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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

The Culturally Responsive Curriculum, Inclusion, and Student Achievement for All Learners

According to the U.S. Department of Education, American Indians (9.5 percent), Hispanics (8 percent), and Blacks (6.4 percent) drop out of school at significantly higher rates than do Asian (1.9 percent) and White students (4.2 percent) (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). While the reasons for the disparity in dropout rates is complex and multifaceted, it may be that many students feel alienated by a curriculum that is dominated by the perspectives of the people that created it. Teachers must do a better job connecting the curriculum to diverse student perspectives. A culturally responsive curriculum (CRC) helps teachers do this by substantiating students' personal experiences and cultural backgrounds to include their histories, contributions, experiences, and perspectives. In the traditional curriculum, white students have an easier time making meaning of their learning because they see themselves more often reflected in the curriculum materials. A culturally responsive curriculum includes references to all students' culture. In other words, culturally responsive teachers should be deliberate in selecting teaching materials to reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity in the classroom to raise student achievement. As 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). Further, including diverse voices is vital because curriculum materials may positively impact diverse learners' academic achievement by reducing feelings of alienation (Stowe, 2017).

Educational standards are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. As used by most teachers, the word curriculum is a description of the academic content, experiences, and teaching materials that makes up the totality of students learning. In other words, standards are what is to be learned, and the curriculum is how it is taught. There are several aspects of the curriculum that directly and indirectly impact student learning. They are the recommended, written, supported, tested, taught, and learned curriculum. The recommended curriculum is curriculum produced by experts in their fields and is usually published by professional organizations. For example, the National Council for the Social Studies has published standards that help guide states and districts in crafting curriculum documents at the local levels. The written curriculum consolidates documents produced by the state and school districts that indicate what is taught. This is usually in the form of curriculum guides and scope and sequence documents. Unfortunately, many state and local curriculum standards reflect the ideological and political vantage points of the mainstream culture that produced them. This position routinely excludes women, racial, and religious minorities (Wills, 2019).

The supported curriculum is indicated by the availability of instructional materials, such as textbooks, technology, and manipulatives. Research suggests that teachers use the textbook between 70% and 95% for all classroom instruction (Gay, 2010). That number is likely lower today due to the proliferation of web-based resources, but still illustrates the degree to which teachers rely on the text to drive instruction. Teachers should be aware that textbooks are "cultural artifacts" that reflect the dominant group's hegemony by portraying "politically approved knowledge." In other words, textbooks continue to mitigate the roles of diverse actors. When people of color are introduced, it is generally a bland, conservative, conformist, and "safe" way emphasizing racial harmony rather than examining history that is unpleasant and uncomfortable (Gay, 2010). Many teachers lament that they would include more diverse voices if they had the resources to do so. A lack of high-quality curriculum materials is a significant impediment to introducing a culturally responsive curriculum.

The tested curriculum is the information that is assessed on the state, district, and teacher prepared tests. Due to perennial time constraints, teachers point out that it is not taught if it is not tested. This practice has significantly narrowed the curriculum squeezing out diverse voices making room for test preparation of testable material only. The taught curriculum is what teachers do in the classroom, which can sometimes look very different than what is published in state and local standards and curriculum documents. The most crucial curriculum, however, is the learned curriculum. The learned curriculum is what students leave the classroom, knowing as a result of what was taught. Two other forms of the curriculum that are not visible in school curriculum documents, but have profound impacts on diverse learners are the hidden curriculum and the excluded curriculum.

The hidden curriculum refers to what students learn as a result of the school's culture and climate. It is not intentionally taught, but it is based on students' perceptions of their school's priorities and objectives. For example, a school may claim to be a welcoming place for diverse learners. But upon a closer look, little is done by the school community to include students and their families in school activities, organizations, and events. How teachers prioritize time and resources are two components of the hidden curriculum. Teachers can never have enough time, and the way teachers allocate it speaks volumes as to their priorities. Making time in the curriculum for diverse voices and points of view should be a priority for all teachers and requires them to make a conscious decision to include them. Teaching materials that include diverse actors should be incorporated into the curriculum whenever it is appropriate to do so. A culturally responsive approach to the curriculum means that diverse voices are interwoven into the lesson and not just "add ons."

