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School & District Management Opinion

Culturally Responsive Teaching Is Promising. But There’s a Pressing Need for More Research

Understanding the nature of the impact on students is critical
By Heather C. Hill — March 06, 2020 6 min read
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Culturally responsive teaching, culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally sustaining pedagogy. By any name, it’s a very timely topic, brought into the spotlight by a new wave of recognition that the nation’s schools have failed too many students of color for far too long. Hopes are high that by better grounding education in students’ lives, cultural responsiveness, or just CR, will be the fix we need. As a result, you likely have participated in a CR workshop, used CR materials, or directed your staff to take the CR plunge.

But what do these programs bring to schools? And do they improve students’ experiences and outcomes?

Culturally responsive approaches draw from students’ identities and cultures to reshape traditional teaching and learning. CR aims include:

• Building academic and social-emotional skills;
• Affirming students’ social and cultural histories; and
• Helping students recognize, analyze, and address social inequality and racist policies.

Evidence from descriptive studies, often portraits of teachers expert in CR, suggests that students who spend time in high-quality CR classrooms benefit in several ways."

Teachers in CR classrooms do this work by changing curriculum and pedagogy. For example, they use instructional techniques that reflect ways of learning in students’ home communities and texts from authors linked to familiar people and places. They set academic tasks in students’ everyday activities and encourage students to tackle social issues through carefully structured projects. Ideally, CR programs are shaped locally, with input from families and community members.

A critical part of the pedagogy is the teacher’s connection with students. Studies by Gloria Ladson-Billings, H. Richard Milner IV, Franita Ware, and others have produced rich descriptions of teachers who hold high expectations for students, express commitment to students’ learning, and demonstrate respect for students’ knowledge and agency.

Evidence from descriptive studies, often portraits of teachers expert in CR, suggests that students who spend time in high-quality CR classrooms benefit in several ways. They are more engaged and active learners; they build knowledge of their community’s culture and history; they recognize and respond to inequality.

Many fewer studies, however, assess the effectiveness of programs intended to help educators become expert in CR approaches. Fewer still of those studies meet our series’ criteria for high-quality program evaluation. In that group, the programs being evaluated were either centered on 1. revised curriculum or 2. revised instructional or classroom management methods. As I detail below, evidence of effectiveness is stronger for the first class of programs than the second.

1. Curriculum. One study described an effort to rethink core curriculum along CR lines. In Alaska, researchers worked with Yup’ik teachers and elders to build a mathematics curriculum around the community’s everyday activities and that also incorporated the community’s base 20 mathematical system. After the use of the curriculum in the classroom, 2nd grade students performed better than control-group students on measurement and place-value topics.

About this series

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This essay is the fourth in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so that education decisionmakers can evaluate which policies and practices to implement.

The conveners of this project—Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill—have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.

To suggest other topics for this series or join in the conversation, use #EdResearchtoPractice on Twitter.

Read the full series here.

Other CR programs carve out class time for students to explore their ethnic identity, study racial or ethnic groups, or learn about social movements in U.S. history. Such a curriculum often also features social-emotional skill-building, for example, improving self-regulation and decision-making. Evaluations suggest these curricular programs can be highly effective.

A study by researchers Thomas Dee of Stanford University and Emily Penner of the University of California, Irvine, showed that high school students assigned to an ethnic studies course increased their attendance by 21 percentage points year over year, as compared with a similar group of students not assigned to the course. The study showed equally substantial improvements in earned credits and GPA.

The same authors also studied the African-American Male Achievement program in the Oakland, Calif., public schools, which features a class with cultural, historical, and social-emotional components. Dee and Penner found that the program reduced the one-year high school dropout rate for black males by 43 percent.

In a smaller study, Adriana Umaña-Taylor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education showed that a course exploring students’ ethnic or racial heritage led students to a stronger sense of self-identity—a protective factor in future schooling and professional experiences.

2. Instructional and classroom management methods. Many CR programs focus on changing teachers’ pedagogy or classroom management, but I found only two studies of such programs that met our research standards. A study of one program showed positive impacts on English-learners’ English-language arts test scores, but the program itself lacked many of the pedagogical features that characterize CR approaches.

The remaining evaluation showed that a CR coaching program reduced disciplinary referrals for black students. The coaching program, however, used only teachers already trained to provide behavioral support for students, so whether the result would be the same with teachers who didn’t have the earlier training is unclear.

Despite repeated searching, we found no studies of the broad CR programs that have likely been established in many districts—an introduction to CR philosophy and teaching, with additional time for teachers to collaborate, adapt, and plan pedagogy and curriculum. I find the lack of studies in this area unnerving, especially given district investments of both money and teacher time in CR programs.

The upshot: From the evidence, I feel optimistic about curriculum changes that include ethnic studies and identity development. Done thoughtfully, they can lead to better outcomes for students of color. Because research on efforts to change pedagogy and classroom management is more ambiguous, investing in such programs is riskier for schools.

What’s left to know? A lot.

Clearly, the field has a critical need for more studies of CR programs. We, like many others, emphasize that student outcomes cannot solely (or maybe even at all) be measured by standardized tests. Instead, they must be measured by students’ persistence, well-being, sense of belonging, and hope for the future. Research funders should support studies of the most promising CR innovations and do so quickly.

We also need to know how CR programs can scale up so they can reach thousands of teachers and millions of students. Answering this question is vital. CR approaches require teachers to develop curricula and pedagogies that fit the needs of their students and not simply pull a program from a kit. Such work is difficult, particularly for teachers already stressed by competing demands. The changes to curriculum and pedagogy must avoid stereotypes.

Further, many of the programs with positive results described above used teachers who from the outset were deeply committed to the work. By contrast, equipping a largely white teaching force with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to successfully lead CR classrooms is likely to prove challenging. Many teachers feel uncomfortable discussing ethnicity and social equity, and many do not themselves have deep knowledge of nondominant political and cultural histories.

All this said, I regard carefully designed CR programs as one of the most promising avenues open to educators for improving children’s lives.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Does Cultural Responsiveness Work?

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