How Laws on Race, Sexuality Could Clash With Culturally Responsive Teaching

By Ileana Najarro — April 21, 2022 7 min read
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Culturally responsive teaching and critical race theory are not the same thing. But laws banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, and other related efforts, could spell out logistical challenges and questions for educators engaging in culturally responsive work.

Culturally responsive teaching, a pedagogy coined in 2000, uses students’ customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction. It involves contextualizing issues within race, class, ethnicity, and gender and helping students develop critical consciousness, where they are empowered to critique and analyze societal inequities.

Some politicians have conflated that teaching approach with the academic concept known as critical race theory, researchers said. That concept’s core idea is that race is a social construct, and racism is not only the product of individual bias or prejudice but is also embedded in policies and systems. Since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or made other efforts to restrict teaching critical race theory in schools, and, more broadly, limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in class. Seventeen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues as of April 14.

Here are three ways recent restrictions on teaching about issues of race and sexuality can potentially impact the work of culturally responsive educators.

Limiting resources through book bans

Culturally responsive teachers have classrooms full of books featuring characters and images that represent a variety of ages, genders, ethnicities, and other types of diversity to help students better see themselves and their communities in what they read.

For instance, when schools host a mothers’ lunch event, but a student has two dads, “having a book in the classroom that looks like your family really is affirming,” said Teddi Beam-Conroy, an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington.

But a new report by PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, found that between July 2021 and March 2022, more than 1,100 unique book titles were banned in schools across the country. Many of these books either featured protagonists of color, were explicitly about LGBTQ topics or featured LGBTQ protagonists, or addressed race and racism. Parents and community members have complained such books contain explicit or inappropriate content and administrators have preemptively pulled books to avoid controversy and publicity, according to the report.

In Florida last year, publishers of mathematics instructional materials were advised not to incorporate “unsolicited strategies” in textbooks including culturally responsive teaching. That led to a rejection of more than 50 math textbooks from next school year’s curriculum.

Bans can make it harder for a school to be culturally responsive because teachers can no longer provide—nor, in some cases, easily point to—the very resources used to help students see reflections of themselves and their lives, said Fabienne Doucet, the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

Yet students of color and LGBTQ-identifying students are still living out their lives and seeking to speak about their experiences despite bans on the books that reflect that, Doucet added.

Confusion around teacher training, professional development

All states include some combination of culturally responsive teaching competencies into their professional teaching standards, according to a 2019 analysis by the think tank New America, though to what degree they are incorporated can vary.

Most teacher-preparation programs have also incorporated culturally responsive teaching into their courses, experts said.

Yet Doucet has heard from colleagues in teacher education programs across the country that when there are talks around culturally responsive teaching, questions come up about whether those going into the teaching profession in states with anti-critical race theory laws could actually practice that or if they’re even allowed to use those words.

Should the term culturally responsive teaching end up banned from schools or the practice dissuaded, there’s concern that schools may lose a retention lever for teachers of color who see culturally responsive teaching as a way to both affirm their own identities in the classroom and their students’ identities, said Beam-Conroy in Washington state.

“Our base for teacher preparation does have a component of cultural responsiveness,” Beam-Conroy said. “And so, what do we do with that, if we’re asked not to do that—not to teach our prospective teachers or our pre-service teachers to think about who they are and think about who the kids are in their classrooms?”

In Virginia,“culturally responsive teaching and equitable practices” is one of the eight performance standards by which teachers are evaluated. It means that a teacher “demonstrates a commitment to equity and provides instruction and classroom strategies that result in culturally inclusive and responsive learning environments and academic achievement for all students.” This standard was put in place as a result of 2021 legislation requiring that evaluations include cultural competency.

On Jan. 15 this year , in his first executive order, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, ordered state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to identify and address “inherently divisive concepts like critical race theory and its progeny” in public education.

As a result “Superintendent Balow rescinded web content, videos, and other resources developed under her predecessor to promote now-discontinued department initiatives,” said Charles B. Pyle, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education.

That included the department’s EdEquityVA website and its culturally responsive section, with one basis being “the resources contain concepts that may be divisive and need to be reviewed in stakeholders,” according to Balow’s interim report to both Youngkin and state Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera.

However, Pyle added that “the discontinued initiatives did not include standards and guidance mandated by statute or regulation.”

Complicating critical consciousness

Legislation commonly known as anti-critical race theory laws often cite the prohibition of teaching “divisive concepts” in classrooms such as that one race or sex is superior to others.

Culturally responsive teaching is precisely teaching that there is no inherent superiority in any group, said Beam-Conroy. It’s a response to how for years schools have operated as though anything outside of the heterosexual, nuclear, white family is an aberration. It instead teaches that all different types of families and identities are part of the norm.

A key component of culturally responsive teaching is developing students’ critical consciousness, which involves raising awareness of power in society, how it operates, how it creates hierarchies, and so on.

The concern Doucet and Beam-Conroy share is that, due to these anti-critical race theory laws and their ban on divisive concepts, there can be a chilling effect of teachers no longer wishing to encourage their students to critique and analyze power structures and how they benefit and oppress different groups for fear of defying a law. For instance, would teachers want their students to engage in a conversation around why for years history class centered the perspective of one racial group over others? And as another example, the idea of taking up issues of environmental justice in communities of color in science class may no longer be explored.

“I am afraid that many teachers, particularly where they are in states where they lack due process of union protection, are going to decide that they’re just going to close their mouths and conform,” Beam-Conroy said.

These concerns aren’t new nor is the thought that teachers can find creative ways to still inspire their students to ask critical questions about the world and come to their own conclusions. For instance, instead of focusing on race, a teacher might talk about how some social structures fail to serve the needs of individuals with disabilities, Doucet said.

“Culturally responsive and sustaining education is about meeting students where they are, validating students’ identities, supporting students’ experiences, recognizing the strengths that they bring to the table,” Doucet said. “So, fine, we won’t say culturally responsive teaching, but we will say care about your students, see your students, recognize them, validate them, love them. That’s all culturally responsive teaching.”


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