Culturally Responsive Teaching in Contemporary Schools
The greatest charge of modern schools is to provide equitable education for all students. Undoubtedly, truly equal education for all students has yet to become a reality, and it is socioeconomically challenged students and other cultural minorities who are met with the greatest injustices in public education. Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) provides an answer to the inequity that exists in modern schools, as it directly counteracts the dominant, Euro-centric norms that have come to define American curricula. This inquiry begins by introducing CRT and reviewing the relevant literature on the benefits of CRT, concluding with a critical position argument for CRT education at a suburban, public middle school.
The dominating norms that define the contemporary school system are rooted in white culture. Moreover, most teachers in America are culturally and ethnically homogenous, characterized as mainly Caucasian, female, and middle class. By extension, there is a considerable disparity between the diverse student population in the United States and those that facilitate their education. The inconsistency between academic culture and students' home culture leads to weighted differences between how information is acquired and how learning is evaluated at school and at home; this detrimentally affecting the minority students' success in school.
Too often, cultural minorities are viewed as low achievers within schools due to culturally unresponsive curricula and teaching strategies. Subsequently, unjust tracking practices that place students who do not perform well on a slower track contribute to social immobility for minorities. The extreme overrepresentation of students of color in special education classes evidences that cultural insensitivity is a considerable problem in modern schools, as is the higher drop-out rate for cultural minorities and the well-documented achievement gap between Caucasian students and minority students. The self-efficacy of students becomes damaged when they are routinely viewed as low-achievers, and a general lack of response to cultural insensitivity in the academic community has precluded any effective remedy to the problem.
CRT aims to bridge the gap between home-culture and school-culture (Bonnor). Academic achievement of students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds is boosted through CRT, as classrooms and curricula are structured and transformed through CRT. Critical is it to note, however, that CRT is comprehensive, and not limited to changes in the curricula alone. CRT demands changes in classroom structures, policies, and a myriad of school practices, including teacher training and preparation.
The five components supporting CRT are a culturally diverse knowledge base, culturally relevant curricula, cultural caring through building a diverse learning community, cross-cultural communications, and the delivery of culturally responsive instruction. Teachers who are culturally responsive, by extension, believe that culture is integral to the manner in which children learn. More importantly, they seek to expand their own knowledge base to support culturally sensitive practices. In the article entitled "Educating All Students," Brown writes that "this is often very difficult, especially when students exhibit cultural characteristics that are so different from the teacher's.... Educators generally agree that effective teaching requires mastery of content knowledge and pedagogical skills.... Yet, too many teachers are inadequately prepared to teach students from CLD backgrounds" (2007, p. 57). Because culture is not limited to ethnicity, and embodies often overlooked characteristics such as socioeconomic status and religion, teachers may feel they are being culturally responsive when, in fact, they are only responding to a single dimension of culture.
A salient aspect of CRT is the intentional cultivation of a sense of community within the classroom. CRT is inextricably bound to inclusive practices, and emphasizes that all individuals deserve respect. By linking learning to students' cultural frames of reference, situating the subject matter and teaching strategies within the lived experience of students, the achievement of culturally diverse students improves. A culturally responsive classroom is then a microcosm of the diverse community that exists outside of school, and, at its core, is the teacher's fervent belief that students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds want to learn (Brown, 2007).
The culturally responsive classroom is formed through the following five guidelines: routine self-assessments to determine the knowledge nature and level of students; varied teaching methods and materials that are culturally responsive; engrained respect for all people and all cultures; interactive, collaborative learning environments; repeated cultural assessments. While forming a culturally sensitive classroom community is ultimately the charge of the teacher, true transformation of the school system in a way that promotes CRT occurs at a higher level. Transforming school districts to embrace CRT will stem from the acts of school administrators, teacher preparation programs, and other policy makers.
Those that seek to catalyze CRT-based reform in the public school system should encourage policies that value diversity and provide ongoing staff development opportunities grounded in CRT. Until these changes are meaningfully embedded within the system, the provision of support for students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds is paramount in order to ensure they are not unjustly tracked into remedial classes. Overall, the American education has traditionally not been responsive to a diverse student population, expecting that culture would not play a key role in learning. CRT provides an answer to the problem of culturally unresponsive education, recognizing that if the school system is to truly provide an equitable education for all students, contemporary teachers, curricula, and classrooms need to cater more directly to a diverse student population.
