A Culturally Responsive Curriculum for a 21st-Century Education

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the culturally responsive curriculum for an effective 21st-century education.

"The fundamental aim of culturally responsive pedagogy is to empower ethnically diverse students through academic success, cultural affiliation, and personal efficacy. Knowledge in the form of curriculum content is central to this empowerment" ~Geneva Gay

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the high school dropout rate had decreased from 8.3 percent in 2010 to 5.1 percent in 2019. Despite the good news, there is still cause for concern because, unfortunately, students of color drop out of school at higher rates than their White peers. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, Latinx students dropped out at 7.7 percent, and Black students dropped out at 5.6 percent. In comparison, White students dropped out of school at 4.1 percent, and Asian students dropped out at only 1.9 percent. The disparity in dropout rates is complex and multifaceted but can generally be classified into two categories: out of school and in-school causes. Out-of-school causes may include the challenges of living in poverty, drug/alcohol abuse, chronic absenteeism, pregnancy, learning disabilities, domestic and community violence, various forms of abuse and neglect, and the fact that many students need to work to support themselves and their families. In-school causes may include unnecessarily harsh disciplinary action such as out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions of school rules, low expectations, lack of meaningful adult relationships at school, erroneous special education placement, poor academic achievement, and boredom resulting from a curriculum lacking relevance and connection to students’ lives. A Harvard University article, Bored Out of their Minds, points out that over half of all dropouts cite boredom for their decision to leave school (Jason, 2017). For students of color, a Eurocentric curriculum dominated by the experiences and points of view of the dominant culture may lead to indifference and disengagement from historically marginalized students who may find difficulty relating and connecting to the curriculum. The research bears this out too. Researchers from Stanford University examined data from a pilot program in San Francisco in which high school students considered to be at an elevated risk of dropping out were enrolled in an ethnic studies course. The results were staggering. Attendance rose by 21 percent, grade-point averages rose by 1.4 percent, and students enrolled in the ethnic studies course earned on average 23 more credits toward graduation than did similar at-risk students who did not take the course (Washington, 2018).

Culturally responsive teachers help relate the curriculum to students’ lives by using a culturally responsive curriculum or CRC. The curriculum is broadly defined as the “totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process” and consists of educational standards and goals, content, learning experiences, and evaluation of student learning (Kelly, 2009). A CRC goes a step further by acknowledging that curriculum documents are not ideologically neutral. Instead, cultural artifacts must be critically analyzed to ensure equity in representation and free from implicit bias. They must also be aware of what is not covered in the curriculum in what is known as the excluded or null curriculum. In addition, culturally responsive teachers should be deliberate in selecting teaching materials to reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity in the classroom to raise student engagement and achievement. As professor of education, Geneva Gay points out, "the fundamental aim of culturally responsive pedagogy is to empower ethnically diverse students through academic success, cultural affiliation, and personal efficacy. Knowledge in the form of curriculum content is central to this empowerment" (Gay, 2019, p. 142).

Teachers that employ a CRC help substantiate and legitimize their students' cultural backgrounds, including their histories, contributions, experiences, and perspectives into the curriculum. In the formal curriculum, White students have an easier time making meaning of their learning because they see themselves more often reflected in the curriculum materials that substantiate the dominant culture's narrative. Including the voices of diverse actors is vital because curriculum materials that reflect the students’ culture may positively impact diverse learners' academic achievement by reducing feelings of alienation as they see themselves reflected in the subjects being studied (Stowe, 2017).

Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests that there are three things that teachers can do to create a CRC. The first is to deconstruct the curriculum. This means that teachers should take apart “official knowledge” to expose the weakness, omissions, distortions, and myths built into the curriculum. This will often require that teachers do their research and outside reading independent of the prescribed textbook, which serves as the basis for most programs of study. For example, a history teacher could read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and James Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Further, there are a host of online resources such as webinars, audiobooks, and recorded college courses that teachers could examine to strengthen their understanding of multicultural perspectives.

There are some stakeholders, however, who would argue that this critical approach to the curriculum is a form of indoctrination whose goal is to teach students to hate America. Or an attempt to make White students feel guilty for the atrocities committed in the nation’s past. I respectfully disagree with this assertion. As a former Marine who holds a Master’s degree in American history, I understand that teaching history is an academic pursuit governed by the established methodologies of the field. As the Tweet from Librarianshipwreck points out, “Studying history will sometimes make you uncomfortable. Studying history will sometimes make you feel deeply upset. Studying history will sometimes make you feel extremely angry. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history” (@libshipwreck, September17, 2020). In science, for example, teachers teach evolutionary biology because it is an explanation of how organisms adapt to their environment and change over time based upon the scientific evidence and supported by the Next Generation Science Standards. Science teachers are not labeled anti-American because they teach according to scientific principles that might make some people uncomfortable. Nor should it be anti-American to teach history that reveals the truth about America’s past.

The next step is to construct a culturally responsive curriculum based upon the experiences and knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom. To do this effectively, teachers will have to make a great effort to get to know their students as individuals and learn about their individual experiences as it applies to the content. The final step is to reconstruct the curriculum to include filling the holes revealed through critical analysis of the curriculum. Teachers must be ready to help students challenge orthodoxy and established power structures as they question the content. Additionally, educators must approach their curriculum with intentionality. They must plan and implement culturally diverse actors, points of view, and experiences throughout their curriculum. Without deliberate planning and action, implementing a culturally responsive curriculum is just wishful thinking.

Finally, it should be noted that all academic disciplines will benefit from a CRC, not just the liberal arts subjects like history, literature, art history, philosophy, and foreign language and culture. Unfortunately, many teachers in STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, erroneously believe that because their discipline is “fact-based,” the necessity for a culturally relevant curriculum is unnecessary. But research indicates the contrary is true. White men generally feel the greatest sense of belonging in STEM preparation programs, while women of color feel the least sense of belonging. According to Inside Higher Ed, there are many reasons for this to include the constant need for students of color to “prove” that they are academically worthy of being in the program, as well as feelings of exclusion from their institutions. Additionally, students of color experience a lack of representation that could lead to feelings of isolation and alienation that push them out of STEM majors at much higher rates than their White counterparts (Johnson & Elliott, 2020). In a moment when American educators are trying to lure more talented students into the STEM fields so that we can continue to be competitive in the global economy, we should be attracting more talented students into STEM fields and graduating them, not pushing them out.

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