We are all born, raised and enveloped in culture, and it is central to learning. It informs how we communicate with each other, the way we receive information and helps shape the thinking process of groups and individuals. Culturally responsive teaching recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, enriching classroom experiences and keeping students engaged.
The notion of culturally responsive education is premised on the idea that culture is central to student learning. According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, “It is an approach that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes.” The use of cultural referents in teaching bridges and explains the mainstream culture, while valuing and recognizing the students’ own cultures.
A diverse student population is a basic characteristic of most of the schools in which we work. Of the nearly 54 million students enrolled in America’s schools, 44% are racial minorities, 20% are linguistic minorities, 16% are considered economically disadvantaged, and 9% are identified as disabled (Planty et al., 2009). Current estimates indicate that almost 95% of school practitioners are white with only minimal training in working with diverse populations.
This gap between demographics and training, combined with evidence of pervasive educational disparities, is a cause for concern. These disparities include persistent, systematic differences in educational access and opportunities to learn (e.g., access to early childhood education, quality materials and facilities, qualified effective teachers, college preparatory classes) and educational outcomes (e.g., special education identification, grade retention, achievement on standardized assessments, graduation, discipline, postsecondary enrollment). These inequalities in access, opportunity, and outcomes suggest that our educational systems may not be organized to adequately support the learning of an increasingly diverse student population. Given that all demographic indicators suggest that the trend toward increasingly multicultural populations will only continue, the need to create systems that are responsive to student diversity is imperative.
As a society, we cannot afford to under educate such a substantial portion of students because of the negative implications both for their quality of life and their social contributions, among other things. Indeed, educational attainment is an important determinant of individuals’ health, employment and earning potential, civic engagement, and socioeconomic status, all of which have powerful implications for the communities in which they reside. Developing and supporting equitable educational systems is the cornerstone to safeguarding the nation’s social, civic, and economic future. In many educational systems, policies, procedures, and practices need to be reconceptualized in order to ensure equitable opportunity and access for all students.