Don’t Fail Idaho!” pleads a public service announcement that decries the low national rankings of Idaho’s schools and poor college completion rates of its students. According to Idaho’s Go-On program, the state’s educational system ranks 46th out of 50 states in getting students from high school to college. So what’s at the heart of the problem? Education reform has boiled on the front burner of political debates with little accomplished. Amid raging battles over teacher tenure, new Common Core standards and online classes, something crucial has been missed: Idaho’s relative paucity of multicultural curriculum materials and teacher training. This is directly impairing students’ graduation rates, not to mention their ability to thrive in the ever-diversifying world beyond—both white children and students of color. Yet the important issue of diversity education and its central role in student achievement or failure is largely absent from public and legislative discussions in Idaho.

Because teachers can’t teach what they don’t know, this essay will focus on why Idaho’s educational system should provide effective and sufficient diversity training to current and future teachers. Even more importantly, it will stress the negative repercussions of not providing educators with effective and sufficient multicultural curriculum training. Because a significant influx of teachers from diverse backgrounds won’t be joining Idaho’s teacher pool anytime soon, it is important that current teachers, who are mostly white, be given the opportunity to learn and understand the importance of a culturally inclusive curriculum. Training in this area needs to come from knowledgeable higher educational faculty in Idaho, which currently approximates a “blind leading the blind” situation; Idaho’s institutions of higher education face their own diversity challenges.

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna acknowledges that there are plenty of very good teachers in Idaho. Most of them would be willing to incorporate a more diverse curriculum, but first they need to be trained how. This means the State Department of Education and Idaho’s institutions of higher education need to prioritize multicultural pedagogy more highly, including providing more funding.

Idaho’s teacher education programs do contain a smidgen of diversity training, but if Boise State University’s programs are any indication, much of it is channeled into the Bilingual Education specialization. Mainstream elementary and secondary education majors who do not seek out specialized training receive little diversity training. Multicultural information is treated more as a marginal topic for certain teachers destined for certain types of classrooms. Instead, as Idaho’s student population continues to diversify—including the relatively recent influx of refugee students from all over the world, speaking many different languages—it needs to be mainstreamed into lecture halls as standard fare for all educators.

Idaho universities’ involvement in TRiO programs for high-school students has been a boon. TRiO employs people with vast experience working with low-income students of all races—6,700 students a year across the state. They are also generally familiar with how to communicate effectively and motivate these students to successfully seek higher education. But, again, frontline faculty in the state’s teacher colleges should be armed with such skills, too.

Instead, Idaho seems to be cutting corners with teacher education. In 2009, Dennis Cartwright, director of education programs at The College of Idaho, told the Idaho Press-Tribune, “Teaching is much more complex now, but with many of the alternate routes to certification, the state has encouraged putting teachers into classes more quickly, with less preparation, which makes no sense to me.” Less preparation certainly includes sending new teachers who aren’t prepared to meet the needs of diverse student populations into increasingly diverse school districts.


Along with improving teacher training, the State Board of Education could require a more diverse student curriculum. An obvious and essential element must be the U.S. civil rights movement. Idaho is one of several states that does not mandate inclusion of this subject in the curriculum. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in most states, the requirements for teaching about the civil rights movement are “grossly inadequate to nonexistent.” The average score across all states and the District of Columbia was 19 percent, for an average grade of F. As one of 16 states that requires no instruction whatsoever about the civil rights movement, Idaho received a score of 2 percent—one of the lowest F’s possible. Even Mississippi far surpassed this, earning a C.

A legislator’s history lesson

In early 2013, Representative Brent Crane, the son of a former lIdaho’s state treasurer and a Nampa Republican, illustrated the weakness of his own Canyon County education in this regard. While trying to make a states rights argument against collaborating with Obamacare, he tried to use Rosa Parks to make his case. “One little lady got tired of the federal government telling her what to do,” he retorted. In actuality, Parks was protesting a discriminatory city code; indeed the entire civil rights movement was a battle against the use of states rights to justify discrimination.