Review of Literature
This review of literature delves into the current research, both theoretical and empirical, on CRT, critically evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each article. The dominant themes in CRT are a need to promote adequate teacher preparation programs and support a more culturally relevant education system. The literature reflects these themes, with some authors asserting that CRT can only become meaningfully present in the school system through a broad, system-wide recognition of CRT's importance.
Teacher Preparation and CRT
In her article entitled "Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching," one of the foremost proponents of CRT argues that school success is tightly linked to CRT. The author theorizes that teacher preparedness is the ultimate support for CRT, in accordance with the aforementioned elements of CRT; knowledge base, diverse curricula, building communities, effective communication with a diverse population, and culturally sensitive instructional delivery.
Developing a Sound Knowledge Base for CRT
In short, teachers cannot teach what they do not know. According to Guy, this statement is applicable not just to course content but also to the student population. Most teacher preparation programs are culturally narrow, in accordance with narrow curricula for the K-12 classroom, and support for the inclusion of CRT strategies in these programs is minimal. While multicultural education remains a buzz phrase within teacher preparation programs in the United States, the focus on student diversity is inconsistent in most programs and often one-dimensionally perceives culture as limited to ethnicity.
Guy argues, however, that while culture undoubtedly encompasses a multiplicity of dimensions, some of these dimensions are more important than others. The author writes specifically that "culture encompasses many things, some of which are more important for teachers to know than others because they have direct implications for teaching and learning" (2002, p. 106). The elements of culture that have the most weighted implications for education, according to Guy, are ethnicity, traditions, communications, learning styles and patterns, and historical contributions. She posits that teacher cognizance regarding how important community and collective problem solving to a particular culture has significant implications for the classroom, as does child-rearing practices. Gender roles within a particular culture are a salient area of focus as well, as the ultimate goal of CRT is to achieve equitable education for all students and rigid gender roles may preclude girls from engaging in the same way as their male counterparts during learning.
Guy posits that most teacher preparation programs that acknowledge the importance of cultural diversity do not go beyond awareness and respect for ethnic groups. Concrete, factual knowledge of ethnic groups is critical as well, with teacher preparedness rooted in understanding the history and development of specific groups. There is an unfortunate perspective that certain subjects, particularly math and science, are not conducive to CRT, as they are not conceptual during most of the K-12 curricula. The author contends, however, that there is a way in which to engrain CRT in every subject, not limited to the humanities, and that CRT is not limited to the actual course content but also emphasizes the importance of culturally sensitive teaching. Warning that teachers too often will focus on one or two prominent figures in African American culture, for instance, and ignore less visible cultures like Native and Asian American culture, Guy charges teachers to actively attempt to understand the contributions of diverse groups in terms of science, technology, medicine, and economics.
Culturally Relevant Curricula and Building Classroom Communities
Guy asserts that a sound knowledge base is only the beginning, however, and that teachers must extend their knowledge to the curricula. Distinguishing between formal plans for instruction, such as those designated by the state or district, and the subject matter that is actually taught in the classroom, the author urges teachers to extricate the multicultural strengths from the mandated curricula and suppress the existing weaknesses: "There are several recurrent trends in how formal school curricula deal with ethnic diversity that culturally responsive teachers need to correct" (2002, p. 108). The practices Guy contends are not helpful are the overt focus on a few, high-profile individuals and the total ignorance of others, the avoidance of controversies such as racism, and the emphasis on facts and ignorance of other types of relevant knowledge such as values and ethics. She additionally cites that symbolic curriculum, such as bulletin board decorations, is integral to creating a CRT classroom environment, though it is often overlooked or dismissed as unimportant.
The classroom community is paramount to CRT, as it equalizes the social curriculum and places teachers in an authentic partnership with all students. Within the community of the classroom, teachers manifest the underlying belief of CRT; that all students have intellectual potential and this potential can be realized through cultural validation. Cooperative learning is an integral component of community building within the classroom, as it emphasizes integrated learning and mutual respect.
Communication and Instructional Delivery
Culture informs how people communicate, and, more importantly, communication is the foundation for community building (Guy, 2002). Guy asserts that thought and knowledge is culturally encoded, and teachers are charged to effectively decipher these codes in the classroom. There is profound variation in the communication styles of cultural groups, with often overlooked nuances existing in the communications of "highly ethnically affiliated" Latin, Native, Asian, and African Americans. African Americans, for instance, tend to communicate in a "call-response" fashion, with those involved in a conversation actively involved in the discussion; this can be problematic in the classroom, however, with the communication style being misconstrued as interrupting or disruption. Communication is integral to the delivery of instruction in accordance with CRT, with the intentional incorporation of culturally diverse contributions and experiences into the delivered curriculum.
