Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America's Classrooms

reviewed by Jose W. Lalas - September 28, 2010

coverTitle: Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America's Classrooms
Author(s): Tyrone C. Howard
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750719, Pages: 208, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms, Tyrone Howard offers a perspective that many K-12 practitioners are not comfortable discussing: race, racism, and culture and their connection to disparities in academic achievement across different student groups. Despite the well-documented academic discrepancies that show the high-scoring White and various Asian American students on one side and the low-scoring African-American, Latino-American, and Native American students on the other side, K-12 practitioners and teacher educators, in general, do not focus any public discussion of academic gap by ethnicity but on the performance of the subgroups, namely, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, English learners, and students with disabilities. In a very timely manner at this testy period in the field of education, Howard makes a scholarly argument and persuasive call for action to all school leaders, teachers, teacher educators, and practicing educators to confront the harsh reality of achievement gap by ethnicity and presents convincing student performance and demographic data related to the complexity of race, racism, and culture as explanatory factors to the challenges faced by students of color in their schooling environments.  

Throughout the book, Howard’s discussions of key concepts related to race and culture, achievement discrepancies, demographic shifts and the moral imperative to prepare for them, racial awareness, and cultural competence offer a vital source of knowledge, teaching strategies, and policy initiatives to practicing educators, teachers, teacher educators, k-12 administrators, and even local governing school boards.  Howard does not only introduce a fresh theoretical framework for understanding the complex nature of achievement gap across different ethnic groups, he also provides research-based guidelines for classroom teachers and instructional programs that have been implemented successfully for underachieving culturally diverse students.

Howard sets out to offer the reader the “what, why, and how” of the achievement gap and its connection to race, racism, and culture. He calls for urgent attention to improving the educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color as a “moral responsibility.” Howard’s perspective in this book, as with his other current writings (Howard, 2008), reflects his deep understanding of how race, racism, and culture play as factors in the schooling experiences of culturally diverse students, especially in the persistent low academic performance of the African-American and Latino-American students. Although he recognizes the assertion that academic gaps are “merely a by-product of gaps that exist in society at large” and that “education did not cause these problems,” Howard makes it clear in his book that he believes that educators “will continue to play a vital role in helping to address the disparate types of educational opportunities afforded to different groups of students” (p. 14). He calls for all practicing educators to care about those diverse students by seeking ways to develop their cultural competence and racial awareness and infusing them in their work with these marginalized students of color.

Howard’s purpose in writing this book is clear: to contextualize the problem of the achievement gap between White and Asian-American students at the high end and the African-American and Latino-American, and other students of color at the low end, use race and culture as explanatory variables to understand and explain the problem, and provide concrete examples of research-based guidelines and instructional programs that work for culturally diverse students.

In Chapter 1, Howard deepens the readers’ understanding of achievement gap by presenting some sobering statistics related to persistent gaps in academic performance between White and Asian American students at the high end and African-American and Hispanic-American students at the low end across assessment measures including the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and mathematics and the Scholastic Aptitude Test and placements in advanced academic and gifted courses. Howard also equips the readers of this book with five explanations about the ways in which race and culture are influential factors in education. Starting with the eugenics movement and deficit-based thinking and ending with cultural mismatch theory and stereotype threat, Howard contends that reversing or narrowing disparities of educational opportunities and outcomes would entail development of programs that produce competent, skilled, and highly trained teachers. In Chapter 2, Howard reminds the readers of the rapid rate of demographic changes in the United States with a compelling set of data and asks the question “are teachers being prepared to teach in diverse settings?” He implies his support for multicultural education as an instructional and curricular framework to provide teachers with knowledge and skills to be “empathetic teachers” in working with diverse learners. Although multicultural education is research-based and a viable instructional and curricular option for all students, this will be a challenging uphill battle for K-12 school leaders, teachers, teacher-educators, and local school boards to implement.