This is a small yet significant sign of the weak value Idaho places on diversity education for all of its children. Requiring basic knowledge about the civil rights movement would help students make sense of their world and provide students of color in particular with a more direct tie to the course of U.S. history, but more is needed. The history of people of color includes more than slaves, railroad workers and cotton pickers. It is important that both students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds learn that people of color invented the lantern, the stoplight, the fountain pen, the saddle and many other everyday items. They need to know that nonwhite individuals have contributed to medicine, politics, fighting for this country, agriculture and science.

The curriculum isn’t the only area that should be diversified. So, too, should the ranks of educators. Idaho’s institutions of higher learning have very few people of color teaching multicultural diversity courses, not to mention working in any field. A couple of Idaho universities are trying—and succeeding—to recruit faculty of color. The University of Idaho is leading the way. According to Interim President Don Burnett, his faculty includes five African Americans, 19 Hispanic/Latinos, four Native Americans, 52 Asians and 15 others classified as “two or more races.” The U of I’s NCES 2012 report includes 10 Latino, four Native American, 35 Asian and three African American tenured or tenure track faculty. Idaho State University counts three full-time tenure-track or tenured professors who are African American, according to the former human resources director. The state’s largest university, Boise State, denied a public records request for the demographic data, though according to 2012 data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics, Boise State has 14 tenured or tenure-track Latino professors, four Native American, 23 Asian and two black professors. ISU reported only two African Americans on the 2012 NCES, the most recent data available.

Idaho school district diversity

(Map shows percentage of white students in Idaho school districts; hover for detailed data. Full version.)


What happens if Idaho fails to educate children equally? An education system without a culturally inclusive curriculum creates long-term, negative repercussions for all students. For example, Internalized Racial Inferiority occurs when students (generally, people of color) do not learn about positive contributions from members of their own race. Learning simply about internment camps and the massacring of women and children is not enough, for it presents entire populations as nameless, faceless victims without agency. A concurrent repercussion is called Internalized Racial Superiority, which develops when students (typically white people) are taught only about the positive contributions of members of their race. This implants a judgmentalism in some Caucasians that can manifest in simplistic blanket assertions; the most commonly heard may be, “people of color need to emulate what white great-grandparents did when they came to this country: pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. They had no hand-outs.” However, culturally knowledgeable people know that white ancestors did in fact receive help that people of color were rarely allowed to access, including citizenship, the vote, juries of their peers, union jobs, open housing and ready bank loans.

Paul Kivel, a writer, activist and educator, reminds us of the discrimination within federal aid programs after War World II, including the G.I. Bill and Veterans Administration housing and health care programs. “The benefits from these programs were primarily (although not exclusively) available to white men,” Kivel writes on his website. Ira Katznelson, political scientist at Columbia University, goes further in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, illustrating how people of color were systematically boxed out of access to the federal safety net and assistance programs that built the post-war middle class.

The controversial figure of Willie Lynch, father of “lynching,” recognized Internalized Racial Inferiority as early as 1712. In “The Making of a Slave,” Lynch recounts his method for slave owners to dominate and break blacks, arguing that there would be long-lasting psychological repercussions if white slave owners physically and mentally abused their chattel. Similar psychological repercussions are present when Idaho’s educational system fails to take multiculturalism seriously.

And how will Idaho’s white graduates do within America’s increasingly diverse workplaces? They may eventually find themselves at a disadvantage when they cannot, because of internalized racial superiority, communicate effectively with people of color or those from different lands. Perhaps one of the reasons Idaho is 46 out of 50 states in sending high-school students to college has to do with a fear or discomfort white students have of leaving a homogeneous area to participate in higher education.

Why should multicultural diversity courses be taught to teachers? One answer is that people from different cultures use a wide array of communication styles. Many Idaho school districts have multiple languages and cultures represented in their schools. A true multicultural approach to education helps students and teachers to interact more effectively with one another through a variety of communicated methods.

In 2006, my University of Idaho dissertation study tested whether students communicated differently at home than they did in school, where they interacted with predominately white teachers. We worked with 250 Hispanic and white seventh- to 12th-graders from rural Idaho schools where more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Over several weeks, the study taught the students three models of communication. The first was “interactive” (back and forth like playing catch), the second was “transactional” (conversational mode, wherein discussants have the option to interrupt each other), and the third model was “linear” (I talk, you listen, which is associated with a more negative style of communication). Later, students were asked which style(s) they felt their teachers used and which one(s) their families practiced at home.

