Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 20 Years Later: Progress or Pontificating? What Have We Learned, and Where Do We Go?

by Tyrone C. Howard & Andrea Rodriguez-Scheel - 2017

In this paper, the authors discuss the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy 20 years after its introduction to the professional literature. The authors discuss key tenets of culturally relevant pedagogy, examine empirical examples of it, and makes recommendations on how the concept may inform and influence the outcomes of culturally diverse students.

Issues pertaining to cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity in the United States remain more entrenched in the nation’s DNA than ever before. Nowhere is the manifestation of diversity more evident than in the nation’s schools (Banks, 2009). The U.S. Department of Education released a report in August, 2014, stating that for the first time in the nation’s history there were more non-White kindergarteners enrolled in classrooms than White students. While demographers had predicted this shift for some time, it still symbolized the changing racial dynamics in the country and was a watershed moment in the changing make-up of the nation that will only intensify over time. This ethnic and racial shift comes as the nation’s public schools have enrolled surging numbers of Latino and Asian American children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2014), Latino children in particular will account for 25.8% of U.S. public PreK–12 students in the 2014–15 school year and close to 30% in the 2019–20 school year. Moreover, NCES data informs us that White students are projected to make up 49.8% of students in U.S. public schools in 2014–15 and 46.9% in 2019–20. The number of White students is expected to decline steadily over the next several decades, dropping to as low as 35% of the total student population by the year 2060. African American enrollment in public schools will be approximately 15.4% in 2014–15 and approximately 15% in 2019–20. Among U.S. public school students, Asian Americans will make up 5.2% in 2014–15 and 5.3% in 2019–20, while Native Americans will be 1.1% in 2014–15 and 1% in 2019–20.

While news of increasing ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is not a novelty to large urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Houston, it does signify a representational shift in the nation’s racial and ethnic history that must be reckoned with. The ethnic and racial diversity of the United States has become a permanent reality of the nation’s schools, and the rest of the nation is soon to follow; some estimates predict that by 2060, people of color will make up 57% of the nation’s population (Dillon, 2006; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). While ethnic and cultural diversity continue to increase at a rapid speed nationally, the chronic achievement discrepancies between non-White and White students have been a disturbing reality that has become more glaring in the era of increased student diversity (Aud, Fox, & Kewal Ramani, 2010; Carter & Welner, 2013; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Despite a plethora of school reform efforts over the past three decades—including standards-based education movements, legislative interventions (No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a multitude of neoliberal reform efforts, increased standardized testing, the proliferation of charter schools across the country, and the unprecedented privatization of public education—one constant has remained: Students of color continue to underachieve in comparison to their counterparts from different racial and ethnic backgrounds (Howard, 2010). The opportunity gaps and learning outcomes between African American, Latino, Native American, and certain Asian American students and their White and Asian American counterparts has been well documented (Braun, Wang, Jenkins, & Weinbaum, 2006; Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000; Milner, 2010). Researchers have contended that performance disparities are due to factors such as structural inequality (Massey & Denton, 1993; Spring, 2006), poor teacher quality (Darling-Hammond, 2010), schools not adequately engaging parents and caretakers (Howard & Reynolds 2009), lack of student motivation (Ogbu, 1987), and racism in schooling practices (Kohli & Solórzano, 2012). Others have called for a radical distribution of resources (McLaren, 2006) or a new social movement aimed at authentic access and equity (Anyon, 2014). Despite these calls for societal transformation and resource redistribution, many educational practitioners, theorists, and researchers continue to seek meaningful day-to-day pedagogical interventions that may reverse the academic underperformance of students of color (Banks, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995b, 2006; Powell, 1997). For example, a close look at academic outcomes reveals that graduation rates for certain non-White students hover slightly over 50% in some school districts, and college-going prospects have shown little improvement over the past decade (Aud et al., 2010).