Howard covers the significance of understanding the complexity of culture and the practical effectiveness of culturally responsive pedagogy in Chapters 3 and 4. He asserts that “culture is not bound exclusively by one’s race, ethnicity, or place of origin, but is shaped by a myriad of factors” (p. 53) that influence student learning: language, gender, family history, religion, social class structure, cultural practices, geography, and migration or nonmigration patterns. As Howard reviews several theoretical perspectives on culture -- from Bourdieu’s cultural capital to Moll’s funds of knowledge, from Howard’s culturally consistent communicative competencies to Rogoff’s cultural repertoires of practice, he concludes that “culture is a messy, complex, ever-changing, and at times, contradictory concept” (p. 66) and suggests that educators continue to expand their understanding of culture when teaching diverse students. Howard describes culturally responsive pedagogy in Chapter 4 by spending time discussing its merits as both scholars and practitioners demonstrate its impact on improving student academic performance. He explains that in addition to increasing academic performance, it also develops students’ “critical consciousness and commitment to social justice” (p. 73). He presents compelling data on the positive impact of culturally responsive pedagogy from school districts’ programs and large-scale research grants that have been implemented and have helped underachieving students of color. Howard’s Chapter 4 could be enriched by Roselle Chartock’s Strategies and Lessons for Culturally Responsive Teaching (2010).

Howard places race and racism on the center stage in Chapter 5 as he asks several questions such as: What explanatory variables exist for the poor academic outcomes at predominantly African-American and Latino schools? How do we make meaning of the disproportionate numbers of African-American and Latino students who are placed in special education classrooms? What role, if any, do teachers’ racial attitudes and beliefs play in student performance? He cites several current empirical works examining race including the seminal studies of critical race theorists and scholars who view race as an integral part of American life and demonstrate how race intersects with other forms of subordination in school curriculum. Howard, in Chapter 6, calls for all practicing educators and researchers to engage willingly in critical self-reflection to develop one’s cultural competence and racial awareness. While Chapter 6 is rich in well-presented theories and experts’ views on how cultural competence and racial awareness could be developed through critical self-reflection, it lacks specificity on how to do it. Howard’s list of suggestions about ways to translate critical reflection into deeper racial awareness, although helpful and interesting, needs more empirical and practical work. The suggestions are good topics for future research.

Finally, in Chapter 7, Howard identifies, highlights, and analyzes the practices in four different schools that made improvements in closing the achievement gap. He enumerates 5 common characteristics that contributed to school success: visionary leadership, teachers’ effective practices, intensive academic intervention, explicit acknowledgment of race, and engagements of parents and community. Notice that Howard has acknowledgment of race in the list and describes in the chapter how comfortable the school leaders and the staff were in discussing race and racism as part of the school’s professional development. In a recent study by Theoharis (2010) on school principals’ strategies in improving schools and advancing social justice, he reported that all the principals in successful schools spend ongoing time with their staff discussing and learning about race. Like the lack of specific strategies on how to conduct critical self-reflection in Chapter 6, there needs to be specific guidelines on how to engage teachers and staff in school settings on conversations about race and racism in Chapter 7.

In summary, this book is exciting to read. It is 181 pages including the bibliography and index. It is clearly written with chapters that cover topics that are well-researched and carefully presented to inform all practicing educators why race and culture matter in schools. While many educators avoid the issues of race, racism, and culture as explanations for the persistent achievement gap, Howard contributes this book as an analytical tool to understand its complexity.


Chartock, R. K. (2010). Strategies and lessons for culturally responsive teaching: A primer for

K-12 teachers. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Howard, T. C. (2008).  Who really cares? The disenfranchisement of African American males in prek-12 schools: A critical race theory perspective. Teachers College Record, 110(5), 954-985.

Theoharis, G. (2010). Disrupting injustice: Principals narrate the strategies they use to improve

their schools and advance social justice. Teachers College Record, 112(1), 331-373.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 28, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16172, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:26:43 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Jose Lalas
    University of Redlands
    E-mail Author
    JOSE W. LALAS is Professor of Teacher Education and Director of the Center for Educational Justice at University of Redlands. His current publications include: Lalas, J. (Spring 2007). Teaching for Social Justice in Multicultural Urban Schools: Conceptualization and Implication in Multicultural Education; Lalas, J. & Valle, E. (2007). Social Justice Lenses and Authentic Student Voices: Enhancing Leadership for Educational Justice. Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development , in Journal of CAPEA; Lalas, J. & Solomon, M. (2007). Instructional Adaptation as an Equity Solution for English Learners and Special Needs Students: Practicing Educational Justice in the Mainstream Classroom. Des Moines, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing; and Lalas, J. & Morgan, R. (2006). Training School Leaders Who Will Promote Educational Justice: What, Why, and How? Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development, in Journal of CAPEA. 

Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue