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Multiculturalism -- What Do Students Think?


Administrators, teachers, parents, and other public figures have voiced their opinions about multicultural education. Now a survey by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company asks students what they think about multiculturalism in their schools.

Report Cover Students of many races, cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and economic situations fill today's schools. By the year 2000, according to the Census Bureau, one of every three children will be of a racial or ethnic background other than non-Hispanic white. Many educators believe that multicultural education can help students learn about other people and about cultures different from students' own.


In 1996, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company produced a series of reports " bring the opinions of teachers, students and parents to the attention of educators, policymakers and the American public." The fourth report in the series, The Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher 1996: Students Voice Their Opinions On Learning About Multiculturalism, "...assessed students' opinions and interests in learning about multicultural topics." Lou Harris and Associates conducted the nationwide survey. Public school students in grades 7-12 were asked about

  • the availability of multicultural courses,
  • their interest in taking multicultural courses, and
  • the effectiveness of lessons being taught.


Sixty one percent "...of students say their schools offer classes on multiculturalism" (defined in the survey question as "...the history and culture of people who came to the U.S. from different parts of the world, such as Asia, India, Africa or South America."). Survey results indicate that

  • these courses are more prevalent in middle schools than in high schools.
  • rural (68%) and suburban (62%) schools are more likely to offer these classes than urban (57%) schools are.
  • African-American students (52%) have less access to multicultural courses than white (63%) or Hispanic (61%) students do.

Students are divided in their opinions on whether their school is placing the right amount of emphasis on multiculturalism. The survey results show that

  • more students (45%) responded that their schools place the right amount of emphasis (as opposed to too little or too much) on multicultural lessons. Many dissatisfied students thought more emphasis was needed.
  • African-American students (34%) were more likely than white (26%) or Hispanic (34%) students to respond that their schools place too little emphasis on multiculturalism.

A majority of students (71%) responded being either very interested or somewhat interested " learning more about holidays and other special events that people in different parts of the world celebrate...." Survey results indicate that

  • more females (78%) than males (63%) surveyed are at least somewhat interested in learning more about cultural events.
  • Hispanic students (38%) and African-American students (32%) are more likely to be very interested than white students (23%) are.

Question: How interested would you be in learning more about the holidays and other special events that people celebrate in different parts of the world -- very interested, somewhat interested, or not very interested?

Very Interested27233238
Somewhat Interested44474139
Not Very Interested24272217
Don't Know5466

"Learning to be tolerant of those who are different from oneself is an important component of lessons on multiculturalism," states one of the survey's generalizations. Students were asked to rate their teachers on how well they teach tolerance. More students (44%) say their teachers do an average job than an above average (26%) or a below average (18%) job.

  • An earlier 1996 Metropolitan Life study (...Violence, Social Tension, and Equality Among Teens) found that "...students are more likely to say students of diverse backgrounds get along well when they also say their teachers do a good job (vs. a bad job) of teaching tolerance."

Students (51%) feel that their schools do a satisfactory job in the area of helping immigrant students learn to speak or improve their English.

  • Although many students responded positively to this question, 31% of students responded that they did not know the answer to this question.

"Students are equally divided on whether or not the teachers in their schools mirror the social and ethnic makeup of the students," states the report. About one third of students did not know. African-American students were more likely to say that teachers do not mirror the ethnic makeup of the students they teach.


Metropolitan Insurance Company's report found the survey's message encouraging. Students are interested in learning more about other people and other cultures. The result of greater emphasis in multicultural education could be greater tolerance among students, fewer negative attitudes, and fewer prejudices with the result being better social relations between students from different cultural backgrounds.

While in print, The Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher 1996: Students Voice Their Opinions On Learning About Multiculturalism is available at no charge from MetLife, The American Teacher Survey, PO Box 807, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159-0807.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World

Related Resources


  • K-12: A Webliography of Multicultural Resources, by Dian Borek, is a site that provides links to multicultural children's literature, multicultural materials online, and multicultural research.
  • The Multicultural Pavilion includes Teacher's Corner, Multicultural Awareness Archives, an On-line Discussion Board, and many other "departments." The Teacher's Corner has "resources for teachers, including reviews of children's music, multicultural activities, and on-line literature archives."
  • A Community Guide to Multicultural Education Programs, by Wendy Schwartz, discusses the importance and types of multicultural education programs. (From the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.)
  • Varieties of Multicultural Education: An Introduction, an ERIC Digest by Gary Burnett, discusses the controversy and policy debate regarding multicultural education; provides research links; and outlines "typologies of multicultural education."