Dr. Paula Johnson photoPaula N. Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2021 •

The pandemic reminded us very quickly that relationships are important for effective student and family engagement. Millions of students found themselves disconnected from the school community when COVID-19 forced schools to go online. Teachers and school leaders have relied on these relationships to keep students engaged.

But disengagement did not start with the pandemic and it will not end when schools reopen this fall. There is growing concern about the continued disengagement that disproportionately affects high percentages of Black students and Latino students.

Despite the fact that this country is deemed to be a pluralistic society, our institution of education – like all of our social institutions (e.g., law, media, sports) – is guided by policies and practices that perpetuate a monocultural, monolingual United States of America. The language, literacy and cultural practices interwoven into the very fabric of our schools generally align with white, middle-class norms. As a result, students who do not identify with the aforementioned social group find aspects of their culture deemed insignificant and unworthy of a place in schools.

For example, the majority of teachers today are delivering instruction to students from dramatically different backgrounds than themselves. Further, implicit bias is a major threat to welcoming school environments. Biases inform our decision-making and interactions that can negatively impact students academically and emotionally (Staats, 2016). Educators must have the skills to promote equity and inclusivity in the classroom as part of instructional practice.

The IDRA EAC-South is rolling out a set of materials on culturally sustaining instruction and leadership to support educators with tools for challenging, investigating and embracing a new vision for engaging with families and students from marginalized communities (IDRA, 2020a).

In this work, we developed a new framework based on current research in culturally sustaining education (Johnson, 2020b). The frame comprises key leverage points: schools, leadership, educators and pedagogy. This gives educators a path to quantify steps for identifying data points, situating student outcomes through an equity lens, identifying capacity-building needs, creating spaces for continuous community input and support, and evaluating success. The framework can be used from the campus level to the state level. For example, the Virginia Commission on African American History Education used it to inform its recommendations on culturally responsive pedagogical practices (IDRA, 2020).

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014) introduced the term culturally responsive pedagogy. She reminds us that culture is always evolving due to its nature as an amalgamation of human activity, production, thought and belief systems.  As a result, she states that, like culture, pedagogy must evolve to address the issues that face the students of both today and tomorrow.

The newer concept, culturally sustaining pedagogy addresses the reality that pedagogies must be more than responsive; instead, they need to support students in sustaining competence of the cultures within their communities while developing competence of the dominant culture (Paris, 2012).

Paris & Alim present it as a means to “sustain the minds and bodies of communities of color within an educational system that has often had the exact opposite goals” (2017).

IDRA agrees that schools should intertwine home and community practices, histories and language with that of the dominant group in ways that do not devalue them nor pit them against one another (Paris & Alim, 2017).  Thus, IDRA has adopted language to reflect this shift to include culturally responsive and sustaining educational practices (see Page 7).

Beyond Instruction and Pedagogy

Effective implementation of culturally sustaining practices in schools must include leadership. Teachers must have strong support both from the leaders of schools and from the districts where they operate.

Leading with sustaining practices requires intention. We like to start the conversation by posing some key questions to stakeholders (e.g., students, families, teachers, staff and members of the community – in no particular order) (Johnson, 2017; 2020a).

  • Do educators have an understanding of the cultural implementation continuum?
  • Does the school engage in a continuous critical reflection of: (a) classroom relationships; (b) family collaboration; (c) instructional practices; and (d) curriculum practices to ensure an inclusive, culturally sustaining environment for all students?
  • How involved are the families of marginalized students in the educational decisions and policies that affect their children?

Culturally sustaining pedagogy asks all stakeholders to reimagine “schools as sites where diverse, heterogeneous practices are not only valued but sustained” (Paris & Alim, 2017).  Envisioning such a space is a waste of time and energy if school and district leaders do not include all stakeholders in the conversations around a more inclusive educational setting for all students.

Davis (2016) reminds, “Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around you who are struggling as equal partners.” Any attempt to achieve a culturally sustaining school (or district) without including the members of the community whose culture that you intend to sustain will fail.

Many of our students do not see themselves reflected in the spaces around them, especially at school. Culturally sustaining pedagogy centers students’ cultures, languages and realities by encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion. Allowing students to be their authentic selves empowers them to think more critically and analytically about the world and content they engage in and can yield greater academic success.


Davis, A.Y. (2016). Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

IDRA. (2020). Culturally Responsive Practices in Four Critical Levels – Overview. San Antonio: IDRA.

IDRA. (September 2, 2020). Virginia Commission Supported by IDRA Finds Black History is Incomplete in State Curriculum – Recommendations Informed by IDRA’s Framework for Culturally Responsive Education. San Antonio: IDRA.

Johnson, P. (April 2020). Using Equity Audits to Assess and Address Opportunity Gaps Across Education. IDRA Newsletter.

Johnson, P. (August 2017). Three Critical Areas of Professional Development for Teaching in 21st Century Classrooms. IDRA Newsletter.

Johnson, P. (September 2020). An Interdisciplinary Approach to Developing Black Student Identity through Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Literature Review. San Antonio: IDRA.

Ladson-Billings, G. (Spring 2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. The Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.

Paris, D., & Alim, S.H. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

Staats, C. (2016). Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know. American Educator, 39(4).

Paula N. Johnson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate and director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]