Curriculum

Are These ELA Programs Culturally Responsive? (And Who Gets to Decide, Anyway?)

By Sarah Schwartz — October 26, 2022 | Corrected: October 27, 2022 8 min read
Conceptual illustration of culturally diverse people
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clairfy Boluwasefe Adelugba’s relationship to the NYU Metro Center.
Corrected: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Megan Hester.

Over the past two years, attempts to limit the ways that teachers can discuss race, sex, and gender in the classroom have swept through state legislatures and school board meetings across the country.

But a new analysis of elementary school curricula suggests that some of the most popular teaching materials often neglect those topics, and those that did include them may actually reinforce harmful stereotypes.

The new analysis of three of the most widely used English/language arts curricula call into question the notion that discussion of those topics is widespread in schools. Many teachers use series such as these as the backbone of their teaching.

The report, released this week from the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University’s Steinhardt School, examines samples of 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade English/language arts lessons from series put out by three major curriculum companies: McGraw Hill’s Wonders, Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Into Reading, and Savvas’ myView.

The team of researchers and evaluators concluded that the materials present one-sided narratives, use dehumanizing language to refer to characters of color, and don’t incorporate meaningful cultural diversity.

The analysis underscores the complicated space that large publishing houses occupy in current political debates about curriculum content.

Advocates—including many classroom teachers—have long criticized the lack of deep, multifaceted representation in popular curriculum materials. Some educators have said that the resources their schools provide often overrepresent books by white authors, perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes, or discuss people of color only in relation to oppression and suffering.

Many teachers have pushed for materials that incorporate students’ cultural identities and lived experiences into the classroom as tools for effective instruction. And in recent years, companies have pledged to make changes.

But at the same time, a movement to restrict how teachers can discuss race and gender issues has gained steam. Seventeen states have passed laws or taken other measures that would limit what teachers can say about these topics in the classroom, leading some companies to consider rolling back revisions designed to make their curricula more culturally responsive.

Teachers who want to address race in a meaningful way already have to supplement most published curriculum resources. Now, these laws make doing so much harder, said Boluwasefe Adelugba, a 12th grade student in DeKalb County schools in Georgia who has done advocacy work with Our Turn, a youth organization that has collaborated with the NYU Metro Center.

Few curriculum reviews evaluate for cultural responsiveness

In statements to Education Week, some companies disputed the findings of the report.

The NYU Metro Center’s evaluation was limited to a small selection of the texts in McGraw Hill’s Wonders, and only materials from the print edition. “Basing the report’s comprehensive evaluation of an entire program on such a small subset of text paints a misleading and incomplete picture,” said Tyler Reed, McGraw Hill’s senior director of communications.

He shared examples with Education Week of teacher guidance on culturally responsive instruction and a lesson on the U.S. Constitution that asks students to “identify oversights” in the original document and “explore ways that a government can be better representative of a diverse population.” Reed also noted that the report incorrectly attributes one example of the Savvas teacher’s guide materials to McGraw Hill.

Savvas said it “strongly refute[d]” the findings outlined in the executive summary. “myView offers a diverse collection of content and literary selections that provides a balanced representation of cultures, genders, and ethnicities, and invites students to see themselves represented in the texts they read,” it said in a statement.

Houghton-Mifflin-Harcout said the company is “committed to culturally affirming practices in everything we do,” and that it appreciated “the need for continual feedback and welcome[d] ongoing conversation with educators and the community.”

The fact that reviewers say these materials aren’t culturally responsive while companies insist that they are gets to the many questions that make curricular reviews so subjective: Who gets to decide whether the materials are adequate? What criteria should they use? How much of each curriculum do they need to sample? How much training do they receive?

Outside curriculum reviews have become commonplace over the last decade, but few are large-scale projects that evaluate for criteria related to cultural responsiveness.

While some education agencies and research centers have designed other tools to evaluate materials against these markers, schools or teachers generally have to do the evaluation work themselves. There aren’t centralized repositories of reviews that educators can consult as they make curriculum decisions.

And even among these tools, criteria—for what constitutes diverse representation, or for how much of a curriculum reviewers should evaluate—vary. The NYU Metro Center team evaluated a small sample of each curriculum’s total materials.

“We’re a small team with a small budget,” Megan Hester, the national campaign director of the Metro Center’s Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative, said in a statement. “And through working with schools and districts over the last four years to evaluate dozens and dozens of curriculum samples, we (and the schools and districts) have found that evaluating samples gives a good sense of the curriculum approach, strengths, patterns and gaps—even if we’re not looking at every text and every lesson.”

To conduct their evaluations, researchers used a tool called the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard. The rubric, developed at NYU, offers a framework for grading curricula on diversity of representation and commitment to social justice—attending to world issues and exploring inequities. Several districts have used the scorecard as part of their curriculum adoption process, including Denver, and it informed the development of Rhode Island’s state curriculum evaluation tool.

Materials show ‘superficial’ diversity and demeaning language, researchers say

The researchers assembled review teams of students, parents and families, and educators, and trained them on how to use the rubric.

Other organizations that conduct curriculum reviews rely on educators. But including students in the process can offer valuable insight, said Angela M. Ward, the founder and CEO of 2Ward Equity Consulting, and a former supervisor of race and equity programs in the Austin Independent school district. (Ward was not involved in the NYU study.)

“You want to include people who are closest to the problem that you’re trying to solve for if you truly want to be culturally responsive,” she said. “Who’s more expert than the children that are going to be impacted by the curriculum that you’re putting into the schools?”

The reviewers evaluated samples from the three different elementary school English/language arts curricula: Together, these programs make up a large share of the market, according to recent analyses.

Reviewers rated most sections of the materials as “culturally destructive,” meaning that the curriculum “reinforces stereotypes and portrays people of color in inferior and destructive ways.”

In general, the programs include what the report’s authors called “superficial” diversity. Materials feature people with a variety of skin tones and hair, people with visible disabilities, or people wearing different types of clothing. But there wasn’t much attention paid to how characters’ different experiences would inform their lives, said Flor Khan, the lead researcher on the project.

When characters of color were central to a lesson, their stories were usually about struggle or historical oppression, the reviewers found. “When you talk about Black people, it starts in slavery and it ends in segregation,” said Adelugba, who was not a reviewer on the report, but said its findings reflected her experience in K-12 schools.

And often, key context was missing, said Hannah Cluroe, a recent graduate of the Chandler school district in Arizona and a member of the review team.

She gave an example of a story about Japanese incarceration camps during World War II. The story was about a Japanese family that was upset they had to move. “It just kind of said that it happened, without telling students why it happened,” Cluroe said.

The review also highlighted examples across the different curricula of language that they said demeaned or “other-ized” characters of color and indigenous people—such as describing Native Americans as “docile” and “distrustful” in interactions with European colonizers, or calling Native American features “unusual.”

Reviewers noted differences, too, in how the voices and experiences of different groups of people were portrayed. One student reviewer explained how a 5th grade passage on Revolutionary War battles prompted students to identify with George Washington’s troops.
Reviewers compared that to the description of the Three-Fifths Compromise in the same unit, which used straightforward language to discuss the debate over the clause in the Constitution that would count enslaved people as three-fifths of a person for determining population for the purpose of electoral representation.

The report’s authors recommend that publishers include “full, complex characters from marginalized groups,” provide multiple and varied perspectives, and offer sample questions that can help teachers connect students’ experiences to the material.

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