Another indicator of disparate school outcomes across student groups is in student punishment and discipline. It has become increasingly apparent that the greater the ethnic and racial diversity in schools, the higher the rates of school punishment and discipline. Disproportionate expulsions, placement in special education, and suspensions of Black and Brown children in particular remain a normative practice in many school districts (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010; Harry & Klingner, 2014). A number of scholars have found that cultural misunderstandings are a part of this reality that has seemingly gotten worse over the past decade (Ford, 1996; Howard, 2010, 2014). A report released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in 2014 revealed distinct differences across racial and cultural lines where school discipline is concerned. The OCR data inform us that the discipline disparities start early and remain intact for much of the school experiences of students who belong to cultural and racial minorities. Consider that the data show that African American youth make up 18% of all preschool-age children, yet they made up almost 50% of preschool-age children who received out-of-school suspensions in 2012 (OCR, 2014). One can only question what the offenses could be that lead to the suspension of four- and five-year-old children, but for Black children it is happening with a high degree of frequency across the nation. Furthermore, Black children remain three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White counterparts, and Black girls are suspended and expelled at higher rates than girls of any other racial or ethnic group and most boys (OCR, 2014). English-language learners continue to be disproportionately suspended from school, and Latino and African American males are among the groups with the most dismal outcomes across multiple indicators, including reading and math proficiency, suspension and expulsions, high school completion, and college-going rates (Schott Foundation for Public Education, 2012). At the 20-year retrospective of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP), what, if anything, do these data tell us about the state of affairs for children of color? What should the takeaways be for educational practitioners and scholars? And given the role of increasing racial and cultural diversity in the nation’s schools, what role should cultural relevance in teaching, practice, and policy play in this process? After several decades of calling for cultural relevance in instruction, content, and assessment, what, if any, progress has been made in the educational experiences and outcomes of culturally diverse students? This article will examine CRP 20 years after its introduction to the professional literature on teaching and learning. Examining CRP at this point is critical because its introduction to the professional literature sought to move educational research, theory, and practice on educating students of color in a distinctly different and transformative direction, a direction that moved away from the pathology of communities, students, and families of color (Bloom, Davis, & Hess, 1965; Jensen, 1969; Moynihan, 1965) and persistent underachievement, and toward the improvement of school outcomes for children of color. CRP also sought to move us away from the reductive notion of “learning styles,” which suggested that students of color possessed cognitive approaches that were racially mediated (Irvine & York, 1995). In short, CRP provided an important landmark in research, theory, and practice because it promoted the idea that students of color possess a rich, complex, and robust set of cultural practices, experiences, and knowledge that are essential for learning and understanding. Furthermore, the call for cultural relevance in pedagogy was made to recognize that the rich cultural fabric that students possess was valuable enough that, if it was thoughtfully connected to teaching, academic outcomes for students of color could improve (Gay, 2010). The introduction of culture into pedagogy has resulted in a notable number of research articles, academic and practitioner-friendly books, technical reports, school initiatives, and policy recommendations about the salience of lived experiences that students bring from home, which are often neglected in schools. In this article we will discuss the origins of CRP, revisit its core definitions and tenets, identify some notable empirical examples, and then discuss important next steps for the concept moving forward. We do this with a careful eye on ways of improving academic outcomes, reducing achievement disparities, and identifying a standard of academic excellence for all students, but with a particular focus on culturally diverse students. The genesis of the culture–pedagogy connection was to improve school outcomes, yet the verdict would suggest that this is far from a reality for many students of color. More importantly, it is essential to give necessary clarity to CRP because, over the past two decades, the deficit paradigm around students of color has re-emerged and requires empirically based rebuttals. Authors such as Ruby Payne (1996), Dinesh D’Souza (1995), John McWhorter (2000), and Abigail & Stephen Thernstrom (2003) have raised questions about the end of racism and offered a dangerous framework for understanding poverty, based on anti-intellectualism and a no-excuses approach that essentially ignores issues of structural inequity, racism, and discrimination and places inequities squarely on the backs of marginalized groups.


