Equity & Diversity

Researchers Find Need for More High Quality, Culturally Relevant Curriculum

By Ileana Najarro — September 25, 2023 5 min read
Collage of a young student reading a book.
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Do teachers need to choose between instructional materials being high quality or culturally relevant and responsive?

That is a subtext in many debates about school curriculum. (See the conversation over young adult literature, for starters.) But it shouldn’t even be a question, according to a new report from The Education Trust, an advocacy and research organization. Instructional materials, the group says, must be both to best serve students.

Researchers behind the report created a tool designed to analyze the degree to which children’s grade school books present a balance of complex representation of people, cultures, and topics. Then, they used the tool to analyze a sample of 300 K-8 children’s books selected from five national curricula rated as high quality by EdReports, an organization that evaluates curricula based on alignment with college and career readiness standards and other indicators of quality.

The researchers contend that many of the materials lack a balance of complex representation that could better prepare students to navigate the world around them. They also provided recommendations on how publishers and educators can improve upon what texts are offered to students.

Why instructional materials should be culturally relevant

The tool the researchers created asks introspective questions such as “do historically marginalized people have agency?” Texts they reviewed could have cases in which a historically marginalized person makes major decisions or takes actions with consequences for others. Other texts didn’t even include characters with historically marginalized identities.

For more on The Education Trust's tool see this downloadable

Image of an open book, and a hand drawing a character of the content.
Canva

Using those benchmarks, the researchers concluded:

  • White authors and characters were far more prevalent than authors and characters of any other race or ethnicity.
  • Almost half of the people of color centered in the books studied were one-dimensional, portrayed negatively, or did not have agency.
  • When books included groups and cultures of color, they often promoted stereotypes, disconnected culture from individual people, or portrayed that group as less than or unequal to others.
  • When historical and social topics were included, they were almost always sanitized, told through a singular perspective, or disconnected from structural realities.

Tanji Reed Marshall, co-author of the report and former director of P-12 practice at The Education Trust, said the findings didn’t surprise her.

“I think what was bothersome … is the limited representation of people of color, of cultures holistically, and the ways in which important topics are just completely sanitized,” she said. “They really have this kind of intellectual condescension towards small and young children.”

Topics such as racism and climate change were often taken out of their systemic contexts and portrayed as the responsibility of individuals to fix. For instance, some intimated that the idea that individual students participating in recycling would solve the climate crisis.

Students can grapple with complexity in an age-appropriate way, with the right teaching and support, Reed Marshall added.

“We have to help students understand that they sit in a larger body in a larger community of actors. And you can say very simply, there are individual ways in which pollution can be addressed, as well as larger waves,” she said. “You can help students understand that, yes, as an individual, I have a responsibility. But there are other organizations who are equally as responsible; there is no binary.”

In a report published in 2022, EdReports found that while a large number of educators saw the benefits of culturally relevant education in terms of students’ improved grades, critical thinking skills, and graduation rates, less than a quarter of teachers described their curriculum as adequate for providing culturally relevant instruction.

Generally speaking, culturally responsive teaching, an approach coined by researcher Geneva Gay, means using students’ varying customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.

How to work on diversifying instructional materials

Over the years, EdReports has included more information about texts in its curricular reviews and the dimensions of how they cover topics such as representation to help educators know which texts to select and why, said Courtney Allison, chief academic officer at EdReports.

“In the current political climate, we’ve made a decision that we actually want to integrate that information alongside information about standards about grade level content, and then really point to texts that are either showing good depictions and complexity or maybe not,” Allison said.

To aid in this work of examining the complexity of representation in instructional materials, Allison said she hopes to see publishers themselves include more information about the texts and the dimensions of those texts as part of the materials they submit for review.

EdReports is also in the process of revising its tools, in part to expand upon a primer it published in 2021 providing clarity on terminology for curriculum decisionmakers in states and districts. For instance, in its primer, EdReports uses the term “culturally-centered theories and models of instruction” or CCTM as an umbrella term to refer collectively to terms such as cultural responsiveness, cultural relevance, anti-racist teaching, and abolitionist teaching.

In their new report, researchers at The Education Trust offer general recommendations for making sure high-quality instructional materials are culturally relevant and responsive:

  • Challenge dominant norms and singular perspectives. “You cannot meet the standards or exceed the standards, if you continue to put in front of children texts that have a single perspective,” Reed Marshall said.
  • Work with publishers and educators to expand definitions of cultural relevance. This includes publishers who create curriclum and publishers working with children’s book authors.
  • Ask a new set of questions about representation. For instance, what kind of representations are put on pages for children to learn from? Is it mostly animal characters, rather than humans?

Additional recommendations include:

  • Consider how texts sit in conversation with one another.
  • Expand educator choice in curated materials.
  • Provide professional learning to all curriculum decisionmakers, including authors and developers.

Reed Marshall and her colleague William Rodick, a P-12 practice lead at The Education Trust, also say their tool can be used to evaluating complex representation in texts. It was developed from a deep review of literature on representation and other tools that exist, as well as through discussions with curriculum publishers, Rodick said.

“There are many, many decision points before that book is in front of a student. So we have a lot of education to do along that pathway,” Rodick said.

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