Guy's article provides a solid overview of the five, integral elements of CRT. The dominant themes in the article are teacher responsibility for making curricular changes, the importance of teacher preparation that addresses CRT, and the wide gaps in the existing system. The strengths of the article lie in the solid recommendations Guy makes for teachers to culturally fortify the curriculum in order to be more conducive to a diverse, student population. The weaknesses of the article are few, but generally surround a lack of empirical support for CRT. The author employs no statistical or scientific backing for her theories, and is strictly theoretical in most of her claims. Additionally, the author does not adequately acknowledge the hesitance of teachers to embrace CRT as linked to a fear of enforcing stereotypes. Because of the relatively culturally homogenous teacher population, cultural sensitivity could manifest in trepidation to fervently entrench CRT in the classroom, but Guy devotes only a single sentence to this potentially enormous problem. Overall, however, Guy's article provides a sound foundation in understanding the nature of CRT and how teachers can begin to fill in the wide gaps in the mandated curriculum.
Equality and CRT
In the article appropriately entitled "Educating All Students," Brown emphasizes how CRT supports equality in education. Written five years after Guy's aforementioned article, Brown's article cites the importance of policymaker decisions in promoting CRT. Moreover, Brown articulates that a dearth of CRT in the American public school is contributing to the gross disparity between the achievements of culturally and linguistically diverse students and those that correlate with the comparatively culturally homogenous teacher population.
Teacher and Policymaker Responsibility
Like Guy's article, Brown urges teachers to make up the distance between CRT delivery and the mandated curricula, as state standards fall short of truly culturally sensitive education. Contending that synonyms for CRT are culturally congruent, culturally compatible, and culturally relevant, Brown argues that teacher preparation programs should more effectively address CRT in order to support classroom equality. The author asserts that there are certain characteristics of culturally responsive teachers, and that teacher preparation should acknowledge not only what teachers know, but also what they teach, how they teach, what they expect from their students, how students react to the teachers, and, most importantly, classroom management (Brown, 2007).
Emphasizing that teachers who are culturally responsive, above all else, believe that CRT will improve the academic success of culturally and linguistically diverse students, Brown asserts that the culturally responsive classroom begins with the teacher and reflects this critical belief. The author contends that effective instructional strategies will directly acknowledge the importance of equality. Unlike Guy's article, however, Brown cites that real change can only take place on a broader level: "For real reform to occur in today's schools, a complete transformation must take place. It is not enough to have teachers change their teaching and classrooms to reflect their students' diversity; the schools that they teach in must also become culturally competent educational systems" (Brown, p. 59). Engraining CRT into the school system begins by eradicating old assumptions and long outdated practices and continues by setting higher expectations for students of diverse backgrounds.
A salient strength of Brown's article is the attention afforded to what schools and administrators can do to foster CRT in the public school system. Unlike Guy's article that focuses primarily on the teacher's role in promoting CRT, Brown's article asserts that a significant amount of responsibility rests on the policymakers. Moreover, the author offers specific advice for how schools can make changes, such as the provision of staff development opportunities. Overall, there is a greater emphasis on CRT as a vehicle for equality in education from Brown's perspective. The only weakness in Brown's article, and one had by Guy's article as well, is the lack of empirical evidence to support CRT. Presumably, within the five years that spanned Guy's article and Brown's article, studies were conducted that either supported or refuted the use of CRT, but Brown does not cite any scientific evidence to support his claims beyond the statistics related to the diverse student population.
The Curriculum of Teacher Preparation Programs and CRT
Villegas and Lucas explore how teacher preparation programs can embrace CRT in their article entitled "Preparing Preservice Teachers to Teach in a Culturally Responsive Way". He affords particular respect to statistical disparities between the achievement of Caucasian students and those of diverse backgrounds. The author asserts that the American population is becoming increasingly diverse, and the value of CRT is, by extension, becoming greater with every passing year.