The work on CRP is important, but by no means is the concept of culture, teaching, and learning a new one. In the early 1970s and 1980s, scholars such as James Banks, Carl Grant, Christine Bennett, Geneva Gay, Sonia Nieto, and others called for multicultural education to become an integral part of school curriculum and instruction and school culture (Banks, 2004, 2015). The early multicultural-education pioneers were transformative at the time because they understood and recognized the forthcoming racial, ethnic, and cultural change in the nation’s schools and what it would mean for students if schools did not rethink and revise curriculum and practice. Dating back to the mid-1970s, scholars such as Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) talked about the cultural differences possessed by students of color and the need for educational practitioners to take notice of diverse ways of knowing, thinking, and communicating. In the early 1980s, scholars offered terms such as culturally appropriate (Au & Jordan, 1981), culturally congruent (Mohatt & Erickson, 1981), and culturally compatible (Jordan, 1985) approaches to instruction to recognize the value of cultural characteristics of non-White students. Later, scholars such as Ronald Edmonds (1986) and A. Wade Boykin (1986) suggested that there were unique cultural features that explained the manner in which African American students processed and participated in the learning process. Kathy Au (1980) examined teachers’ participation structures in lessons consistent with language practices common in Native Hawaiian speech events called “talk story” and saw reading achievement increase significantly. These scholars’ work must be recognized, because they were instrumental in moving away from the cultural deprivation and deficit explanations that had become entrenched in the professional literature about students of color.

In the early 1990s, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) built on the work of multicultural scholars by suggesting that the complexity of culture was such that it required educational theorists and practitioners to think about a culturally relevant approach to education. Ladson-Billings (1995) suggested that the marriage of culture and pedagogy would be a more suitable means to provide students of color with equitable opportunities for success in the classroom. She referred to CRP then as:

a pedagogy of opposition (1992c) not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment. Culturally relevant pedagogy rests on three criteria or propositions: (a) Students must experience academic success; (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order. (p.160)

Similarly, Banks & Banks (1995), in their framework on multicultural education, called for equity pedagogy, which they conceptualized as:

teaching strategies and classroom environments that help students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups attain the knowledge, skills and attitudes to function effectively within and help create and perpetuate a just, human and democratic society (p. XX)

Banks & Banks’ (1995) equity pedagogy is important here, because they maintained that multicultural content integration alone would not improve the schooling experiences of culturally diverse students. They suggested that practitioners should rethink teaching strategies and instructional variations that would create learning environments that recognized, embraced, and respected differences in all of their manifestations.

Culturally relevant pedagogy encouraged educational researchers and practitioners to examine culture as endemic to students’ socialization and ways of knowing, and therefore a fundamental aspect of the learning process of students of color. Erickson’s (2012) notion of culture is important here, as he informed us that:

Such learning began through child rearing and continued through further socialization throughout the life span. Through teaching and learning, much of which was non-deliberate and intuitive, humans transform an essentially labile human nature into differing cultural manifestations of humanness. In this sense, human culture is intrinsically connected with human education, formal and informal. It can be thought of as the basic “curriculum” of any social group; the patterns of organization within the conduct of everyday life. (p.3)

In staying with the idea of culture as the “basic curriculum” of any group, Geneva Gay (2010), who was also instrumental in the development of culture and pedagogy, stated that culturally responsive teaching is important because "the validation, information, and pride it generates are both psychologically and intellectually liberating” (p. 35). An examination of the terms culturally relevant and culturally responsive reveal little difference in scope, definition, aims, or purpose. Both recognize the salience of student culture, both contend that the affirmation of students’ identities is important, and both advocate for student achievement to occur without compromising cultural integrity. Ladson-Billings (1995a) also stated that culturally relevant teaching is an approach that “empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes” (pp. 16–17). She contended that there were additional elements of CRP that must be in place for the theory to be actualized:

Student learning being able to be enhanced with pedagogical interaction with skilled teachers. This reference is not limited to standardized testing outcomes, but frames learning within a broader context.

Cultural competence, or “helping students to recognize and honor their own cultural beliefs and practices while acquiring access to the wider culture” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 36).

Sociopolitical consciousness, where teachers help students to “recognize, understand and critique current social inequalities (Ladson-Billings, 1995b, p. 476).

