Is there a need for a culturally responsive curriculum in today’s diverse school districts? Well, just like with all things in this complex petri dish called public education, it depends on who you ask. Every learner deserves and has the right to receive a quality and equitable education. However, the delivery of that education must be contingent upon the needs of the students. Needless to say, the academic bar should be raised for all pupils regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status.
A large body of literature strongly supports what I have observed throughout my own career: Culturally responsive instruction has a positive impact on the academic outcomes of minority students.
For students to become and remain actively engaged in their learning experiences, there must be high-interest material that reflects their lives.
In the foundational 2000 book Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, researcher Geneva Gay defined culturally responsive teaching as “using cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective.” This approach teaches to and through the strength of the students, thus empowering them to take ownership of their learning.
In culturally responsive classrooms, the classroom climate is a safe haven characterized by respect and care. Teachers establish trusting relationships that allow all students to take risks and to challenge the perspectives of others, including the teacher.
Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will ensure academic success for any sub-group of students, but persistent disparities in the national graduation rate indicate that the current curricular approaches do not provide an equitable education for all learners.
To address these gaps, public, charter, and private schools in America must become culturally proficient learning centers. For students to become and remain actively engaged in their learning experiences, there must be high-interest material that reflects their lives. It is just as important for students in the majority population to be provided with a broader scope of literature and history outside of their experiences.
Waiting only for a specific month of the year to discuss contributions or sacrifices by Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African-Americans signals to students that those efforts were second-tier accomplishments. This inadvertently undermines the purpose of celebrating the aforementioned accomplishments.
As a middle school teacher in 1989, my colleagues and I first began utilizing what I would later learn to be culturally responsive instruction by infusing high-interest reading material into the district’s regular English/language arts curriculum. We began including prose, essays, and novels by diverse authors in our lesson plans, and required students to write letters to those historical figures. Other teachers I worked with began requiring students to use graphic organizers to compare and contrast their lives with an author, inventor, or scientist of a different race or gender.
Science, mathematics, and elective teachers can also be instrumental, by embedding historical facts in the curriculum related to minorities who had made major contributions in their respective fields. Those practices allow learners to understand that they had many traits, characteristics, experiences, and goals in common with yesterday’s heroes. More importantly, students begin to internalize that they, too, could be successful if they remain focused, work diligently, and keep their eye on the prize.
Years later, I saw how culturally relevant instruction could boost achievement on a districtwide scale, while serving as the director for middle schools and later the assistant superintendent for student support services in Tucson Unified School District. After the district introduced culturally relevant courses, graduation rates and standardized test scores measurably improved for some students who took the aforementioned courses.
Schools of education also have a part to play, by placing a greater emphasis on integrating culturally responsive and relevant coursework in the curricula used to prepare future teachers. It is unfair and almost impossible for educators in K-12 education systems to effectively infuse this pedagogy into their learning communities without appropriate training. Furthermore, most administrators and instructional coaches are not well versed on this curriculum framework, leaving many teachers without a solid foundation of the underpinnings and expected outcomes.
I submit that K-12 practitioners must receive hands-on experience during their student-teaching internships and participate in personal observations of this best practice while enrolled in college. Local college of education professors should also provide annual districtwide in-service training to all instructional and administrative staff, including the school board and the superintendent to ensure buy-in and commitment at the highest level.
Embedding culturally responsive instruction in the comprehensive curriculum yields positive learning outcomes for many minority students. Ultimately, it is imperative that the instructional and school leaders have high expectations for all learners in the building.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Why a Culturally Responsive Curriculum Works