A Changing Nation: The Impact of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity on Education

by Kathleen Trail
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XII, Number 2, December 2000, Diversity in Our Schools: New Opportunities for Teaching and Learning

It’s a topic that comes up time and time again when discussing the state of education in the United States: the ever-increasing diversity in our schools and communities. But are the demographics of our nation really so different from what they were 20 years ago — or are we just becoming more aware of other cultures as technology brings the global community into our homes?

Not only has the makeup of the U.S. population changed significantly over the last two decades, the definition of "diversity" itself has undergone a transformation. The concept of diversity has grown to encompass more than just the commonly accepted determinants of ethnicity and race; cultural and socioeconomic factors play a large part in how a person interacts in society. Even the once clearly delineated check boxes of race are blurring. For the first time, the 2000 U.S. Census allowed individuals to indicate more than one race on the form, meaning that people of mixed heritages no longer have to decide which one classification best describes them. All of these changes indicate a shift in the American perspective on diversity. The great American melting pot of the last century no longer exists; we are moving toward a society in which individuality is retained and valued, a cultural mosaic created from millions of unique pieces.

While linguistic and cultural diversity in our classrooms and communities has the potential to enlighten and expand our understanding of both others and ourselves, it also presents challenges, particularly for educators. Without question, the demographic changes in the United States will necessitate some shifts in how we educate our children. This article will look at some of the demographic trends related to linguistic and cultural diversity—across the nation and within SEDL’s region—and will also explore the implications of those statistics for educators.

Beyond the Numbers

Image of children in school cafeteria It is important to note that studies show that the trend toward greater diversity "is strikingly unevenly distributed across the nation" (Hodgkinson 2000). Each region, state, city, district, school, and classroom faces a unique demographic situation. So how can national or even regional statistics help inform educators locally who are facing a different environment of diversity than that portrayed by the national profile? A rural district in Arkansas reported having 2,247 English language learners who spoke 16 different languages; in contrast, Houston Independent School District, the nation’s seventh-largest public school system, served approximately 58,000 English language learners, representing more than 80 languages. Are the issues really the same for an elementary teacher from rural Arkansas as they are for a district administrator in Houston? The answer is yes and no.

Yes, there are common trends for educators throughout SEDL’s region, but those trends can only paint a broad picture—a basis for beginning to understand the issues. Individual educators must appoint themselves as experts in their own districts and schools, working to build awareness and gather information about the impact of diversity that they deal with on a daily basis. Dr. Harold (Bud) Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Demographic Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, says, "teachers and administrators must first understand what kinds of diversity are important to them to understand what has an impact in their schools. In many cases, the race of a student matters less than the country of origin, the parents’ educational level, or the socioeconomic status of a child."

Keeping abreast of the demographics on a local level is crucial for educators to make learning effective. Hodgkinson says, "You can’t just look at the numbers from 1990 and assume those figures are going to be true forever. With over 30 million Americans moving every year —there are five individuals moving to every one birth—diversity in the classroom more is a function of migration, from city to city, state to state, country to country, than a function of who was born in your community. The more specific and the more recent the data, the more helpful it is. Data for the school are better than data for a district, which are better than data for the county, and so on."

Project Increase/Decrease in Number of Children
in SEDL Area States and United States, by Race/Ethnicity, 1997-2005 (in percentages)
  Total Number
of Children
White Black Hispanic Asian/
Arkansas -2 0 -5 -25 12 14
Louisiana 1 -3 6 10 26 -14
New Mexico 14 10 12 14 35 24
Oklahoma -3 -7 16 4 22 1
Texas 7 -1 14 13 31 7
United States 4 -3 8 21 32 6

Source: Kids Count Databook 1999: State Profile of Child Well Being

A Regional View

Picture of Suzanne Ashby
When you’re dealing with culturally and linguistically diverse students, you must work to connect with them on several levels. Communication with them can take time, but they offer an essential perspective that should not be ignored."
—Suzanne Ashby, SEDL program specialist, Language and Diversity Program

In looking at some statistics taken from Kids Count Data Book 1999: State Profiles of Child Well-Being about how race and ethnicity will change for Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (the five states in SEDL’s region), both differences and similarities among the states are apparent.