Ladson-Billings (1995a, 2006) offered CRP to serve as an important theoretical tool to analyze how instructional practices could be arranged in a manner that could tap into a wide array of communicative and cognitive processes. Ladson-Billings’s (1995a) work helped to shed a much needed light on practitioners who were using a culturally centered approach in understanding and teaching students of color, as opposed to the cultural-deficit paradigm that was prevalent in educational research and practice.

To add further clarity to the culture-teaching concept, Gay (2010) described this approach to teaching as having the following characteristics:

It acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum.

It builds bridges of meaningfulness between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and lived sociocultural realities.

It uses a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles.

It teaches students to know and praise their own and each other’s cultural heritages.

It incorporates multicultural information, resources, and materials in all the subjects and skills routinely taught in schools. (p. 29)

As practitioners and researchers continue to make nuanced distinctions between relevance and responsiveness where culture and teaching are concerned, we believe such efforts are counterproductive. Both approaches emphasize similar ideas with comparable goals, and whatever differences exist between the two are minimal at best. The bigger challenge is to seek clarity about how both approaches are working in PreK–12 schools, where and how they are affecting students’ school experiences and outcomes, and where future work concerned with culture, teaching, and learning can go to move the field forward.


As scholars continue to make a compelling case for the importance of CRP as a way to rethink instructional practices to improve the educational performances of students of color, gaps in outcomes remain persistent. It could be argued that many practitioners have not quite grasped how to translate theory into practice. With the introduction of CRP, it has become more apparent that the merger of culture and pedagogy represents a complex and intricate set of processes that many individuals unfamiliar with the cultural context of students may not be aware of. We would argue that while the theoretical tenets of CRP have been growing in the literature for over two decades, concrete examples of what it looks like in practice remain a pressing need (Sleeter, 2012). To be clear, CRP rests on a comprehensive and informed set of knowledge and skills that many practitioners do not possess in their attempts to engage diverse students in the teaching and learning process (Ladson-Billings, 1995b). The growing chasm in the United States between the cultural and ethnic makeup of classroom teachers and that of students is relevant here. Data from the U.S. Department of Education inform us that over 80% of classroom teachers are White, middle class, and monolingual (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Hence, it is highly likely that many, if not most, teachers in today’s schools, although well-intentioned, may be quite unaware of the cultural knowledge, practices, and dispositions that their students bring from their homes and communities.

Current teacher demographics coinciding with today’s students make-up creates the possibility of a significant cultural-knowledge gap between teachers and students, which Gay and Howard (2001) refer to as the demographic divide. Hence, any attempt to see CRP enacted on a larger scale in U.S. schools is contingent on helping teachers bridge the widespread cultural-knowledge gap in their classrooms (Milner, 2010). Thus, what is needed is a way not only to translate theory to practice for in-service and pre-service teachers, but also to be clearer in this process about how to evaluate, to what extent the research on cultural relevance informs educators about culture in a dynamic and complex manner, how it connects to cognition and communication, and how teachers must think about pedagogical decisions and practices.

Perhaps the most fundamental step in increasing the knowledge base around culturally relevant teaching is to assist practitioners in knowing that it is more than a simplistic way of teaching or pre-packaged curriculum unit, but rather is connected to a more progressive and socially conscious mindset about culture, learning, and diversity (Foster, 1993; Lee, 2007). Much as Banks (1995) stated that multicultural education is an idea, a concept, an approach to teaching, and a way of life that goes beyond mere content integration, the same could be said about CRP. CRP has to be centered on an understanding and embracing of cultural diversity, to be a manifestation of authentic appreciation of different ways of knowing and doing, and to be embedded in a critical consciousness that recognizes the intricacies of alternative modes of communicating, which are connected to a larger historical and political context. Thus, practitioners who seek to reduce culturally relevant teaching to a lesson or how-to steps (e.g., Can you just show me how to do it?) miss the mark miserably, and as a result will fail to recognize the intricacies of culture and the importance of pedagogy, and will fall short in understanding that the idea is built on a particular ideology about diversity, meaningful relationships between students and teachers, and the role of culture in the learning process. In short, CRP encourages practitioners to care authentically, to tap into prior knowledge in a sustained and non-judgmental manner, to respect and learn youth literacies, and to see the clear connections between how culturally diverse students navigate and understand the world, and how that knowledge can serve as an invaluable bridge to mastering academic content and having positive school experiences (Camangian, 2010; Esposito & Swain, 2009; Gay, 2010; Hollins, 1996; Valenzuela, 1999). Something that has been consistent in the literature is that CRP embodies a deep professional, political, cultural, ethical, and ideological disposition and is centered on fundamental beliefs about teaching, learning, literacy students, their families, and their communities, as well as an unapologetic commitment to seeing student success become less rhetoric and more of a reality (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Dixson, 2014; Gay, 2010, Howard, 2001a; Ladson-Billings, 1995a, 1995b).