Diversity and Vision
Villegas and Lucas begin by emphasizing the statistical demographics of the K-12 student population in the United States, citing that one-third of students in the K-12 classroom belong to a racial or ethnic minority. They continues by citing that one in five children are socioeconomically challenged, living below the poverty line, and over one-seventh of the student population speak a language other than English at home. While the authors acknowledge that most teacher preparation programs have taken steps to include multiculturalism in their curricula, he cites that most programs have only done so minimally, mandating that graduates have completed one or two classes on multicultural education. Like both Guy and Brown, Villegas and Lucas cite that teacher preparation programs must boost their emphasis on CRT if it is to be engrained in the wider school system. Unlike the previously reviewed articles, however, Villegas and Lucas make the assertion that unless teacher preparation programs are amended to acknowledge CRT more effectively, prospective teachers are likely to ignore CRT altogether and not move toward cultural sensitivity of their own volition.
A dominant theme in Villegas and Lucas' article is that teacher preparation programs frame the perspectives of new teachers, and graduates embrace the views of their preparation programs as their own. The infusion strategy of changing the curricula of teacher preparation programs emphasizes the need to include aspects of multiculturalism within every course, rather than merely having a single course devoted to the topic, but Villegas and Lucas cite that without defining the infusion strategy effectively, "many teacher education programs have interpreted infusion narrowly to mean the sprinkling of disparate bits of information about diversity into the established curriculum, resulting in the superficial treatment of multicultural issues" (p. 22). As a solution to the narrow perception of multiculturalism in teacher preparation, Villegas and Lucas recommend beginning by establishing a firm vision for how teaching and learning should be framed in a multicultural society, and using that vision to direct curricular changes.
Guiding the changing curriculum, Villegas and Lucas assert, should be the ideal characteristics of a culturally responsive teacher. They posit that these characteristics are as follows: sociocultural consciousness, a perception of student diversity as a resource, a perception of him or herself as capable of bringing about educational change, an understanding of knowledge construction, cognizance of students' lives, and the ability to use that knowledge in order to design instruction that is culturally meaningful. The authors continue by comprehensively defining each of the six characteristics, affording particular respect to the initial strand of sociocultural consciousness, or the understanding that thinking, behavior, and being are all influenced by class, race, and language.
A critical point made by the authors around which Guy and Brown merely navigated, is that the dominant, social ideology in the United States that rewards merit contributes to social inequality. In short, because the criteria for judging merit are so unjustly grounded, merit-based reward systems are invalid. Schools are not impartial social institutions, and they play a large role in maintaining white dominance according to Villegas and Lucas: "Built into the fabric of schools are curricular, pedagogical, and evaluative practices that privilege the affluent, White, and male segments of society" (p. 25). Teacher preparation programs that acknowledge that these practices exist and actively seek to change them are adhering to the vision of a truly equal school system.
Villegas and Lucas concludes by acknowledging that his article is comprised of only baseline recommendations, and that the academic community must engage in a strategic dialogue to define how teacher preparation programs can strictly adhere to a vision of CRT. He contends that his dimensions of a culturally responsive teacher are only conceptual, and they need to be broken down further in order to birth meaningful change. He cites that policymakers, professional organizations, and governmental agencies should be held more strictly to their standards of commitment to educational equality, and that real change will only occur through the cooperation of a wide range of stakeholders.
Villegas and Lucas article differs considerably from the previously reviewed articles in several ways. Primarily, while Guy and Brown urged teachers to bridge the gap between research and practice and instill CRT into their individual classrooms, Villegas and Lucas asserted that change will begin with teacher preparation programs. More importantly, Villegas and Lucas emphasized that teachers are ill-equipped and consequently unlikely to embrace CRT without adequate preparation. The strengths of Villegas and Lucas' article is the fervency with which he asserts inequity exists and the empirical evidence he offers to support the diversity of the student population. Like Guy and Brown's articles, however, Villegas and Lucas could have fortified his argument with evidence supporting the use of CRT as a supporter of diverse student achievement.
Synthesis and Summation of Literature
The literature suggests that CRT is grounded in teacher preparedness and effective, relevant policymaking. While the reviewed authors diverge from one another somewhat in terms of how the change should begin, all three authors assert that the diverse student population in conjunction with the culturally homogenous curriculum in the K-12 classroom warrants that authentic change take place immediately. Guy's article articulates the six dimensions of CRT; those being knowledge base, diverse curricula, building communities, effective communication with a diverse population, and culturally sensitive instructional delivery and Villegas and Lucas extend those dimensions to describe the teacher him or herself as socioculturally conscious, able to perceive student diversity as a resource, able to view him or herself as capable of bringing about educational change, understanding of how knowledge is constructed, cognizance of students' lives, and the ability to use that knowledge in order to design instruction that is culturally meaningful. While the burden of change is placed on the administrators and policymakers according to Villegas and Lucas, both Guy and Brown contend that teachers are ultimately capable of birthing the shift toward CRT.