Several states in SEDL’s region have particularly high concentrations of certain racial and ethnic populations. Among these populations many people are multilingual or are English language learners. Texas, with its large Spanish-speaking population, faces the challenge of finding ways to include native Spanish speakers and their cultures effectively in the classroom and meet their educational needs. Likewise, Oklahoma, home to almost 20% of the American Indian population in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics 2000), faces issues specific to that group of students, such as the impact of troubled historical relations with the federal government affecting American Indian schooling, educational practices that ignore or devalue cultural ways of knowing and learning, and the lack of American Indian teachers.

Reaching a Diverse Population

Many of the linguistic and cultural issues faced by educators in SEDL’s region are mirrored in classrooms throughout the nation. The question of how to integrate the diverse cultures of students effectively in the classroom and curriculum needs to consider more than token gestures. SEDL program associate Pat Guerra comments, "The low academic achievement and high dropout rate of cultural and linguistic minorities in public schools in the United States are well documented. While the cause of these challenges for minority populations remains the source of much debate, a significant body of research points to the need for the inclusion of students' culture in the instructional settings for these populations to succeed." Teachers must work to understand the cultures of their students in a meaningful way, which involves recognizing the beliefs, values, and behaviors that characterize the various cultures of their students. Students themselves can be a valuable resource in learning about a culture. By encouraging children to talk about themselves and their families and building learning experiences around the students’ cultures, teachers can enrich the learning experience of all their students and reinforce the self-esteem of the individual student.

Picture of Pat Guerra

The low academic achievement and high dropout rate of cultural and linguistic minorities in public schools in the United States are well documented. While the cause of these challenges for minority populations remains the source of much debate, a significant body of research points to the need for the inclusion of students' culture in the instructional settings for these populations to succeed.
—Pat Guerra,
SEDL program associate,
Organizing for Diversity Project

Increasing the pool of minority teachers is another effective way of reaching culturally and linguistically diverse students. Minority teachers can serve as cultural intermediaries, connecting more immediately with students who might otherwise disengage. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (1987), "A quality education requires that all students be exposed to a variety of cultural perspectives that represent the nation at large. Such exposures can be accomplished only via a multi-ethnic teaching force in which racial and ethnic groups are included at a level of parity with their numbers in the population." This is a lofty goal, given the current disparity between the two groups, but many teacher preparation programs are working to encourage higher minority enrollment and districts across the nation are actively recruiting minority teachers.

Students with specific language needs require quality minority language programs to ensure educational equity. This issue must be addressed on several fronts: teacher preparation programs, school policies, and professional development opportunities are three main areas that affect the availability and quality of minority language programs. Only a few teacher preparation programs currently emphasize skills in teaching minority language students as a part of their standard curriculum; however, most teachers will at some point work with students who require them to have these skills. On the local level, many schools are faced with insufficient or underdeveloped programs for their minority language students. Also, professional development for teachers should include training on skills for teaching minority language students — not just for teachers who head these programs, but for every teacher. Each of these areas will grow to address the linguistic needs of these students only if teachers, administrators, education majors, parents, community members, policymakers, and others work to educate others about the necessity for the resources for these students.

The Culture of Poverty

"There is a strong need for effective teachers of language minority students. Teacher preparation programs have a long way to go in this area, but many are beginning to emphasize the necessary skills as part of their standard curriculum."
—Joel Dworin, SEDL program associate, Language and Diversity Program

Perhaps the most significant trend in the diversification of the United States today is economic segregation: According to one source, "Racial desegregation has achieved only limited success, in part because the economic changes that were supposed to follow school desegregation did not occur. America is now most importantly divided along economic and educational lines rather than race" (Hodgkinson 2000). Southern states have some of the highest rates of children living in poverty.

