by Pamela Higgins Harris, Susan Shaffer & Phoebe Schlanger, IDRA Newsletter, April 2017

Editor’s Note: The IDRA EAC-South provides technical assistance and training to build capacity of local educators to serve their diverse student populations. The IDRA EAC-South is one of four regional equity assistance centers and serves Region II, which covers Washington, D.C., and 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. IDRA is working with staff at the Southern Education Foundation and the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium to develop local capacity in the region among the 2,341 school districts and 29,632 schools with over 1 million educators and 16 million students.

Preparing teachers to work in diverse classrooms requires intentional thought and review. Schools and neighborhoods reflect our entrenched history of desegregation, integration and re-segregation. Persistent student achievement gaps suggest an implied correlation in disparate opportunity gaps within diverse schools and classrooms, and between diverse students and teachers (OCR, 2016).

Since the landmark ruling in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, various iterations of the promise of school integration have been identified as critical to the success of students of all racial, linguistic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds (Tolsdorf, 2005; Orfield, et al., 2014; Kahlenberg, 2012). Research confirms that all students benefit when they attend diverse schools and are taught by highly effective teachers (Bowman, 2014).

Teachers are the most important school-based factor when it comes to achievement (RSN, 2015). To eliminate the educational achievement gap, we must address opportunity gaps that persist for children and youth of diverse backgrounds.

One such opportunity gap is inequitable student access to highly effective teachers (Goldhaber, et al., 2015). These teachers have the ability to change the trajectory of students’ lives. To reach today’s increasingly diverse student body, teachers will benefit from culturally competent professional development (Lindsay, et al., 2009).

Schools that are segregated, poor and serve children of color tend to have less experienced teachers. A recent survey of American teachers reported 49 percent of secondary teachers agreed they could not effectively teach their range of diverse learners (Miller, 2009). In addition, while the student population in the United States is becoming more racially and linguistically diverse, our teacher population is increasingly homogenous based on race, economics, language and/or gender (Skiba, et al., 2011; Darling-Hammond, 2010).

Cultural conflict can affect the quality and opportunity for learning when a gap persists between the personal cultural knowledge of teachers and that of students. To be successful, teachers need to “understand the complex characteristics of ethnic groups within the United States’ society and the ways in which race, ethnicity, language and social class interact to influence student behavior” (Banks & Banks, 2015).

Cultural proficiency is a way of being, a mindset that affirms one’s own culture while positively engaging with those whose cultures differ from their own (Lindsey, et al., 2009). Culturally competent educators intentionally take into account the sociopolitical realities that affect students and their families at each developmental stage of their lives. The asset-based approach builds on assets that children from diverse backgrounds bring with them into learning settings, so long as classroom conditions encourage the expression of these assets (Boykin, 2012; Boykin & Noguera, 2011).

Teachers who seek to become culturally competent educators should adopt the following strategies.

Build Relationships

Among the most empirically verified asset-based factors is a teacher-student relationship that provides a socially and emotionally supportive yet demanding and high expectation classroom learning environment. Teachers should offer: (1) collaborative learning, which entails collaborative intellectual exchanges among students and ensures that all classroom participants are actively involved in the learning process; (2) meaningful learning, which builds on student experiences and knowledge by making connections to significant events in their lives; and (3) cultural resources, which pro-actively build on the cultural, family, and community assets, values and practices students bring from home (Boykin & Noguera, 2011; Ramani & Siegler, 2011; Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Identify and Activate Student Strengths

The most highly effective teachers are not only knowledgeable of their grade level content and subject matter, they also are knowledgeable of their students’ backgrounds. In addition, school districts must implement policies and practices that open pathways to academic excellence for all students and integrate pre-requisites for academic learning.

With this support, teachers can: (1) set achievement targets prior to instruction and make these evident to students; (2) provide students constructive feedback that is non-judgmental and linked explicitly to the goals for learning; (3) make appropriate instructional adjustments responsive to the assessment data gleaned; and (4) increase students’ capacity for self assessment. In doing so, teachers will foster academic optimism, raise expectations of excellence for every child, connect with each student’s prior knowledge and deliver content knowledge in ways students can understand.

This caliber of teacher uses student culture, language and interests as a method to link to learning (Ball & Forzani, 2011; Boykin & Noguera, 2011). In this capacity, teachers and students see themselves as agents for classroom change, achievement, and community and family engagement (Gay, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 2001).

Situate Learning in the Lives of Students and Their Families

Culture is a powerful yet often invisible factor that influences the outcomes of schooling (Paris & Alim, 2014). Teachers should include culturally competent and sustaining elements in all aspects of schooling. This paradigm requires that cultural competence move beyond the pedagogy on which it was built.

Culturally sustaining educators build upon the cultural fluidity and connectedness reflected in the identities of students as an asset to learning and academic achievement. They seek to perpetuate and foster linguistic, literate and cultural pluralism as part of the fabric of schooling (Paris, 2012).

Facilitate High Level Critical Thinking

Effective teacher preparation equips teachers to guide learners from diverse backgrounds to reach their true potential by effectively mediating the interrelationship among three core dimensions of human growth and development: personal, cognitive and social. Students need teachers to provide simultaneous experiences in all three of these domains to connect them with positive, constructive and sustainable learning experiences.

Instructional mediation strategies build structure and organization into the learning process from which students can attain and build academic self-direction, empowerment and focus (Rodríguez & Bellanca, 2007; Davis, 2005). The charge for teachers is to mediate teaching and learning from an asset-based stance to one that consistently taps into and engages the ability within children from a wide range of lived realities and social environments (Gorski, 2013).

Amplify Student Voice

Student engagement outcomes are substantially driven by two sets of factors: guiding functions and asset-based factors. Guiding functions include self-efficacy – the confidence that one has in doing what it takes to accomplish the desired outcomes (Byrnes & Miller, 2007; Kitsantas, et al., 2011) and self-regulated learning – the propensity for planning, monitoring and assessing one’s own learning (Horner & O’Connor, 2007; Zito, et al., 2007).

Student engagement has been shown to raise achievement levels for all students and will raise such levels even more steeply for children and youth of color, from low-income backgrounds, and from other backgrounds at risk for academic failure.

Engage Families and Community Members as Partners

Equity educators advocate for high quality teacher preparation in the context of culturally competent and sustainable integrated schools. Connections with parents and the community at large will facilitate attainment of collaborative partnerships that promote the academic, social and emotional development of children (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). Ultimately this calls for continuously forging professional communities of committed, diverse stakeholders who elevate the attainment of cultural competence and shared responsibility for student as well as teacher well-being and performance.

Change from usual teaching practices calls for a commitment to ongoing, self-mediated exploration that includes a wide variety of professional growth-promoting processes. Teachers need frequent opportunities to reflect critically on their teaching practices and to self-empower construction of new beliefs, knowledge and practices about students, curriculum and instructional delivery.

Self-mediated change in practice must be accepted as a routine effect in an ongoing professional growth model. This requires teacher preparation that ensures all teachers have the knowledge, skills and dispositions to meet the diverse learning needs of all their students (Gay, 2013). Without teacher preparation and training in cultural competence, performance disparities for low-income students and students of color will continue (Basterra, et al., 2011; RSN, 2015).

See IDRA’s Infographic: Six Generations of Civil Rights and Educational Equity


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Pamela Higgins Harris is a senior education equity consultant. Susan Shaffer is president of the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, Inc. (MAEC) and executive director of the Center for Education Equity (Region I EAC). Phoebe Schlanger is MAEC’s senior publications editor.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2017 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.]