Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion
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
25Hill IMG VS Getty

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

Re 19Hill slug 215x44

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.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Does Cultural Responsiveness Work?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Parents Berating Teachers? Making Decisions Without the Data? Advice for Principals
A year marred by COVID-19 has created new challenges for principals. Here are some answers.
6 min read
Principal Advice SOC
Getty and Vanessa Solis/Education Week
School & District Management Student Mental Health and Learning Loss Continue to Worry Principals
Months into the pandemic, elementary principals say they still want training in crucial areas to help students who are struggling.
3 min read
Student sitting alone with empty chairs around her.
Maria Casinos/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion A Road Map for Education Research in a Crisis
Here are five basic principles for a responsible and timely research agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robin J. Lake
4 min read
Two opposing sides reaching out to work together
J.R. Bee for Education Week
School & District Management 1,000 Students, No Social Distancing, and a Fight to Keep the Virus Out
A principal describes the "nightmare" job of keeping more than 1,000 people safe in the fast-moving pandemic.
4 min read
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School, in West Jordan, Utah.
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan, Utah, would have preferred a hybrid schedule and other social distancing measures.
Courtesy of Dixie Rae Garrison