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Cultural Competence in America's Schools: Leadership, Engagement and Understanding

reviewed by Joe Orovecz & Gaėtane Jean-Marie - June 25, 2015

coverTitle: Cultural Competence in America's Schools: Leadership, Engagement and Understanding
Author(s): Bruce A. Jones & Edwin J. Nichols
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623961742, Pages: 196, Year: 2013
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Through their book Cultural Competence in America’s Schools: Leadership, Engagement, and Understanding, Bruce A. Jones and Edwin J. Nichols provide a timely account of the lack of cultural competence that has historically pervaded the educational system within the United States. They introduce a framework for approaching cultural competence and discuss its application at all levels of the educational system from instruction to administration, educational policy development, and implementation. The authors focus on how instructors and educational leaders can conceptualize, enact, and assess the cultural competence of their own practices as well as the cultural competence of system level initiatives. Throughout the nine chapters of the book, four themes become very clear: (a) knowing and understanding the past is the key to understanding the present and creating change for the future; (b) relationships are not only important but are essential in providing culturally competent education; (c) cultural differences do exist and must be acknowledged for culturally competent education to occur; and (d) cultural competence is everyone’s responsibility.

In their first chapter, the authors provide a compelling case for why a focus on cultural competence is needed in the field of education. They discuss issues of increasing diversity and globalization, the failings of the U.S. educational system in graduating ethnically diverse students, and the wage disparities experienced across race and gender in the U.S. and how these disparities relate to educational attainment. The authors also use this chapter to define cultural competence as “the acceptance of the significance of sociopolitical, economic, and historical experiences of different racial, ethnic, and gender subgroups as legitimate experiences that have a profound influence on how people learn and achieve inside and outside of formal and informal education settings” (pp. 8–9). Although this definition can be criticized for not including other important aspects of cultural identity (e.g., ability status, sexual orientation, religion), the authors concentrate their work on racial and ethnic diversity, and the definition the authors provide does set an important tone for understanding diversity from a systemic perspective, rather than perpetuating stereotypes through categorizations of groups of people based on particular identities.

The authors discuss how people from particular ethnic backgrounds engage with others, and rather than defining the characteristics of each group in a rote and stereotypical manner, the authors seek to understand the shared historical and lived experiences of different peoples and how those shared experiences may influence different peoples’ ways of interacting with the world. The authors accomplish this aim through the conceptual framework of philosophical aspects of cultural difference. Explicated in the second chapter of the book, and continually referenced throughout the remainder of the volume, this framework seeks to understand groups of people in terms of axiology (values), epistemology (how people know), and logic (the process of reasoning) using evolutionary theory. The framework proposes that over the course of evolutionary history, different groups of people lived in different environmental conditions, which shaped their ways of engaging with the world based on a need and drive to survive and thrive. The authors provide a compelling case for their framework as it relates to individuals of European descent across the three domains of axiology, epistemology, and logic, and the framework itself provides useful insights on the values, processes of knowing, and processes of reasoning of the other peoples discussed in the book.

There is, however, a noticeable difference in the depth and breadth of the explication afforded the framework’s conceptualization of individuals of European descent. This difference is evident in the number of pages allocated to each group, and can leave the reader wanting both further explanation of the framework’s evolutionary understanding (of different ethnic groups), and more detailed explanations of how the framework conceptualizes the axiology, epistemology, and logic of those groups. Despite leaving the reader wanting a bit more, the discussion of the framework does provide a useful grounding for the remainder of the book, helping to establish themes related to the impact of the past, the importance of relationships, and the need to acknowledge and understand cultural difference.

Building on and pulling from the philosophical aspects of cultural difference framework, the authors use the remaining seven chapters to address topics that teachers and administrators will find salient in their work. The topics the authors discuss include: (a) the importance of viewing students as assets rather than taking a deficit approach when working as an educator and the necessity of making the formation of relationships a primary goal in educational settings; (b) the necessity of eco-systemic leadership to motivate change and promote cultural competence; (c) the failure of reform movements and policy initiatives to address the needs of the groups they seek to serve; and (d) the ways in which the impact of cultural competency efforts can be assessed.

The authors discuss the interaction of having an asset versus a deficit view of students and a relationship versus content approach to teaching—with culturally competent instruction grounded in a view of students as assets and an approach to education that is relationship-based. The authors make it clear that culturally competent educators view content and assessment of content-related knowledge as important. However, content and student assessment are secondary to the establishment of relationships with students—relationships that are viewed as imperative in facilitating the process of learning. The authors discuss how trust, transformative education, transparency, social justice, and equity all play a role in creating and maintaining relationships.

