The Representation of Social Groups in U.S. Education Materials and Why it Matters

A Research Brief
Feb. 16, 2022


This brief summarizes a recent report that synthesizes more than 160 studies to explore the connection between culturally responsive materials and learning, and to assess the frequency and portrayal of different racial, ethnic, and gender groups within printed and digital educational media. Findings suggest there is disparity in representation of characters from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. When portrayals of these groups are present, they tend to be affirming. However, stereotypes, limited roles, and inaccurate information are still present and tend to be unique to specific communities. The results of the synthesis indicate a need for educational materials that create a sense of belonging, develop cultural authenticity, and recognize nuanced identity in different characters. This brief concludes with questions to prompt reflection for three audiences: (1) education leaders, curriculum specialists, and coaches, (2) designers and developers of educational materials, and (3) families.

Why Do Culturally Responsive Materials Matter?

Culturally responsive education, when done well, is designed to (1) make all students feel they are a part of the educational community, (2) support all students in becoming engaged learners, (3) build students’ accurate knowledge of diverse people and their awareness of different perspectives, and (4) use students’ existing knowledge and experiences as bridges to new content.

Rudine Sims Bishop [1] established the concept of mirrors, windows, and sliding doors to describe children’s experiences with literature. “Mirrors” are materials that make connections with students’ own daily experiences and “windows” are materials that expose students to other contexts and cultures, and help them acknowledge and appreciate diverse cultures. The result is enhanced student engagement and more active and improved learning. Beverly Faircloth’s 2012 study [2], for example, showed that when the educator included literature with characters that mirrored the students demographically, culturally, and experientially, students were more positively engaged with the content and more likely to complete their assignments.

In the 2015 book More Mirrors in the Classroom [3], the authors demonstrate how texts that are “mirrors” allow students to use their existing cultural knowledge, which includes language, social contexts, and individuals’ responses. This can reduce cognitive load as students learn information and can improve reading comprehension. Additional studies indicate that culturally responsive materials enhance students’ participation, attentiveness to details and assignment qualities, and positive response to content.

Culturally responsive education uses "the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them." - Geneva Gay

Culturally responsive education materials also expose students to new ideas and different perspectives, help develop their confidence as learners, and enable them to discover relevance to characters and experiences that may not be reflective of their daily circumstances. One study found that while high school students value having their culture and experiences reflected in the characters and stories of materials, they also want to learn about people who have different circumstances, perspectives, and cultures. [4]

Additionally, educational materials indirectly teach students about language, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and cross-cultural knowledge. They inform students about what society expects of them and others based on social identity markers and how society values them based on these markers. This aspect of materials is defined as “societal curriculum” and can influence children’s development of their own racial-ethnic and gender group identity as well as their understanding of different races, ethnicities, and genders.

In her 2018 book, Geneva Gay explains culturally responsive teaching in a asset-based approach that uses "the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them." [5]

How Prevalent are Different Social Groups in Educational Materials?

1. There are notable disparities in representation by race and ethnicity.

Several content analyses have indicated that, in children’s literature, White characters are presented in books significantly more than characters of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities (i.e., African American, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, Hispanic, Latinx [6], Alaskan Native, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Middle Eastern).

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2019 examination [7] of the frequency of children’s books by and about BIPOC individuals published in the U.S. found that of the 3,717 books they received from U.S. publishers, 12 percent were about Black people or those of African descent; 8.8 percent were about Asians; 0.13 percent were about Pacific Islanders; 6.3 percent were about Latinx individuals; 1.2 percent were about Indigenous people; and 0.86 percent were about Arabs. Similarly, Melanie Koss and Kathleen Paciga’s 2020 study [8] found that the percentage of primary race/ethnic groups in 70 percent of award-winning books were White, while the representation of BIPOC race/ethnicity in these books ranged from 9 to 1 percent. If Koss and Paciga’s findings are compared with entire population demographics from the 2020 U.S. Census population, there is a disparity in racial and ethnic representation, as indicated in Figure 1.