The evidence that demonstrates the increasing diversity of American public schools is irrefutable. As the student population becomes more and more ethnically and culturally diverse, the teaching population remains largely Caucasian, female, and middle-class. By extension, there is an urgent need for public schools to become more sensitive to the needs of the diverse student body. Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) provides an avenue for equality, bridging the gap between mono-cultural curricula and student diversity. The following inquiry delves into the evidence surrounding CRT and urges this institution to actively embrace curricular changes through the delivery of a CRT in-service workshop for teachers and staff.
The profound disconnection between theory and practice with respect to multicultural education is well-documented (Barnes, 2006). While most teacher preparation programs, and consequently graduating teachers, recognize the importance of culturally sensitive teaching, the American public school falls markedly short of truly just delivery of education. The literature suggests that the wide gap between theory and practice exists due to two, dominant factors; teachers have limited, cultural knowledge and are thus ill-equipped for CRT and the mandated curricula remains largely and unfortunately grounded in Eurocentric traditions.
Recent research suggests that new and prospective teachers, in particular, have low expectations of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. Moreover, teachers believe that these students do not perform as well as their Caucasian counterparts due to ability or behavior and not due to curricular gaps and an absence of culturally sensitive education. This evidence is particularly alarming given the gross disparity in achievement between CLD students and the dominant population, as teacher perceptions are inextricably bound to students' self-efficacy and contribute to the cycle of social immobility for CLD students. In short, students are unfairly treated by a culturally homogenous curriculum, perform poorly, teachers perceive them as low-achievers, they are placed on a slow track to graduation, and, most detrimentally, they believe they are incapable of achieving the same level of success as the dominant, student population.
Culturally homogenous education leads to poor interactions between CLD students and teachers, and the result is that these students become irrevocably framed as having behavioral issues or simply as being incapable of achieving the same rate of success as Caucasian students. While the evidence suggests that teachers perceive CRT as a purely theoretical concept that is not conducive to practical application, there are solid, proven strategies for engraining CRT into the classroom. Overall, the goal of CRT is aligned with the vision of American public schools; to deliver equal education to all students.
Approximately one-third of the student population is CLD students. The failure of public schools to deliver a culturally sensitive education is then negatively treating a significant portion of the student population, limiting them in a way that affects the rest of their lives. Preparing culturally responsive teachers begins by emphasizing the ultimate vision of education as it exists with respect to social equality. Sociocultural consciousness is paramount, as is charging teachers to extricate and emphasize the positive elements from the mandated curriculum and conversely afford less attention to the weaknesses of the curriculum.
The CRT workshop would be a mandatory exploration of the following core elements of CRT:
- Affirming diversity as an asset to the classroom and not a liability
- Framing the teacher as capable of bringing about change and responsible for bringing about that change
- Understanding how knowledge is constructed with respect to culture
- The value in understanding the lived experiences of students and using that understanding to promote equality in instructional delivery
Above all else, the CRT workshop will emphasize the importance in supporting CLD students and recognizing that cultural incongruities in the curriculum are a fundamental cause of the achievement gaps between these individuals and their Caucasian counterparts.
This inquiry delved into the elements of CRT, introducing the core concepts of CRT and the ways in which the literature frames CRT with respect to theory, research, and practice and concluding with a call for a teacher inservice on CRT. Overall, there seems to be a dearth of empirical evidence surrounding the provision of CRT and statistical, student success. However, the literature that does exist demands that change be birthed both within teacher preparation programs and from teachers themselves. Regardless of where, precisely, the change begins, it remains that CRT should longer exist on the periphery of professional discourse. The student population in America is increasingly diverse, and monocultural curricula are no longer sufficient in promoting the equal delivery of education. More importantly, monocultural curricula foster social immobility, unfairly treating CLD students.
Barnes, C. J. Preparing Preservice Teachers to Teach in a Culturally Responsive Way. Negro Educational Review, 57(1/2), 85-118.
Bonner, E. P. Achieving Success with African American Learners: A Framework for Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching. Childhood Education, 86(1), 2-19.
Brown, M. R. Educating All Students: Creating Culturally Responsive Teachers, Classrooms, and Schools. Intervention in School & Clinic, 43(1), 57-72.
Guy, G. Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-137.
Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers: Rethinking the Curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1), 20-30.