In 2000, the Annie E. Casey Foundation also ranked the five states in the bottom third when measuring the status of children’s well-being, which is based on a combination of such factors as teen birth rate, child death rate, and percentage of high school dropouts. At-risk children are often unable to participate fully in the educational process, simply because they are facing issues much more complex than the multiple-choice questions on a math test. Another danger with at-risk students is that they are sometimes set apart in the minds of teachers and others who view them as "deficient" because they don’t fit the system. Educators must instead work to find where the system is deficient in meeting the needs of these students.

Although statistics of poverty seem to parallel many of the racial and ethnic demographics, there are other, perhaps more important, factors that help determine socioeconomic status, such as the educational level and marital status of a child’s parents. "Regardless of race or ethnicity, poor children are much more likely than nonpoor children to suffer developmental delay and damage, to drop out of high school, and to give birth during the teen years" (Payne 1998). Poverty functionally lessens access to mainstream culture, creating obstacles to learning in an education system that is based on middle-class norms.

Educators across the nation must work to break through the barriers erected by poverty. The educational and social opportunities of children are consistently subverted by this single factor. Although schools cannot be responsible for every aspect of their students’ well-being, there must be an awareness of and attempt to find creative responses that will allow students to benefit as much as possible from classroom instruction. Often, this means going outside the school for support and solutions to administrators, experts, families, and community members. A broad-based approach offers the greatest hope for getting to the heart of the problems and finding long-term solutions.

Compared with the 1997 national average of 20% of children under 18 living in poverty, each of the states in SEDL’s region had dramatically higher percentages (Annie E. Casey Foundation 1999):

New Mexico 29 percent Oklahoma 25 percent Texas 26 percent Louisiana 30 percent Arkansas 26 percent National Average 20 percent

Picture of children eating

Knowledge is Power

The adage that there is strength in diversity holds true for education. By supporting diversity in our classrooms, we are teaching our children not only to value differences in others, but to value the differences in themselves. Exposing students to many languages, cultures, classes, and people prepares them for a world that is becoming more diverse every day. In a speech Secretary of Education Richard Riley gave in Washington in March, he spoke about diversity and its impact on education:

"My work with various school districts in the region has consistently shown poverty to be a barrier to opportunity for growth among children and their families."
—Rosanna Boyd, SEDL program specialist, Southeast Comprehensive Assistance Center
Houston Elementary School, Austin, Texas

We are already the most diverse nation in the world — and we have never been static in our diversity. But these kinds of demographic changes will involve almost every aspect of our society and require us to think still more creatively about the future. Communities across the nation . . . are being transformed by the changing population. Dealing with this change requires creative thinking and an eagerness to adapt and to incorporate cultural and linguistic differences into the learning process. There are no simple solutions. . . . The good news is that the understanding of what is required is growing. . . . A new paradigm for how to achieve this goal is on the horizon — a model focused on the assets of this community, rather than on the deficits (Riley 2000).

"Saber es poder" — knowledge is power. This maxim goes to the core of what diversity has to offer. Knowledge about how our world is changing allows us to overcome stereotypes and rise to meet the challenge of providing a high-quality education for every child in America.

The Shifting Landscape of the Nation

By the year 2025, it is predicted that the population of the United States will be 21% black and 15% Hispanic (Marks 1998), compared with today's population, which is approximately 16% black and 8% Hispanic.

—U.S. Census Bureau, 2000

The number of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools increased by 61% from 1987-88 to 1995-96, the highest growth rate of any ethnic group. The black student population increased by 16% and other minority groups increased by 49%. White students represent the lowest growth rate—only 3% during that same time period.

—Texas Education Agency 1998

One-fifth of U.S. children under age 18 either are immigrants or members of an immigrant family.

—Coles 2000

Since 1980, the number of minority students enrolled in public education has been rising while the number of minority teachers has been falling. Minority students now make up nearly 30% of the elementary and secondary school-age population, while the number of minority teachers has fallen from 11.7% to 10.3% during the past fifteen years.

—Donnelly 1998


  • Annie E. Casey Foundation (1999). Kids Count Data Book 1999: State Profiles of Child Well-Being. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
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  • American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (September 1987). Minority teacher recruitment and retention: A call for action. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
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