'Culturally Responsive Education' Can Morph from Appealing Theory to Troubling Practice

'Culturally Responsive Education' Can Morph from Appealing Theory to Troubling Practice
Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP
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Anyone who spends much time around schools is by now familiar with the debates over Critical Race Theory. Less prominent has been the rise of “culturally responsive education,” which seeks to help all students feel valued and to promote academic success by connecting classroom instruction to students’ cultures and experiences. In theory, this seems like a no-brainer. After all, every parent and educator wants students to feel included and engaged. 

Unfortunately, in practice, “culturally responsive education” can turn out to be something far different from what’s advertised. As schools across the land (from New York City to Los Angeles) employ or explore “culturally responsive” approaches, this reality is on vivid display in the influential New America Foundation’s just-published report, “Embracing Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Instructional Materials.” The document presents a vision of “culturally responsive and sustaining education” (CRSE) that seems engineered to yield ideological agendas and academic mediocrity.

At first glance, the report, authored by New America’s Jenny Muñiz, seems ripe with common-sense promise, sketching strategies for schools and states to adopt materials that help “all students experience learning that is collaborative, joyful, and empowering.” Muñiz argues that students need to “see their cultural experiences, funds of knowledge, interests, and daily life elevated in all aspects of schooling.” This all seems admirable enough at first blush.

More troubling, however, is another prominent objective of culturally responsive education: “Inspir[ing]” students “to address injustice in schools, their communities, and the world.” While such a goal could hold some abstract allure, it’s clear in context that this charge quite consciously is seeking to blur (or erase) the lines between inclusivity and ideological advocacy. A clear example appears in the NYU Metro Center’s “Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard,” prominently featured in the report, which urges educators to rate materials based on whether they satisfactorily address “decolonization, power and privilege.”

And despite the lip service it pays to “rigor,” the report’s vision of culturally responsive education champions new norms that seem destined to make it harder for teachers to use academically rigorous materials with a track record of success. Muñiz urges that “high-quality” curricula be redefined, arguing: “Materials that do not represent students’ identities and histories; reify the purpose of academic concepts and skills in students’ everyday lives; and guide teachers to make home-school connections that are free from bias” don’t “fully meet the needs of culturally, ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse students” and therefore “should not be considered high-quality.”

Aside from concerns about what this word salad means in practice (just what does it mean to “reify the purpose of academic concepts” in a student’s “everyday” life?), such a stance will inevitably render discussions about curricular clarity and coherence subject to the whims of woke dogma. This new definition of “quality” would disqualify meticulous, successful curricula in subjects like calculus or chemistry in favor of those which devote attention to “identities and histories” or genuflect to some vague ideal of cultural, racial, and linguistic representation. Anyone who has ever handled a textbook in which simple concepts are rendered indecipherable in an attempt to placate the textbook approval process can appreciate the problems that await.  

Concerns about academic rigor being subjugated to the dictates of identity politics only grow when one considers the frameworks designed to gauge curricular quality. For instance, Muñiz lauds a scorecard for evaluating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) curricula, also designed by NYU’s aforementioned Metro Center. This rubric measures a given curriculum on a number of ideological criteria, including whether it “affirms the multiple forms of communication or language systems during mathematical and scientific argumentation rooted in historically marginalized culture” or “highlights and affirms the knowledge systems of Indigenous, Black/African, Brown, and non-Western conceptions of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (such as interdependence, sustainability, and continual change).” We can’t help but wonder what happens to instruction in hypothesis testing, fractions, and geometry when educators are focused on “language systems” or affirming “non-Western conceptions of science.” Indeed, such criteria seem disturbingly akin to the cartoonish, widely ridiculed materials shared (and then later retracted) last summer by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, asserting that the scientific method is proprietary to “white culture.”

Now, some may wonder if the more troubling aspects of culturally responsive education are justified by evidence demonstrating that they make a difference in the academic success of students, particularly those who have historically been marginalized. But even Muñiz is forced to concede that there’s little evidence regarding the “impact of [culturally responsive and sustaining] programs and practices on students’ academic, social, and emotional development over time.” In other words, there’s not actually evidence that these practices work as intended.

We’re both one-time high school teachers who’ve seen firsthand the value of classroom materials that help every student to feel included and engaged. Such efforts can and should enjoy broad support. But when proponents of culturally responsive education seek to transform this good-faith consensus into a vehicle for pursuing ideological crusades at the expense of academic rigor, their efforts deserve to be roundly rejected by parents and educators alike.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Tracey Schirra is a research associate at AEI.

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