Various questions and objections have been raised about the appropriateness of CRP. Some have suggested that culturally based teaching approaches are lacking in depth and rigor, while others have claimed that the emphasis on culture denies students access to core academic skills such as reading, writing, and math, which are purported to be culturally neutral (Hirsch, 1987; Ravitch, 2003). Another commonly cited critique is that CRP seems suited only for students of color. Irvine and Armento (2000) debunked this critique by showing that culturally relevant teaching is not a novel or transformative approach to teaching. In fact, they maintained that culturally relevant teaching has been a staple in U.S. schools for centuries, but it has been mostly in line with one group of students—the cultural knowledge and history of U.S.-born, middle-class, English-speaking, White students. In essence, they claimed that pedagogy is culturally situated in a framework that is foreign, and at times dismissive, to students of color, and that given the current demographic shift, teachers need to acquire an understanding of different types of cultural knowledge. Irvine and Armento also contended that this is one of the primary reasons that, historically, White middle-class students have performed better in school than all other student groups. That is, because the epistemological origin of school knowledge, values, culture, content, examples, analogies, and practices is heavily steeped in a Eurocentric and patriarchal worldview, experience, and ideology, it thus omits the experiences, history, contributions, and culture of people of color, the poor, and women.

Other scholars have contended that the concept of CRP falls short because it fails to capture a more robust, complex, and organic account of culture. Gutiérrez (2008) drew on her research with students from migrant farmworker families to describe a “curriculum and its pedagogy [that] are grounded in the historical and current particulars of students’ everyday lives” (p.154). To that end, she has called for students’ repertoires of practice to be prioritized in the teaching and learning process. She and other scholars have called for a more sociocultural approach to connecting students’ lived experiences to classroom pedagogy (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Lee, 2007; Nasir, 2002).

Some have called into question the instruments that are utilized in schools to assess student learning and whether there have been enough studies showing the influence of CRP on traditional forms of student achievement (Sleeter, 2012). The argument, which is a valid one, states that culturally relevant approaches may not be able to be assessed by traditional measures that are lacking in the cultural elements that are germane to students. Such critiques and concerns pose additional questions, which we will address later. Among the issues to be considered is whether the practice has been consistent with the breadth and depth of the conceptual framing. While we embrace and celebrate the manner in which cultural relevance in education has become commonplace in school discussions, there has to be deep concern about why students of color are, in many ways, arguably in a worse state today than they were 20 years ago when the concept was introduced. In other words, why hasn’t theory translated into more effective practice for students of color? Is there a misunderstanding of the concept by practitioners? Have scholars not been effective in conveying research findings to the field? Or has the concept failed to further explicate deep-seated beliefs, structures, and policies that stifle a full implementation of CRP? Have reliable data not emerged to speak to the concept’s strengths and utility? Or are current instruments inherently flawed in evaluating nonmainstream ways of knowing? In short, many questions remain, and these and other questions must be evaluated. A concerning issue moving forward is that while the practice of CRT has grown in prominence, the research and theory continues to emerge.


