Culturally relevant pedagogy supports the most marginalized students

Systemic inequities in the current educational system are holding back historically marginalized students from reaching their full potential — and one way to begin to even the playing field is through culturally responsive and sustainable education, according to experts in the webinar “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: A Case Study in Successful Educational Systems.” The presentation was part of the daylong virtual event, “The Power of Relationships in Supporting Positive School Climates,” hosted by The California Center for School Climate.

Culturally responsive pedagogy allows for learning to go beyond the surface level and create significant and meaningful educational experiences for all students. Panelists identified it as a form of teaching that calls for engaging learners whose experiences and cultures are traditionally excluded from mainstream settings. Culturally responsive teaching emphasizes using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences and frames of reference of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant for them.

It is a foundational element of education, not an add-on and, by necessity, culturally responsive pedagogy must center race, according to Rawlin Rosario, WestEd senior program associate for the Culturally Responsive and Equitable Systems team.

“We know that students are not having the same experiences in our education system and oftentimes centering race will allow us to see the most marginalized students’ experiences,” Rosario said. “Culturally responsive and sustainable education should be foundational in the way that we approach education, the way we teach, build community and interact with our students to ensure they have the best opportunities to find their own path.”

He emphasized that the way to this foundational approach is through evaluation and transformation of adult-created systems. “Our communities, our children and our families are not broken. We need to refocus our gaze to pay attention to the systems, structures and adult practices that often get in the way of improving outcomes for our students.”

Rosario outlined the three systemic factors that influence inequities in the education system: beliefs of educators and the institution about students and communities, the institution’s policies and procedures, and how those are implemented into practice.

Rosario broke down the bias-based beliefs that often impact the rigor of academic instruction and discipline in the classroom. Color evasiveness is a belief that promotes the idea that the best way to remove racism is to omit race, gender and other social identities as a descriptor. It doesn’t consider social identities and focuses on discussing commonalities. “The default ideology is whiteness. Educators see race as a taboo topic that is irrelevant to their classrooms,” Rosario said.

Deficit thinking in schools involves the act of blaming a student, a student’s family or a student’s culture for academic or behavioral difficulties that occur. It minimizes the influence of systemic patterns and often depend on an educator’s view of what is “normal.” Oftentimes, this is paired with low expectations and low rigor for marginalized students. The last bias-based belief is poverty disciplining, which involves an educator thinking they have to change the behavior and psychological dispositions of low-income students in order for them to succeed, instead of looking at the system.

“As we think about how we incorporate culturally responsive practices, it all begins at the personal level,” Rosario said. “We have to consider our own attitudes. We can’t build relationships with students if we don’t have a firm understanding of who we are and how we show up.

Practical tips for implementation

Timothy Ojetunde, WestEd program associate with Resilient and Healthy Schools and Communities, outlined some of the steps local educational agencies can take to get to a place of “cultural efficiency.” He called for moving from the idea of ethnocentrism, which centers one culture and compares others to that standard, to ethnorelativism, in which culture is understood best through its own people.

To begin this journey, Ojetunde recommends starting with a shared language and vision involving multiple voices and perspectives; assembling the right team; building consensus around desired change, key drivers and process; monitoring impact continuously; and committing to the process for the long term.

Student voice is imperative in culturally responsive and sustainable pedagogy. Ignoring and devaluing students’ cultural assets leads to internalized devaluation, a lack of belonging and sense of self, and internalized helplessness, which affects a student’s ability to advocate for themselves.

Ojetunde recommended looking at the New York Department of Education’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining (CR-S) framework (, which is intended to help education stakeholders create student-centered learning environments that affirm cultural identities; foster positive academic outcomes; develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; empower students as agents of social change; and contribute to individual student engagement, learning, growth and achievement through the cultivation of critical thinking. The framework was designed to support education stakeholders in developing and implementing policies that educate all students effectively and equitably, as well as provide appropriate supports and services to promote positive student outcomes.

Rosario also recommended putting “working agreements” in place before beginning the real work of systems change. These include accepting and expecting a lack of closure, focusing on impact versus intent, staying engaged even when things get uncomfortable; and a willingness to interrogate “ourselves and our systems” and how they affect students.