Studies of health and history textbooks have shown White people are featured in at least half or more (in some cases more than 80 percent) of images, pictorials, and illustrations. BIPOC representation made up the other half (or less than), with some racial/ethnic groups featured as infrequently as one percent.[9] A study of classroom and school posters [10] for purchase on websites found that only 13 percent of these were likely to be racially inclusive.

2. Gender representation has become more balanced but remains binary.

Many studies of educational materials typically examine gender from a female/male binary perspective, though there are a few studies that recognize gender diversity. Scholars have indicated a gender disparity in character representation and limited representation of female characters.

Lenore T. Weitzman and colleagues’ seminal study on 1967–1971 [11] award-winning and runner-up children’s books revealed there were 11 times as many illustrated human males featured than females. Studies since then indicate an increase in female, human representation. Additional studies note the fluctuation of gender representation in books (Figure 2).

Koss and Paciga’s 2020 study of award-winning books revealed 97 percent of them included male and female characters and no instances of nonbinary representation. [12] Scholars who have investigated LGBTQ-themed books found that 14 percent of primary characters in those books were transgender and 21 percent of secondary characters in those books were transgender people. [13]

A 2018 study of health textbooks found that women were represented slightly more than men, whereas a study of educational TV programs showed males were represented at a higher rate than females. Research of educational software conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s revealed that males are presented more often than females, with one finding showing that gender disparity increased from preschool to twelfth grade. [14]

3. When examining the intersection [15] of race, ethnicity, and gender, BIPOC characters are more likely to be male, and females are more likely to be White.

Research findings indicate it is more likely for intersectional characters to be racially and ethnically White than any other group. Studies of children’s texts found that BIPOC characters were more likely to be male than female.

How and How Often Are Social Groups Portrayed in Educational Materials?

1. Racial and ethnic stereotypes and limited portrayals are frequent.

Several scholars examine depictions of characters from multiple racial and ethnic groups. In a 2018 study, Krista Aronson and colleagues analyzed 1,037 picture books that feature BIPOC characters and found five common themes in these books: (1) culturally specific experiences, (2) everyday settings and situation, (3) biographies, (4) folklore, and (5) experiences of oppression. [16] They analyzed the frequency of racial and ethnic representation within those themes as shown in Figure 3 and noted in some themes White characters were featured more often than Native American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, or biracial characters.

Studies of textbooks have identified problematic images of racial, ethnic and gender groups and a “heroes and holiday” cultural approach, focusing on celebration and historical figures. In analyses of educational games, some software feature diverse characters in a variety of roles while other software depict stereotypes.

Other scholars analyzed portrayals of one racial/ethnic group in-depth and identified patterns of narrow [17] and problematic portrayals and recommendations of promising and positive depictions, summarized in Table 1.

Additionally, scholars have noted inaccurate or misleading portrayals and information about racial and ethnic groups, particularly in their inclusion in or exclusion from historical texts and stories of their social contributions. In some cases, they have been erased from events and stories.

2. While female portrayal is more varied, gender is still binary.

Early studies of children’s literature revealed that roles and portrayals of female characters were often limited to “traditional” activities, such as women preparing food, and girls helping mothers, pleasing or serving their brothers, shopping, or playing with dolls. Findings from research conducted in 2011, 2015, and 2020 indicate female characters in children’s books were likely to be portrayed as passive, dependent, submissive, and nurturing. As main characters, they may appear as a stay-at-home parent and housekeeper, but also a spunky person, or someone enjoying a career as a scientist, countering earlier portrayals. Nonbinary characters may perform a skill or action and be portrayed as a hero or valuable so that their gender identity becomes less problematic for the story’s characters.

Scholars have studied textbooks published from the 1950s to early 2000s and indicated that female portrayals have broadened over time, with an increase in mentions of their participation in and contributions to American history. At the same time, women may be presented in minor roles and excluded. Studies of educational software reveal a variation, with female characters depicted as dependent and with passive stereotype traits in some accounts and as adventurous, active, and dominant in others. And in subjects areas, like math, scholars have indicated the lack of diverse gender groups, such as transgender people and gender nonbinary people, and their contributions to the field.