Over the past two decades we have seen a significant increase in the professional literature on empirical works concerned with CRP (Esposito & Swain, 2009; Foster, 1993; Gay, 2000; Hollie, 2001; Howard, 2001a; Ladson-Billings, 1995a; Lee, 1995, 1998; Lipman, 1995; Lynn, 2006; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992; Moll & Gonzales, 2004; Parsons, 2005; Pierce, 2005; Sheets, 1995; Tate, 1995; Terry, 2010; Wortham, 2002). It is critical to identify these empirical works, examine and discuss their essential findings, analyze in what directions they have taken us, and, equally important, identify what new research and inquiry will help to deepen our understanding of the concept. A perusal of the works concerned with CRP reveals that it continues to grow, as both scholars and practitioners seem to recognize the potential in the rethinking of pedagogy in a manner that rejects traditional approaches to content, instruction, and assessment (Gay, 2000; Howard, 2001a, 2001b; Lee, 2007; Milner, 2010; Nasir & Hand, 2006; Parsons, 2005). The principles are informed by the growing body of research that examines the utility and complexity of CRP and serves as a critical blueprint upon which all students can be educated, particularly in racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse schools.

In response to the critique that CRP does not have enough empirical data tied to student experiences and outcomes in schools, it is vital to document the growing amount of work that is moving the concept forward. Ladson-Billings’s (1994; 1995) initial study on teachers explained how teachers influence literacy development through the incorporation of culturally recognizable content. She provided evidence for how and why teachers’ conception of self, their ethic of care, and their clear and deliberate instructional focus are important components of instructional success with diverse students. Lee’s (2007) research indicated that teachers who incorporated cultural referents to help African American students identify and use literary devices to analyze and comprehend English texts improved their outcomes in a high school English course. Gonzales, Moll, and Amanti (2005) discovered that when classroom teachers had a firm grasp and understanding of Mexican American students’ “funds of knowledge,” they transformed learning environments in a notable way that led to increased levels of activity and engagement among learners. Howard (2001a) examined the impact of elementary teachers and their work with African American students and discovered that cultural connection in pedagogy manifested itself across three areas: (a) teachers as caring, (b) classroom environments as family-like environments, and (c) making learning stimulating and exciting. As a result of these approaches, students’ levels of engagement and achievement improved. Cammarota and Romero (2009) investigated the influence of the Mexican American/Raza Studies curriculum on Latin(a/o)/Chican(o/a) high school students in Tucson, Arizona. The core focus of the curriculum incorporated an intellectual framework and content tied to students’ histories and daily lives. Cammarota and Romero found that Chicano/a students outperformed their White counterparts on the state’s reading, writing, and math exams, and they also had higher graduation rates than their White peers.

Another critique of culturally relevant teaching is the lack of studies that looked at the concept in the area of mathematics. Over the past two decades, a number of researchers have begun to address this void. For example, Tate (1995) examined culturally relevant teaching within the context of mathematics and discovered teachers who used community issues as a framework for improving math proficiency. Other scholars have also examined culturally relevant approaches to mathematics (Gutstein, Lipman, Hernandez, & de los Reyes, 1997; Nelson-Barber & Estrin, 1995). Nasir’s (2000) research looked at the construction of identity, culture, and learning. She found that the relationship between identity and schooling is integral to mathematics proficiency for African American adolescents. Building on the students’ knowledge of dominoes, Nasir’s qualitative and quantitative findings showed that in practices such as dominoes, mathematical goals were reached in the context of an activity when math concepts became a normalized and mandatory part of the particular activity.

Civil and Khan (2001) investigated teachers who used students’ home experiences with the planting of gardens to develop important math concepts and found that students comprehended at higher levels than previously demonstrated. Ensign (2003) studied how one teacher used students’ experiences within their local stores and with price comparisons as a conduit to build better comprehension of math concepts. Martin (2000) evaluated mathematical proficiency of African American students and suggested that the history and context of the African American experiences are crucial for improved mathematical proficiency and reasoning in algebra and geometry; he called for educators to develop an awareness of socio-economic issues that influence African American students’ educational experiences.