The excluded curriculum is what has been left out. Teachers may do this either unintentionally or intentionally. One of the reasons teachers leave out diverse voices is because they don't have the cultural knowledge to include diverse actors effectively. Educator preparation programs routinely fail to prepare preservice teachers for working with ethnically and linguistically diverse students. Therefore, most teachers do not possess the knowledge and experience to effectively implement a culturally responsive curriculum (Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000). Put simply; you can't teach what you don't know. Ongoing professional development at the school and district level concerning culturally responsive curriculum is equally disappointing. Most teachers describe this type of training as "fly by" or "check the box," meaning that it is perceived as perfunctory with no real purpose or applicability to what teachers actually do in the classroom. Some teachers may intentionally leave out diverse actors because of racial bias or for fear of generating controversy. A recent Brooking study found that teachers have implicit bias levels similar to that of the general public. Which begs the question, how practical are anti-bias trainings in school? The research suggests not very (Starck, Riddle, Sinclair, & Warikoo, 2020). One of the most prominent places that illustrate the excluded curriculum is in U.S. history courses. There are several reasons why this may be to include limited time. Teachers have tremendous amounts of content to cover and little time to do it. For every person, event, or concept taught, it means that someone or something is left out. Here lies the root of the problem; how do we prioritize what is and is not taught? Schools should do a better job reflecting society's diverse actors, and the curriculum should play a part in telling these various stories and traditions (Wills, 2019).

Despite the good intentions of many teachers, significant obstacles prevent them from employing a culturally relevant curriculum. For example, Prieto (2018), Wachira, and Mburu (2019) revealed educators across the nation believed it was necessary to provide diverse perspectives in the curriculum but had limited time to do so (Prieto, 2018; Wachira & Mburu, 2019). Other obstacles may include the teachers' inability to understand the students' home language and culture as well as the teachers' belief in their efficacy to implement culturally responsive pedagogy (Malo-Juvera, Correll, & Cantrell, 2018). First and foremost, however, teachers must want to develop cultural competence and most likely will have to educate themselves about diverse cultures. One of the essential things educators must do to achieve cultural competence is to approach their curriculum with intentionality. They must plan and implement culturally diverse actors, points of view, and experiences. Without deliberate planning and action, implementing a culturally responsive curriculum is just wishful thinking.

Due to the lack of quality of instructional materials and professional development training, teachers need to take the initiative in designing a culturally responsive curriculum. Educators wanting to be culturally responsive must look beyond their textbooks and begin identifying resources to complement or replace them. Additionally, teachers should train their students to question curriculum materials by asking important questions such as who the author is, and how their implicit bias might affect their interpretation? How are diverse actors portrayed, and to what degree do they have agency? How are issues of social justice handled? To what extent is power and privilege discussed? Is there a diversity of perspectives? The following table can help teachers critically examine their curriculum to identify strengths and weaknesses as it applies to a culturally responsive curriculum throughout the year.

Table 1

Culturally Responsive Curriculum Unit Evaluation


The curriculum features diverse actors so that students from diverse race, class, gender, ability, and sexual orientations can relate and participate fully

Diverse actors are not portrayed stereotypically

Diversity of ethnicity and nationality- for example not all Hispanics are from Mexico

Diverse actors have agency and are not just "sidekicks" or dependent on Whites

Diverse actors are not "saved" by benevolent White people

Diverse actors are not always portrayed as having low education, and low income

Reference to different ethnic and cultural traditions, languages, religions and names

Diverse family structures are explored

People with disabilities are represented

Social Justice

Curriculum provides students opportunities to question the tatus quo and power differentials in society

Curriculum provides students the opportunity to analyze persistent racism in various institutions

Curriculum examines opposing points of view of the same event through the lens of marginalized people

Curriculum provides students with opportunities to take action to combat inequity in response to social, political, or environmental concerns that affect them, their school and their community



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York: Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, New York University.

Causey, V. E., Thomas, C. D., & J. Armento, B. (2000). Cultural diversity is basically a foreign

term to me: the challenges of diversity for preservice teacher education. Teaching and

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Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.), New

York, NY: Teachers College.

Malo-Juvera, V., Correll, P., & Cantrell, S. (2018). A mixed methods investigation of

teachers' self-efficacy for culturally responsive instruction. Teaching and Teacher

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Prieto, L. R. (2018). Incorporating diversity content into courses and concerns about

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Starck, J., Riddle, T., Sinclair, S., & Warikoo, N. (2020, July 13). Teachers are people too:

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Stowe, R. (2017). Culturally responsive teaching in an Oglala Lakota classroom. Social Studies, 108(6), 242–248.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). The Condition of Education 2020 (NCES 2020-144), Status Dropout Rates.

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