3. More research is needed on intersection of gender, race and/or ethnicity.

Scholars who study characters who represent a combination of gender and racial or ethnic identities indicate they may reflect portrayals that are common to females or unique to a particular racial and ethnic group. In some cases, these portrayals may be limiting or problematic, such as Arab women being overweight or secondary in the scene and Latinx and Hispanic female characters defined by traditional female behavior. In other instances, portrayals may be affirming, such as countering the negativity often associated with Black hair and showing characters taking care of it. Studies indicate a lack of research and representation of intersectional characters whose gender identity is nonbinary.

What Do These Findings Mean for Practice?

This research review shows the need for educational materials to:

  • Create a sense of belonging. A fuller story of the U.S., its people, and its demographic subgroups is needed. For students to affirm they are part of learning environments and communities, demographic subgroups need to be woven into American history curricula and represented in educational materials.
  • Develop cultural authenticity. Several of the studies noted the cultural background of content creators and whether that background was the same as that of the primary characters. When choosing and developing educational materials, examine not just the characters and activities but also the creator's ability to authentically represent complex depictions.
  • Recognize nuanced identity. Details of stories, such as interactions and relationships between characters, names, clothing, and variation within groups, are important. Presenting character details can support students in identifying, relating, and connecting to a variety of careers, disciplines, and hobbies.

The research suggests that a lack of representation and narrow and stereotypical portrayals create missed opportunities for all students, preventing them from fully understanding how various racial, ethnic, and gender groups have been a part of and are a part of the American narrative. It creates missed opportunities to present mirrors to students as well as windows.

The incorporation of culturally responsive education materials not only supports students’ understanding of self and peers, but it enhances their connection to learning and expands their imagination and awareness of what is possible.

Questions for educators and education leaders, curriculum specialists, and coaches:

  • Does the vetting system of educational and instructional materials include character and social group representations reflective of the American people?
  • How are library and classroom materials selected? How are group representations and America's history, current events, and society presented in these materials reviewed?
  • Are there opportunities to discuss curriculum content and research regarding representation and learning and generate suggestions and ideas to inform pedagogical practices?
  • Are there resources for culturally responsive education professional development and time to implement strategies developed from professional development?
  • Is there a curated database or crowdsourced list of culturally responsive open educational resources educators can use? If so, do these materials align with learning goals, objectives, and standards? Do they support student engagement? Are they accessible on different devices? If a database or list does not exist, are there plans to develop them?

Questions for designers and developers of education materials:

  • Is content, particularly if historical, presented from different perspectives and experiences?
  • Are social groups presented in a variety of roles, beyond the limitations and narrow depictions typically associated with them?
  • Does the content present a fuller and broader understanding of America's history, current events, society and people?
  • Is there an evaluation process for social group representation during the development of materials?
  • Does your team revisit and review published materials to identify patterns of potentially narrow and problematic portrayals and/or promising and positive depictions?

Questions for families:

  • What types of educational materials are available and where are they located?
  • Is there a balance of “windows” and “mirrors” in characters and stories found in educational and instructional materials?
  • Do the educational and instructional materials present different social groups authentically, in nuanced ways, and engaged in a variety of fields and learning environments? Are there multiple positive and promising portrayals of different social groups?
  • Does the educational content provide different perspectives and narratives of American people and his(her)their stories?
  • Are the authors and content producers representative of the full spectrum of American people?
  • Are there supplementary materials available and are they accessible?


[1] Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6, no. 3 (Summer 1990),

[2] Beverly S. Faircloth, “‘Wearing a Mask’ vs. Connecting Identity with Learning,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 37, no. 3 (July 2012): 186–194,;

[3] Jane Fleming, Susan Catapano, Candace M. Thompson, and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, More Mirrors in the Classroom: Using Urban Children’s Literature to Increase Literacy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[4] Mary Amanda Stewart, Katie Walker, and Carol Revelle, “Learning from Students: What, Why, and How Adolescent English Learners Want to Read and Write,” Texas Journal of Literacy Education 6, no. 1 (Summer 2018): 23–40,

[5] Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3rd ed. (New York: Teachers College, 2018).

