Evidence Mounts for Culturally Responsive Teaching—But More Research is Needed

Blog Post
Oct. 23, 2018

A growing body of research is confirming what teachers have known for a while: culturally responsive practices work. These strategies—which include using culturally relevant curriculum, affirming students’ cultural identity, among other actions—have been shown to move the needle on a host of student outcomes, from attendance to grade point average. Now a recently released study published in School Psychology Review unveils another potential benefit: improved behavior.

Researchers observed over 200 elementary and middle school teachers in their classrooms and found that a number of behaviors indicative of culturally responsive teaching (e.g., using culturally relevant artifacts, storytelling and sharing, and planning lessons related to the real world) as well as behaviors that constitute proactive behavior management (e.g., giving clear instructions, clearly explaining objectives, and rewarding students for positive behaviors) were associated with positive student behaviors, such as cooperation and engagement.

While encouraging, it’s important to note that only a moderate positive association was found between culturally responsive teaching practices and students’ behavior. Researchers also found that culturally responsive practice was generally low among teachers when compared to teachers’ use of proactive behavior management techniques. This finding can be chalked up to a critical limitation of the study, which was that researchers only observed teachers during a 15 minute period. However, the findings may also indicate that teachers in the study have received inadequate preparation in this area.

Elsewhere, the findings are more surprising. For instance, researchers surveyed teachers about their confidence working in multicultural settings and managing challenging behaviors, and found that teachers’ perceptions about their own skills did not match up with the behavior researchers observed. In fact, researchers found that teachers’ ratings of their ability to employ behavior management and culturally responsive teaching were actually negatively associated with their behavior management practice. In other words, teachers overestimated their competencies. For this reason, researchers emphasize the need for additional research on the impact of culturally responsive teaching that involves observing teaching and learning in action.

Addressing gaps in the research

Many call for increasing the availability of research-aligned professional development in culturally responsive teaching strategies. The unfortunate reality is rigorous research studies on effective culturally responsive instruction are rare.

As I’ve previously written, the lack of rigorous, large-scale studies on the impact of culturally responsive teaching creates a number of problems. For one thing, if studies on culturally responsive teaching do not hold up to the rigorous standards set by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)’s research evidence provisions, this can keep culturally responsive teaching initiatives from certain federal funding streams that are tied to research evidence. The lack of studies that meet rigorous research standards also means many culturally responsive teaching interventions are kept out of well-known repositories of education research, such as What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), where they can be accessed by practitioners.

While an uptick of initiatives focused on culturally responsive teaching are emerging across the country, many are not coupled with a plan to evaluate their quality or impact—even though research on this approach is sorely needed. The good news is that education leaders at all levels can play a role in ensuring research on culturally responsive practices gains ground.

For their part, federal policymakers should continue to place value on developing education research, including by allocating resources to Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) that can partner with educators and policymakers to conduct, interpret, and implement research on culturally responsive practices. A number of RELs are already doing so. Education Northwest, for instance, has synthesized existing research on culturally responsive practices and developed a popular guide for educators. More recently, Education Midwest has partnered with states to support and gauge the impact of culturally responsive teaching initiatives.

State education leaders can play a role by taking stock of current culturally responsive teaching initiatives in their state and incentivising their evaluation. To increase their capacity to do so, these leaders should consider fostering research-based partnerships with research organizations and universities. State education agencies should also develop processes for spotlighting and scaling up initiative that are found to have a positive impact on student outcomes.

Similarly, local education leaders should develop processes for identifying promising initiatives in their own districts and schools. With a fine-tuned feedback loop, local leaders are in a better position to support the scaling up of promising programs. Here too, local leaders can leverage research-based partnerships with research organizations, universities, and other districts. Building on this effort, local education leaders should ensure that resulting research actively informs policies and practices that govern teaching and learning in their respective districts and schools.

It’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure rigorous research on culturally responsive teaching is available and widely accessible—and education leadership at all levels can help answer that call.

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