There seems to be a sentiment amongst some educators that culturally responsive education is merely an optional “best practice.” Well, of course, any trainings or professional development examining approaches to teaching and learning can be considered best practices. However, the notion that one could simply minimize culture as if it doesn’t play a role in the interactions between teachers and students is numbing. This attempt to ignore cultural responsiveness is often incorrectly interpreted as a focus on race when in reality it is a useful philosophy, pedagogy and practice for any classroom teacher. Let’s be real, when a school or school system indicates that they want to eliminate the achievement gap they are talking primarily about helping Black and Brown students. If the approach to addressing the gap is simply teaching instructors to improve ‘mainstream’ best practices, in what way is the school specifically targeting their focus group?
Revisiting mainstream best practices is the default setting that is obviously not working. School leaders should stop saying “gap reduction” is their focus if they can’t demonstrate that they’ve changed any instructional approaches. The task of a culturally responsive educator is to intentionally and respectfully bridge the ways of understanding, teaching and engaging students who have different cultural experiences than them. This focus on knowing and relating to students is the intervention for eliminating the achievement gap. Rather than framing it as an achievement gap (which suggests innate student deficiencies), we need to call it what it is: an instructional gap. It is time for educators to take some ownership for not connecting and advancing certain groups of kids.
Why Culturally Responsive Education Works
Culturally responsive education has a chance at success because research shows that students perform best when a caring, culturally competent teacher with clear cut expectations is available to them. Culture is what shapes identity and identity shapes how one sees and understands the world. Educators understand that every child is different but far too often they do very little to understand the differences. Culturally responsive education helps teachers to better relate and connect with students thereby making them feel a part of the learning experience. As humans we all desire to belong and tapping into this is a major part of engaging students. The
teacher-expectancy effect is dependent on improved relationships between teacher and student. Without cultural awareness, the default is implicit bias, which lowers a teacher’s expectations for low-income and students of color. When one pays attention to the nuance of culture, one can better pay attention to how that student may best achieve success. Expectations remain high and the modalities of instruction and assessment are based on student strengths not perceived weaknesses.
Some Teachers Just Aren’t Willing
Now let’s be honest, some teachers just have no interest in culturally responsive education. Many simply don’t want to change or update their pedagogy. They’ve been using the same notes, stories and philosophy for the last 20 years. More importantly, some don’t want to engage it because it’s uncomfortable personally. What I mean by this is if you are a status-quo educator who lives to deliver mainstream ideals, culturally responsive education is a challenge. It’s tough because one has to force themselves to see the world from someone else’s lens. It also requires one to examine their own biases (we all have them) and level of cultural awareness. Some folks just aren’t willing to do this.
For too many educators, to give any precedence to a (minority) culture other than their own for the sake of engagement is an unwelcome chore. But, if they really think about it, this chore looks exactly like what minority students have to face in the mainstream world every day. Some call it code switching when minorities momentarily put their culture on the shelf to engage the larger mainstream society. This continual practice can make one feel as though their culture, and consequently, personhood, is not worthy of being a contributor in what is supposed to be a pluralistic society. If educators are serious about helping underserved populations and addressing an educational “gap,” they may want to periodically put mainstream education on the shelf and give some attention to the cultural lives of their students. Culturally responsive education is hard work, but, so is talking about the achievement gap with no new approaches for reducing it.
Daryl Howard, Ph.D., is a public school educator and BOND Project leader in Montgomery County, Maryland. His academic interests include the study of race and gender equity in education. Howard’s book is entitled "Complex People: Insights at the Intersection of Black Culture and American Social Life."