[6] Similar to the U.S. Census, this section uses both terms. Some scholars and organizations may use these terms interchangeably. Others note distinctions: Hispanics refer to people from Spain or Latin American Spanish-speaking countries and Latinx are from the Latin American region. For more information, see Mark Hugo Lopez, Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Jeffrey S. Passel, “Who is Hispanic?” September 23, 2021, Pew Research Center,

[7] Data set on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison, last updated April 16, 2021,

[8] Melanie D. Koss and Kathleen A. Paciga “Diversity in Newbery Medal-Winning Titles: A Content Analysis,” Journal of Language & Literacy Education 16, no. 2 (Fall 2020): 1 - 38,

[9] Sherry L. Deckman, Ellie Fitts Fulmer, Keely Kirby, Katharine Hoover, and Abena Subira Mackall, “Numbers Are Just Not Enough: A Critical Analysis of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Elementary and Middle School Health Textbooks,” Educational Studies 54, no. 3 (January 2018): 285–302,; and Bárbara C. Cruz, “Don Juan and Rebels under Palm Trees: Depictions of Latin Americans in US History,” Critique of Anthropology 22, no. 3 (September 2002): 323–342,

[10] Matthew C. Graham, Allison Ivey, Nicholette DeRosia, and Makseem Skorodinsky, “Education for Whom? The Writing Is on the Walls,” Equity & Excellence in Education 53, no. 4 (November 2020): 551–568,

[11] Lenore J. Weitzman, Deborah Eifler, Elizabeth Hokada, and Catherine Ross, “Sex-Role Socialization in Picture Books for Preschool Children,” American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 6 (May 1972): 1125–1150,

[12] Koss and Paciga, “Diversity in Newbery Medal-Winning Titles,” 14.

[13] John H. Bickford III, “Examining LGBTQ-Based Literature Intended for Primary and Intermediate Elementary Students,” The Elementary School Journal 118, no. 3 (March 2018): 409–425,

[14] Kelly K. Chappell, “Mathematics Computer Software Characteristics with Possible Gender-Specific Impact: A Content Analysis,” Journal of Educational Computing Research 15 no. 1 (July 1996): 25–35,; Deanne E. Drees and Gary D. Phye, “Gender Representation in Children’s Language Arts Computer Software,” The Journal of Educational Research 95, no. 1 (September/October 2001): 49– 55,; and Jane P. Sheldon, “Gender Stereotypes in Educational Software for Young Children,” Sex Roles 51, no. 7/8 (October 2004): 433–444,

[15] “Intersectionality” is a term coined by Black Feminist scholars to describe the multiple identities of a person and how those identities are interconnected and impact a person’s experiences and oppressions based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc. For further information, see Patricia H. Collins, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); and Sumi Cho, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall, “Intersectionality: Theorizing Power, Empowering Theory,” Signs 38, no. 5 (Summer 2013), 785–810

[16] Krista Maywalt Aronson, Brenna D. Callahan, and Anne Sibley O’Brien, “Messages Matter: Investigating the Thematic Content of Picture Books Portraying Underrepresented Racial and Cultural Groups,” Sociological Forum 33, no. 1 (March 2018): 165–185,

[17] Narrow portrayals do not equate to being negative. Rather, they are portrayals scholars noted that certain racial and ethnic groups are commonly limited to certain portrayals and roles.

This report brief is a summary of a research overview, The Representation of Social Groups in U.S. Education Materials and Why it Matters. It is part of New America’s Teaching, Learning & Tech’s efforts to understand how educators and other professionals can use new media and technologies to promote more equitable systems of learning, from pre-K through 12th grade and into the postsecondary years.

Other resources include New America’s 2020 guide to culturally responsive education and LGBTQ-inclusive teaching report which presents recommendations for practice.

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