Additional scholars who have examined math and CRP include Brown’s (2008) study of a mathematics intervention course for African American male students at a predominantly African American middle school, which highlights the ways in which a teacher’s use of cultural artifacts must be thoughtful and measured. In one aspect of this study, the researcher integrated cultural referents from African history (such as the Ishango bone and Yoruba number system) into math activities with varying success. While students were able to work within these cultural frames with some facility, his findings pushed math educators to think more critically about cultural relevance among Black students. While Brown hypothesized that the inclusion of these culture-based elements would nurture identification and motivation among the students mathematically, he discovered that these cultural artifacts carried little personal relevance to the African American males in the class—and therefore did not necessarily facilitate the kind of student engagement he anticipated. Though the use of such elements helped students develop new understandings about the mathematics of the African continent and could therefore serve as a source of pride, he found that these connections would clearly be dependent upon the degree to which African culture holds personal relevance for African American students.

In his critical ethnographic study of African American male youth in South Los Angeles, Terry (2010) explored the role of community-based knowledge, interests, and inquiry in the reorientation of students to mathematics. In their participatory-action research project, the use of mathematical concepts, knowledge, and skill was largely directed by what the students themselves wanted to research and know more about. Rather than textbook-determined busywork, then, mathematics became an exciting critical cultural activity that was propelled by students’ inherent interest in the research questions they developed. The student-centered nature of this kind of mathematical activity represents an extension of the idea of “care” discussed in this article, beyond teacher-student interaction and into the nature of the curriculum itself. His findings suggested that the instrumental role African American students played in determining the cultural contexts in which mathematics was studied directly affected students’ sense of the usefulness of mathematics as a tool that they too can own. Terry argued that this is a crucial step toward reversing low performance in mathematics, but also, perhaps more important, toward helping students develop a vision of themselves as mathematicians.

Aguirre and Zavala (2013) developed what they referred to as a culturally responsive mathematics teaching tool to assist teachers to engage “children’s mathematical lessons among multiple dimensions that include children’s mathematical thinking, language, culture and social justice” (p.171). They discovered that for the beginning teachers that they worked with in developing culturally informed math lessons, critical teacher reflection and careful lesson planning were essential to creating more effective content and instructional approaches in mathematics.

Several of the subject-matter areas where much of the work on CRP has been most present have been in the areas of history, social studies, and English language arts. Epstein, Mayorga, and Nelson (2011) examined how culturally responsive approaches to a social studies education curriculum might engage students to think critically about issues historically and contemporarily tied to race and power in the United States. They discovered that in an 11th-grade humanities classroom made up of mostly African American and Latino students, the inclusion of topics tied to race, racism, and institutional oppression was successful in engaging students in more critical thinking and writing about core issues tied that traditional historical content had omitted. Camangian (2010) used auto-ethnography as an approach to foster critically caring and authentic relationships with high school students in an English classroom in Los Angeles. He discussed how “critically caring literacies, as constructed here, account for dehumanization, internalized oppression, and consequential collective division that result from cultural self-hate” (p. 180). He suggested that “urban educators must also apply literacy teaching frameworks that maximize students’ abilities to read, write, think, and communicate in their own interests” (p.180). The idea of culturally connected care is not lost here. Camangian discovered that students who have been frequently labeled as underperformers, unmotivated, and incapable of learning demonstrated increased levels of academic proficiency, created caring classroom spaces, and were able to engage in critical analysis of their personal circumstances and the community challenges that are germane to their lives.

The concept of care comes across in many of the studies on CRP. Gay (2000) explicitly elaborated on the importance of care to culturally responsive teaching when she stated:

Caring is one of the major pillars of CRP for ethnically diverse students. It is manifested in the form of teacher attitudes, expectations, and behaviors about students’ human value, intellectual capability, and performance responsibilities. . . This is expressed for their psycho-emotional well-being and academic success; personal morality and social actions, obligations and celebrations; community and individuality; and unique cultural connections and universal human bonds (p. 45-46).

Given the demographic imperative in the nation’s schools and the cultural context of care, scholars committed to further examining CRP and equity have sought to understand the practices and process taken up by both in-service and pre-service teachers that contribute to their ability to practice CRP. The next section of this paper details such studies, beginning with the importance of cultural competence, followed by a discussion of what teachers are doing in the field, and then examining what teacher-educators are doing to prepare future teachers to successfully embody cultural relevance in their practice.