They also provide practical advice to educators for how they can overcome the deficit narrative, fostered by dichotomous thinking and a history of racism in the U.S., and genuinely treat students and their backgrounds as assets. In line with viewing students’ backgrounds as assets and placing values on relationships, the authors also discuss the importance of dispelling myths around U.S. family structure, and fostering educational environments in which families and communities are viewed as partners in helping students succeed. Although, in some ways, this may seem like trite advice, the authors provide directives and a number of questions for reflection that facilitate the process of genuinely considering the backgrounds of students. They also detail what that means for how we should engage with them in the classroom and how educational systems should not only engage with them as students, but also with the family and community systems of which they are a part.

From a leadership perspective, the authors define the eco-systemic leader as culturally competent and able to create significant change in organizational settings that reflect that cultural competence. Eco-systemic leadership can be seen as a synthesis of the four themes mentioned at the beginning of this review. Eco-systemic leaders know the history of the schools and neighborhoods, their own cultural history, and the broader history of racism in the U.S. that continues to persist and have an influence to this day. They place value on relationships and understand the significance of those relationships in educational contexts.

They make sure all those with whom they work understand that cultural competence is a shared responsibility and they strive to create leadership teams that are representative of the students they serve to be a part of decision making processes. While the authors’ description of the eco-systemic leader at times reads as somewhat of an unattainable ideal, the authors provide directives and questions for reflection that make this approach to leadership something that can be realized when sufficient effort is invested. Indeed, the authors’ description highlights the amount of work it takes to be a culturally competent leader, work that is not only important, but is imperative if change in student outcomes is to occur.

In one of the final chapters of the book, the authors hone in on broader policy initiatives and the lack of cultural competence. The authors discuss, in particular, the failure of the Comprehensive School Reform Movement (CSR), and the issues that are inherent in the Standards-Based Reform Movement (SBR) when viewed from a perspective of seeking to promote cultural competence. The authors note that neither of the movements explicitly addresses cultural competence as an aspect of reform. They highlight the focus of these movements on test scores and rankings over the human relationships that will facilitate learning. They also elaborate on the important point that these movements are predominantly being designed by European Americans, and are supposed to effect change in racially and ethnically diverse populations. With these movements being devoid of cultural competence as an objective, neglecting human relationships, and lacking input from the communities they are seeking to serve, it is not difficult to see why they are not meeting their objectives. The authors’ advice to incorporate cultural competence into reform movements and recognize and give weight to the voices of individuals from diverse racial and ethnic background would serve those creating policy initiatives well if properly heeded.

The final chapter of the book is an excellent guide for educational leaders in how to assess the impact of cultural competence initiatives. Similar to their approach in other chapters, the authors provide some directives, but predominantly, the authors pose questions to educational leaders that facilitate the evaluation process and provide indicators of ways in which a more culturally inclusive educational setting can be created. There is no specific checklist that indicates cultural competence has been attained; cultural competence comes from a continual process of assessing the environment that is being created for students and staff.

The authors of Cultural Competence in America’s Schools: Leadership, Engagement, and Understanding compel their readers to do something that is imperative in any endeavor to develop cultural competence. They compel their readers to think. There is no checklist to being culturally competent and the authors’ approach in this book makes that clear. Cultural competence is a process that involves: (a) developing an understanding of how the past impacts the present; (b) valuing and fostering relationships; (c) recognizing and understanding the meaning of cultural differences; and (d) building awareness and understanding in others that cultural competence is everyone’s responsibility. These are processes that are ongoing and reflect another theme of this book—cultural competence takes work. Working toward making change for racially and ethnically diverse groups is not an easy task, but Cultural Competence in America’s Schools: Leadership, Engagement, and Understanding provides instructors, administrators, and policy makers with an excellent guide for conceptualizing how that change might be possible.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 25, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18005, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:00:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Joe Orovecz
    The University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    JOE OROVECZ is a fourth year Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Gaėtane Jean-Marie
    College of Education and Human Development (
    E-mail Author
    GAĖTANE JEAN-MARIE, PhD, is professor of educational leadership and department chair of Leadership, Foundations & Human Resource Education in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). Her research focuses on leadership development and preparation in a global context, educational equity in K–12 schools, and women and leadership in P-20 system. To date, she has over 70 publications which include books, book chapters, and academic articles in numerous peer-reviewed journals. Her recent publications include two co-edited books, The duality of women scholars of color: Transforming and being transformed in the academy (2014, Information Age) and Cross cultural women scholars in academe: Intergenerational voices (2014, Routledge).
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