Thirty-seven percent of the students indicated their teachers—only one of whom was a teacher of color—used linear communication, whereas only 23 percent indicated that linear communication was common at home. The vast majority (77 percent) reported that the more positive interactive and transactional styles of communication were prevalent in their families. These findings suggest these mostly low-income students feel their teachers use linear communication (a more direct and somewhat negative style also used by policemen) more than people in their home and native culture. There’s no doubt that if teachers were trained to understand how important communication styles are to students from diverse backgrounds, both teachers and students would benefit. A teacher’s knowledge of the subject matter means little if the information cannot be communicated effectively to a significant portion of the student population, which may come from different cultures.


How many students of color must there be in a district to warrant a culturally inclusive curriculum? Of the nearly 300,000 K-12 students in Idaho last year, almost 68,000 were Hispanic or students of color, almost 23 percent. According to information from the Idaho Department of Education, eight Idaho school districts are already majority “minority” and many others are into double-digit percentages when it comes to students of color within their school population.


According to the State Department of Education, Idaho’s statewide racial breakdown for students is white: 77.4 percent, black: 1.2 percent, Hispanic: 16.8 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.7 percent, American Indian/Alaskan native: 1.3 percent. Given that the state’s general population is nearly 94 percent white, the generation of school-age kids in Idaho now is considerably more diverse than the cohort of adults currently running the state.

A culturally inclusive curriculum is important to all students, but especially to students of color. A strong sense of identity, self-worth and connection to the history and body politic of their communities and to the nation provides an essential element that can help them break the cycle of generational poverty—a burden many of them face. Without such an education, they may grow to see themselves as inferior to their white counterparts. This is indeed happening for some Idaho students, as evidenced by a recent college-level course that I taught in which two students of color felt their group was at an intellectual disadvantage because everyone involved in their group project was a student of color.

Does an inferiority complex develop within every student of color in Idaho? Of course not, but what percentage is acceptable? Racial inequality in America’s schools was once overt and blatant. Today it more often manifests as ignoring the needs of students from diverse backgrounds and erasing their heritage.

What’s the solution? The state of Idaho and its institutions of higher education should offer quality diversity courses, early and often. These courses should be designed to help prospective educators more effectively teach a culturally inclusive curriculum. There are progressive institutions around the country that already understand what needs to be done. For example, St. Mary’s University, the University of Colorado-Denver and the University of Missouri-Kansas City are among many schools boasting education degrees or certifications in “culturally responsive teaching.” Saint Mary’s also offers a similar online Master of Social Work degree. Geneva Gay, a pioneer in this field, who published an award-winning book on the subject, lists five best teaching practices that are designed to improve the academic success “of ethnically diverse students.” These essentially echo what I’ve discussed above: 1) developing a cultural diversity knowledge base; 2) designing culturally relevant curricula; 3) demonstrating cultural caring and building a learning community; 4) cross-cultural communications; and 5) cultural congruity in classroom instruction (i.e. teaching in a multicultural way). See Gay’s paper here.

The fact that full programs exist with such training implies that teaching diverse students is not intuitive and requires intensive, conscious study and implementation. Sarah Skahan, a white teacher with one of the first such certifications in Minnesota, proclaimed, “It’s transformed my practice.” St. Mary’s developed its special certification because, according to the dean of the university’s Graduate School of Education, “school districts throughout the state were in dire need of teachers who had achievement-gap-closing skills.”

As Idahoans debate how to reform their troubled education system and as community groups plead “Don’t Fail Idaho,” we must look at more than technology, testing and Common Core standards. We need serious discussion about centrally incorporating culturally inclusive material into our teacher preparation and classroom curricula. As one ad for “Don’t Fail Idaho” asserts, “there’s a wide gap between the have and have-not students.” A sizable number of Idaho’s kids, the ad continues, “are falling behind and they never catch up.” A culturally inclusive curriculum can help immensely. Let’s at least make it part of the dialogue.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • joseppi7

    Having grown up in CA with a lot of multicultural curricula I can tell you this is complete nonsense.