by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2016

There is an ever increasing threat spreading throughout many schools across the nation. In addition to economic disparity and achievement debt, U.S. educators and students are facing a gap in cultural understanding that has the potential to widen the disparity in academic performance of students among different cultural groups.

Furthermore, ingrained beliefs about persons from other races, religions and cultures is breeding fear and negativity resulting in growing disparities in disciplinary practices against students (Sheets, 2014). To educate our growing diverse student population, teachers must be prepared to foster learning environments that are inclusive of students from dramatically different backgrounds from themselves and fellow students.

Several factors must be in place to ensure that educational opportunity and success for all students are guaranteed. The IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel, 2005) outlines specific school system indicators that carry the potential to strengthen public school education: (1) parent and community engagement, (2) student engagement, (3) teaching quality, and (4) curriculum quality and access (Robledo Montecel, 2005).

It is important for teachers to understand how these indicators support culturally competent instruction toward the successful development of personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities while building content knowledge.

The Culture of the 21st Century Classroom

The National Education Association promotes four foundational skill areas that apply to individual teachers, schools and the entire educational system relating to cultural competence. “When applied to education, cultural competence centers on the skills and knowledge to effectively serve students from diverse cultures” (NEA, 2008).

First, teachers must value diversity by being accepting and respectful of cultural and religious backgrounds different from their own. Second, teachers must be aware of their own cultural identity in order for them to understand where their cultural perspectives originate. Third involves understanding the dynamics of cultural interactions and the historical and current context from which they may arise. Finally, educators must strive to institutionalize cultural knowledge and adapt to diversity by designing learning experiences that better serve diverse populations.

The IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity (SCCE) is one of 10 equity assistance centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education. As an equity assistance center, the IDRA SCCE is charged with – among other things – providing technical assistance to districts and schools that come under consent decree by local courts or the U.S. Department of Justice in regards to violations of student civil rights. In many instances, our collaborations with districts throughout our five-state region (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas) involve reports of disproportionality in student discipline and of racial discrimination. We work in partnership with district leadership to begin courageous conversations among administrators, teachers, parents and students about race, bias and culture that lead to positive classroom climates where all students feel valued.

In order to overcome the influence of implicit biases, it is crucial to address them. Implicit biases are embedded stereotypes that heavily influence our decision-making without our conscious knowledge. Implicit biases can be fueled by a variety of sources. There are institutional and individual biases both inside and outside of the classroom. Students are exposed to teacher influences, inequitable enforcement of student codes of conduct, and learning materials every day in school. At home and in their communities, students are subjected to other influences of implicit racial bias through the media, family and friends, experiences with law enforcement, and while shopping with parents.

It is important to note that there are other biases that students encounter on a regular basis apart from race and culture. Gender and sexual orientation, disability, income, religious affiliation, and language are also areas of constant attack for some students.

See our bilingual flier: Six Goals of Education Equity 

Learn more about the Quality Schools Action Framework 

Addressing Implicit Biases in the Classroom

As educators, we must carefully, critically and honestly examine our own racial attitudes for evidence of implicit bias. Every teacher must be brave enough to reflect on his or her own instructional practices. Ask yourself: “Who do I call on and how often?” “How do I seat students or group them?” “Do I truly value the differences among my students and if so, how?” “Do I have the same expectations for all my students?”

By affirmatively countering negative stereotypes that sustain biases with more accurate facts and perceptions, teachers also can help lessen the influence of implicit bias. Teachers can be instrumental in demonstrating actions that lead to the disruption of biases in the classroom and school setting.

What can teachers do? (excerpt from Rudd, 2012)

  • Model how to talk about race in a transformative way.
  • Make connections with people from racial and ethnic groups that differ from their own.
  • Expose racial disparities in critical opportunity domains, including education, while presenting examples of people who have overcome barriers to opportunity.
  • Evaluate media messages more critically for evidence of racial and ethnic bias.
  • Educate multiple audiences, including fellow teachers, employers, judges, politicians, students, and parents, about the causes and consequences of implicit racial bias (in language that is accessible to these audiences).
  • Educate all students to become agents of change to improve opportunity for all people in the society.

Events over that last several years involving shootings between police officers and citizens speak directly to the need for us to come together as a nation in an effort to better understand the beliefs, practices and history of those outside of our own cultural group. Similarly, implicit bias is a driving force behind disproportional discipline practices that are rapidly increasing in public education as well.

A 2014 report from the Kirwan Institute concludes that “implicit bias is a powerful explanation for the persistence of many societal inequities.” The problem lies in the fact that many educators (like many others) are not aware of these biases that run the risk of affecting their instructional practice on a daily basis. The U.S. Department of Education encourages schools to implement training that emphasizes strategies to ensure fair treatment of all students in addition to professional development focused on instructional practice (2014). As 21st century classrooms become more and more diverse with generations of students entering the school system, it has also become increasingly vital to integrate cultural awareness into the classroom.


National Education Association. (2008). Promoting Educators’ Cultural Competence to Better Serve Culturally Diverse Students, An NEA Policy Brief (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association).

Robledo Montecel, M. (2005, November-December). “A Quality Schools Action Framework: Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Rudd, T. (2012). Implicit Racial Bias: Implications for Education and Other Critical Opportunity Domains, A Presentation to the National Association for the Education of African American Children with Learning Disabilities (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity).

Steets, C. (2014). Implicit Racial Bias and School Discipline Disparities: Exploring the Connection, Kirwan Institute Special Report (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity).

U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2016 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.]