Shared Responsibility for Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education

May 12, 2021

All Must Respond to the Call for Systemic Change in the Educational System

It is not difficult to understand the call for culturally sustaining pedagogy given the ubiquitous news reports of police brutality, racism, discrimination, and violence against African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and quite frankly, anyone not White. The sad fact is that this sentiment and these behaviors have been part of America’s fabric for hundreds of years. These issues have been amplified in recent years through flashpoints like the brutal death of George Floyd, the protests of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, and the racist translation of COVID-19 to “the China virus;” yet this is not a blog about politics, but rather a call for systemic change in the educational system – standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment – to support a culturally responsive-sustaining education that has the power to profoundly mitigate hatred and discrimination across this nation.

Early Efforts to Develop Culturally Responsive and Culturally Sustaining Education 

The concerns about culturally responsive and culturally sustaining education are not new. Let us begin by providing some history, common language, and understanding for this topic.  

In 1981, “culturally appropriate” (Au and Jordan, 1981), “culturally congruent” (Mohatt and Erikson, 1981), “culturally responsive” (Cazden and Leggett), and “culturally compatible” (Erikson and Mohatt, 1982) pedagogy was introduced for teachers who incorporated aspects of students’ cultural backgrounds into their instruction. In a variety of studies, this practice produced improved student achievement. In 1988, Villegas challenged the notion of cultural mismatch as an issue in the classroom rather than as one of the social structure of schools as an institution. Building from Irvine’s work of “cultural synchronization” describing the necessary interpersonal context between the teacher and African American students to maximize learning, Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced a theory of “culturally relevant” pedagogy in 1995. She defines cultural relevant pedagogy as not only addressing student achievement, but also allowing “students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate” (p.469). In 2012, Paris suggested the need to move beyond culturally relevant pedagogy to a stance of “culturally sustaining pedagogy” which “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism” within the educational system. However, the concerns and work around culturally responsive and sustaining education did not end in 2012. Others, including Moll, Soto-Santiago, and Shwartz (2013) focus on the use of students’ funds of knowledge as a cultural pedagogical asset within classroom instruction, and Django and Samy (Eds, 2017) endorse sustaining the cultural practices of communities of color rather than eliminating them. 

The Shared Responsibility for Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education

The terms “cultural relevance” and “culturally sustaining pedagogy” have become omnipresent when discussing education. “Culturally responsive-sustaining education” (CRSE) combines these two concepts with the key principles that:

  • Students’ experiences and values are validated,
  • Power dynamics that privilege dominant groups are disrupted, 
  • Students are empowered as agents of social change,
  • Historically marginalized voices are heard, and
  • Student achievement is fostered.

CRSE, therefore, must include a combination of standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, theories, attitudes, practices, and instructional materials that center on students’ culture, identities, and contexts. Consequently, educators at all levels, including community members and families, must embrace the values purported by culturally responsive-sustaining education. Moreover, embracing these values must be operationalized in a variety of different ways. Below is a sketch of what each stakeholder can do to begin the process of creating a systemic shift toward culturally responsive and culturally sustaining education.

Role of the States and State Assessment

States must begin to review their content standards, educational frameworks, and state assessments with a lens toward culturally responsive-sustaining education. States such as New York have used this lens in redesigning their educational frameworks to help “educators create student-centered learning environments that: affirm racial, linguistic and cultural identities; prepare students for rigor and independent learning, develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; and empower students as agents of social change.” Rhode Island has begun a social studies standards revision process using a set of culturally responsive-sustaining criteria around student engagement, cultural awareness, diversity, and critical consciousness. The review and changes to content standards signal not only a revision of curriculum and instruction, but also in the focus and type of assessments used for students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that are expected from the content standards.  

Additionally, New America (2019) reported on a set of teacher competencies that promote culturally responsive teaching with Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Utah as states noted for their alignment of these teaching standards to their state’s educator evaluation system. Other states embed some combination of the culturally responsive teaching competencies into their expectations and standards. The state therefore signals a shift in expectations and sets a course for CRSE.

Role of Districts

Whether including culturally responsive-sustaining education because of teacher competencies or content standards, districts need to reflect on institutional biases and how to empower leaders and educators to analyze and surmount the effects of these biases. In order to embody the standards and expectations of culturally responsive-sustaining education, districts should begin reviewing their curriculum to determine whether it supports CRSE and in what way changes can be made. This review  includes curricular materials and assessments. However, district training must be provided for educators on what instructional practices look like from a culturally responsive-sustaining lens and how to link curriculum and instructional resources to demonstrate CRSE principles. 

Role of Educators

Educators should lead for and embrace diversity. Teachers and school leaders need to implement this CRSE shift by first reflecting on their own cultural lens and potential biases. They need to understand what the standards mean with respect to cultural responsiveness and how they are operationalized, but this level of understanding does not happen unless they know what CRSE practice looks like so they can support CRSE practices in the classroom. Additionally, educators should build on students’ funds of knowledge, moving beyond school-based prior knowledge and experiences to the “accumulated body of knowledge, assets and cultural ways of interacting drawn from their homes, communities, and influential social forces, as well as intuitive understandings of the natural world” (Shepard, Diaz-Bilello, Penuel, and Marion, 2020). This socio-cultural approach to teaching demonstrates a respect of students’ experiences and invites them to connect to the classroom learning goals.

Role of the Community

It is important that parents and community members engage with the school to develop a positive and collaborative relationship in defining CRSE and what it looks like within and across the classroom, community, and in the home. Additionally, the identification and implementation of students’ funds of knowledge must include parents and community members to ensure that together they build a coherent system. Coherence occurs through a deep understanding of “the numerous cultural and aesthetic activities in which individuals and communities engage to restore, reproduce, and re-invent their identities, a sense of belonging and dignity” (Moll, Soto-Santiago & Schwartz, 2013).

Responding to Where the Country is Today, and Where It’s Headed

We know that the demographics of our country are changing. According to the Pew Research Center (2014), Paul Taylor states that by 2043 demographers project that those groups who are currently categorized as racial minorities will comprise most of the U.S. population. We also know that students in underserved communities tend to demonstrate achievement at lower levels than students in other communities. Various studies illustrate that all students can learn and achieve with highly effective teachers in the right conditions. Continued focus on culturally responsive-sustaining education as a shared responsibility across all stakeholders and levels of the educational system allows for all students to learn and, just as importantly, to create an equitable and just society.