Spotlight on Wisconsin: Building a Culturally Responsive Workforce

Blog Post
March 20, 2020

Eight years ago, Wisconsin’s then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers delivered a consequential speech to teachers and leaders in downtown Milwaukee. For the first time in a State of Education Convention Address, Evers—who now serves as governor of Wisconsin—laid bare the racial disparities at the core of his state’s educational system. Pointing to lagging graduation rates among students of color, the former superintendent promised sweeping reforms

Evers had a big job ahead: then, as now, Wisconsin faced one of the starkest performance gaps between white students and students of color of any state in nearly every area, from graduation rates to test scores. To address gaps in educational access and outcomes, Evers implemented a wide range of initiatives during his three-term tenure.

One of the state’s earliest and most notable strategies has involved preparing teachers and leaders to adopt culturally responsive practices (CRP). According to Wisconsin, the goal of CRP is to affirm students’ racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds as well as reduce bias in educational programs, practices, and policies.

Ensuring that educators have the knowledge and skills necessary to implement CRP is central to the state's larger equity strategy. Its Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is now leveraging four strategies to prepare them, providing an example of how state-level leadership can help districts and schools deploy rigorous and culturally responsive instruction.

1) Establishing a Statewide Vision

Part of the challenge of building culturally responsive schools is that there is still wide variation in how educators and leaders define and understand CRP. To address this challenge, DPI worked with the Wisconsin RtI Center and the Disproportionality Technical Assistance Network to develop the Model to Inform Culturally Responsive Practices (pictured below). Published in 2015, this framework establishes the beliefs, knowledge, and practices educators and leaders need to serve all of Wisconsin’s students and families, particularly those who have been historically underserved.

Wisconsin’s Model to Inform Culturally Responsive Practices

The framework synthesizes decades of research on CRP into eight components undergirded by a supporting document that explains the rationale underlying each one. The components are not meant to function as a checklist, but rather guide a continuous process of reflection. According to this model, teachers ought to assess how they are integrating students’ cultures into the classroom, reframing their own biases, learning about students and families, dismantling barriers for underserved learners, and more. To date, Wisconsin is one of only a few states that has articulated a vision for CRP in such depth.

2) Integrating CRP into Broader Goals and Resources

A guide that establishes shared culturally responsive practices can be incredibly useful for educators, but it alone cannot shape how students are taught. Also critical is ensuring coherence between CRP and existing goals, strategies, and resources. At the state level, this may include considering cultural responsiveness when developing teaching standards, evaluation systems, instructional resources, and recommendations for local curricula.

In Wisconsin, leaders have worked to ensure that their existing equity efforts include a cross-cutting focus on CRP. One notable example is its integration in Wisconsin's Framework for Equitable Multi-Level Systems of Supports (MLSS). This framework describes 11 key systems (e.g., family and community engagement, strategic use of data, high- quality instruction) that are essential to building a “multi-level system of support” where all students receive varying degrees of academic, behavioral, social, and emotional supports. The state has noted that CRP can be used to inform the delivery of each feature in the framework. For example, to deploy high-quality instruction within the MLSS program, it is recommended that educators “ensure learner identities are positively represented in curricular materials and throughout the physical environment.”

Culturally responsive practices are also featured prominently in a recently released tool: Instructional Practice Guides for Equitable Teaching and Learning in English Language Arts. Developed by Wisconsin English language arts educators and DPI’s Literacy and Mathematics Team, these guides provide examples of best practices for English language arts classes across grade levels. Examples of practices recommended include treating student diversity as a strength, integrating students’ cultures in learning, and creating physical learning environments that reflect students’ identities.

