Altheria Caldera, Ph.D., and Nino Rodríguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2021 •

The Problem: Cultural Incongruence

Traditional schooling, with norms and standards rooted in whiteness, often is not responsive to the cultures of today’s diverse student population (Huber, et al., 2006). This results in a cultural misalignment that forces many students of color into the margins of the school community.

Oftentimes, to succeed in school, marginalized students must embrace – or at least appear to embrace – “whiteness as property” (Donnor, 2013). In other words, they must accept and enact white culture as superior and Western European knowledge as factual. Those who resist are forced to endure an education that “murders” the spirits of marginalized youth or at least hinders their academic performance (Love, 2019).

A Solution: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Culturally responsive pedagogy counters this forced assimilation to whiteness and aims to redress the mismatch between students of color and the policies and practices that privilege the identity of students in the dominant culture (Gay & Banks, 2000; Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

Cultural identity can be defined as socially constructed categories that teach humans ways of being and behaving. Culturally responsive pedagogy is undergirded by a belief that cultural identity impacts student learning and plays a role in shaping student behavior, values, prior knowledge, interests, and preferences for collaborative or independent work (Bradford, et al., 2000).

Although researchers have long substantiated the need for an education system that is responsive to students’ cultural identities, many schools still have not adopted culturally responsive educational practices that value the identities of all students. At a basic level, culturally responsive instruction acknowledges and affirms students’ cultures in schools (Johnson, 2016). It integrates students’ cultural identities into the main curriculum.

Culturally responsive instruction acknowledges and affirms students’ cultures in schools and it integrates students’ cultural identities into the main curriculum.

Students of color need to be taught by culturally responsive educators who are knowledgeable about “the cultural particularities of specific ethnic groups” in order to “make schooling more interesting and stimulating for… ethnically diverse students” (Gay, 2002).

Although culturally responsive pedagogy alone will not resolve some of the longstanding equity issues that negatively affect the educational outcomes for students of color, it can improve student learning and self-efficacy when operationalized effectively.

Importance of Ethnic Studies for Educators and Students

In order to effectively enact culturally responsive pedagogy, educators need extensive training (Johnson, 2017). Culturally responsive training: (a) provides educators with a significant understanding of their students’ cultures and the contributions that each ethnic group has made to our country; (b) equips educators with the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to abandon cultural deficit ideologies that are brought on by biases and prejudices rooted in ignorance; and (c) positions educators to design a multicultural curriculum that includes, rather than excludes, students of color.

Not surprisingly, evidence shows that ethnic studies coursework has a positive impact on the academic engagement and performance of students of color (Donald, 2016). It also enhances the school experiences of students enrolled in both K-12 and post-secondary institutions. A number of studies show the positive impact of ethnic studies courses and culturally relevant pedagogy. An Arizona report, for example, found higher standardized test passing rates and high school graduation, and a Stanford Graduate School of Education study found a 21 percentage point increase in attendance and a 1.4 grade point average increase (Craven, 2019).

Furthermore, ethnic studies courses do more than enhance the academic performance of students of color; they augment the educational experience of all students who are exposed to it (Anderson, 2016).

When coupled with culturally responsive pedagogy and taught by culturally responsive educators, ethnic studies positions both educators and students to:

  • address controversial issues associated with power and privilege (e.g., racism);
  • focus on the accomplishments of a wide array of people of color instead of a few high-profile individuals;
  • give proportionate attention to all groups of color;
  • contextualize women’s issues as they are impacted by race and ethnicity;
  • integrate analysis of socioeconomic status (class), particularly poverty; and
  • emphasize feelings, attitudes and values – not just factual information.


Formal educational institutions (schools) function as does U.S. society in general. Both remain rooted in discriminatory ideals that perpetuate oppressive policies and practices that maintain systemic inequities. For marginalized students, the schooling process – guided by policies, practices and curriculum – prepares them for secondary citizenship while simultaneously elevating their white, straight, middle to upper-class, able-bodied peers to positions of power and authority. Culturally responsive pedagogy alongside ethnic studies is one way schooling might be re-imagined to serve students of color equitably.

IDRA recommends the following:

  • States and school districts should adopt policies that require and provide training to schools on culturally responsive pedagogy.
  • States should require teachers to have ethnic studies coursework in teacher preparation programs.
  • States should require that an ethnic studies course be included in the core curriculum.
  • All states should develop state-approved ethnic studies curricula, including Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Indigenous Studies (Native American Studies) (Janzer, 2019), Asian American Studies, and Pacific Islander Studies courses.

Culturally responsive instruction that integrates ethnic studies can be a tool for furthering the goals of democracy in a pluralistic society.


Anderson, M.D. (March 7, 2016). The Ongoing Battle Over Ethnic Studies. The Atlantic.

Bradford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (eds). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brown-Jeffy, S., & Cooper, J.E. (Winter 2011). Toward a Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of the Conceptual and Theoretical Literature. Teacher Education Quarterly, 61(3) 248-260.

Craven, M. (November 13, 2019). African American Studies Course Will Have a Significant and Positive Impact on Students Across Texas, testimony. San Antonio, Texas: IDRA.

Donald, B. (January 12, 2016). Stanford study suggests academic benefits to ethnic studies courses. Stanford News.

Donnor, J.K. (2013). Education as the Property of Whites: African Americans Continued Quest for Good Schools (pp. 195-203). In A.D. Dixson. Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Gay, G., & J.A. Banks. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, second edition. Teachers College Press.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.

Huber, L.P., Johnson, R.N., & Kohli, R. (Spring 2006). Naming Racism: A Conceptual Look at Internalized Racism in U.S. Schools. Chicano/Latino Law Review, 26, 183-206.

Janzer, C. (November 29, 2019). States Move to Add Native American History to Curriculum. U.S. News and World Report.

Johnson, P. (August 2016). Fostering Culturally Diverse Learning Environments. IDRA Newsletter.

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

Love, B.L. (May 23, 2019). How Schools Are ‘Spirit Murdering’ Black and Brown Students. Education Week.

Altheria Caldera, Ph.D., is an IDRA Education Policy Fellow. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at Nino Rodríguez, Ph.D., is an IDRA consultant. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 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.]