Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why a Culturally Responsive Curriculum Works

By Eugene Butler Jr. — April 05, 2019 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See also: “Academic Benefits of Mexican-American Studies Reaffirmed in New Analysis

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.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Why a Culturally Responsive Curriculum Works

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
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
Families & the Community Webinar
How Whole-Child Student Data Can Strengthen Family Connections
Learn how district leaders can use these actionable strategies to increase family engagement in their student’s education and boost their academic achievement.
Content provided by Panorama Education
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
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
The School to Workforce Gap: How Are Schools Setting Students Up For Life & Lifestyle Success?
Hear from education and business leaders on how schools are preparing students for their leap into the workforce.
Content provided by Find Your Grind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Schools Trying to Prioritize Equity Have Their Work Cut Out for Them, Survey Shows
The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities in education. Practitioners and researchers offer advice on how to move forward.
5 min read
v42 16 sr equity cover intro 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Schools Are Resegregating. There's a Push for the Supreme Court to Consider That
As the court weighs race-conscious college admissions policies, some say the needs of resegregating K-12 schools ought to considered, too.
8 min read
v42 16 sr equity segregation 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Equity Scorecard: Assessing Equity in 4 Critical Areas
Data show a mixed bag when it comes to whether schools are now more equitable than they were pre-pandemic.
v42 16 sr equity bonus 112322
Getty
Equity & Diversity Here's How the Pandemic Changed School Discipline
Students were suspended less frequently but Black, poor, and disabled students were punished at higher rates after the pandemic.
5 min read
v42 16 sr equity discipline 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week