). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Schultz, B. (2008). Spectacular things
happen along the way: Lessons from an
urban classroom. New York: Teachers
College Press.

Swalwell, K. (2011, December 21). Why
our students need “equity literacy” [blog
post]. Retrieved from Teaching Tolerance

at www.tolerance .org/blog/why-our-

Swalwell, K. (2013). Educating activist
allies: Social justice pedagogy with the
suburban and urban elite. New York:

Winkler, E. N. (2009). Children are not
colorblind: How young children learn
race. PACE, 3(3), 1–8.

Paul C. Gorski ([email protected]
.org) is associate professor of Inte-
grative Studies at George Mason Uni-
versity, Fairfax, Virginia, and founder of
EdChange ( His
most recent book, coauthored with
Seema Pothini, is Case Studies on
Diversity and Social Justice Education
(Routledge, 2014). Katy Swalwell
([email protected]) is an assistant
professor in the School of Education
at Iowa State University. She is the
author of Educating Activist Allies: Social
Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and
Urban Elite (Routledge, 2013).

Thomas Edison State College is one of the 11 senior public colleges and universities in New Jersey, and is accredited by
the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (267) 284-5000.




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