Additional resources:

  • Culturally Responsive Problem-Solving. This webinar provides an overview of culturally responsive problem-solving, a method for solving student behavior or social, emotional, and mental health concerns through a strength-based, rather than deficit-based, approach.
  • Equity Decision and Policy Tool. This decision-making tool helps stakeholders make informed decisions—whether they are developing a policy or implementing a program— that take into account equity considerations such as access, stakeholder input, and unintentional consequences.
  • Wisconsin's Guiding Principles for Teaching and Learning. This guiding document is intended to help teachers coordinate the implementation of Common Core State Standards. One of the principles (“responsive environments engaging learners”) describes how teachers can forge welcoming learning environments for all students.

3) Offering Professional Learning Opportunities

Ongoing professional development is necessary to support teachers and leaders as they engage in the challenging work of building equitable and culturally responsive schools. In Wisconsin, DPI, the Disproportionality Technical Assistance Network, and the Wisconsin RtI Center and PBIS Network offer a number of supports to help teachers and leaders deepen their understanding and use of culturally responsive practices.

Funded by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) discretionary dollars, the Wisconsin RtI Center and PBIS Network provide an array of resources and training to help schools and districts implement a multi-level system of support for all students. One of its offerings includes the Building Culturally Responsive Systems training, available to any school or district team interested in enhancing its use of CRP.

Importantly, the training is not intended to be a one-off. Andreal Davis, RtI Center’s culturally responsive practices coordinator, says school and district teams commit to engaging over a year. They begin by attending a two-day training to deepen their understanding of various aspects of Wisconsin’s Model to Inform Culturally Responsive Practices and develop a plan for using the model in their local context. For example, participants reflect on racial biases that exist in their belief and school systems and then brainstorm ways to address them. At mid-year, the center connects with teams to gauge their learning and offer tools to translate their learning into effective practice. The training culminates with a session where participants discuss what actions they have taken toward each one of the model’s components and show outcomes through the use of performance data, surveys, or interviews.

The Building Culturally Responsive Systems training is open to any school or district team but is offered at low or no cost to teams from schools that have been identified by the state as low-performing. Since the 2013–15 school year, more than 600 participants—including grade-level teachers, school administrators, district curriculum administrators, special educators, and instructional leaders—have taken part.

Additional resources:

  • Beyond Diversity Seminar I and II. Offered by the Disproportionality Technical Assistance Network, this sequence of workshops immerse participants in conversations about cultural and racial biases with the aim of preventing students of color from being placed in special education at disproportionate rates.
  • Promoting Excellence for All. This eCourse shares strategies for raising the achievement of students of color and calls on educators to explore their beliefs, performance data, and instructional strategies with race in mind.
  • Embracing Equity. Required of all DPI employees, this eCourse provides introductory information on issues such as racial anxiety, microaggression, and color-blindness. Beginning in April 2020, the training will be conducted in person and will delve more deeply into issues of institutional bias.

4) Evaluating Reach and Impact

Examining the reach and impact of existing efforts to implement CRP is necessary for identifying and scaling up strategies that work. To this end, Wisconsin RtI Center’s 2018–19 annual report describes efforts to implement CRP as part of a multi-tier system of support in 187 schools. The report breaks down schools’ implementation efforts into four stages and shows that a majority of schools surveyed are in the third stage—initial implementation—when it comes to CRP. During this stage, systematic changes to adult practices, processes, and procedures happen. The first two stages include building support and making plans for CRP. After initial implementation, schools will move to the fourth stage: full implementation and refinement of school-wide CRP practices. The report also shows that implementation has begun to reduce the gap in suspensions for students of color.

To supplement these findings, Wisconsin’s DPI has forged a partnership with researchers at the REL Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance, which will analyze the impact of the Building Culturally Responsive Systems training on student outcomes such as test scores and attendance. Slated to be published this summer, this ongoing investigation will also put together a full portrait of which schools received the training and implemented CRP as part of their multi-tiered system of support.

While too soon to tell if these new ideas are improving the odds for students of color, the Badger State’s efforts to provide layered resources in pursuit of culturally responsive practices appear to be a step in the right direction.

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Related Topics
Culturally Responsive Education