Notions of care, racial awareness, and cultural competence are crucial to enhancing the concept of CRP (Howard, 2010). Milner (2011) explored the ability to negotiate what it means to be a teacher working across differences with diverse students; he conducted a case study of the processes by which one White secondary science teacher built cultural knowledge to maximize student learning. Employing a qualitative case-study approach, Milner spent 19 months observing Mr. Hall1, a White secondary science teacher, and exploring the processes by which he developed cultural competence. Results from Milner’s study suggested that three processes contributed to Mr. Hall’s ability to build cultural competence with his students: He developed authentic and meaningful relationships with his students; he recognized and attended to the significance of identity; and, finally, he believed in community and collaboration, extending himself to all members of the school community, not just the students in his classroom. It is important to note that all of these processes were the result of purposeful action and rooted in relationships that worked synergistically to help Mr. Hall develop a sense of cultural competence that supported cultural congruence in his practice.

The relational component of culturally relevant teaching cannot be understated. Work by Hyland (2009) speaks to the challenges that teachers can encounter when trying to teach across racial and cultural differences. In a qualitative case study, Hyland (2009) studied the practices of a White, female elementary teacher over a two-year period and found that although the teacher valued local knowledge in the classroom domain, she struggled to engage in authentic and meaningful relationships with families and community partners, thus limiting her effectiveness and ability to fully enact culturally relevant teaching. While the teacher did believe that her students were capable of academic excellence, her resistance to engagement beyond the classroom was rooted in deficit discourses of the local community, which was largely African American, as well as guilt over her own white privilege. According to Hyland, “the cultural divide between White teachers and communities of color are often quite vast and to expect new teachers to bridge that divide without support may be unrealistic” (p. 105). Nevertheless, it is a gap that must be bridged if teachers of diverse students are to succeed in authentically practicing cultural relevance in their work with students, families, and communities. Recent research (Sampson & Garrison-Wade, 2011) confirmed that students prefer integrated culturally relevant lessons and desire teachers who will establish authentic relationships with them, thus reinforcing Howard’s (2001) findings that community ties are important.

Scholars have positioned a teacher’s sense of cultural competence—and, by extension, care—as not merely an added benefit, but necessary to lay the foundation to effectively teach content and offer cultural relevance. Findings from other works (e.g., May, 2010) have also spoken to the importance of engaging culturally relevant teaching as an avenue to academic success. May’s two-year ethnographic study of classroom read-alouds done by a White, female third-grade teacher suggested that instructional comprehension strategies, when engaged topically around themes of justice and in ways that positioned students as experts, were successful at achieving both high levels of academic engagement and sociopolitical consciousness. The significance of narrative-sharing should not be lost; as a practice, CRP centers and values situated knowledge and links home and school to prevent cultural disconnect. Nevertheless, with increasing diversity, some have questioned how culturally relevant teachers can successfully engage and honor multiple forms of cultural diversity in the classroom. Electing to focus on preschool because of its position as one of children’s first socializers into the dominant culture, Souto-Manning and Mitchell (2010) explored the ways in which the cultural practices of all students could be honored in one particular preschool teacher’s classroom. By pairing ethnographic methods and action research, Souto-Manning, a teacher educator, and Mitchell, the classroom teacher, engaged in a collaborative process, both documenting their insider and outsider perspectives within the same classroom. Analyzing narratives from 2003–2006, Souto-Manning and Mitchell looked at how Mitchell attempted to engage the cultural backgrounds of all of her students in instruction, a concern that many practitioners raise in thinking and planning cultural relevance in instruction (e.g., “How do I incorporate CRP when I have so many different cultures in my classroom?”). Data showed that Mitchell initially subscribed to a “cafeteria-like approach, in which the children could sample how the holidays were implemented across cultures” (p. 272), which she thought would be effective because the holidays she selected to focus on were related to the ethnic backgrounds of her students. However, because cultural practices are situated and vary from family to family, students had difficulty connecting to the teacher-driven content. Over time, Mitchell began to bring in parents to engage in a funds of knowledge perspective in her work that helped build relationships and produce authentic and exciting lesson plans. Over the course of three years, Mitchell came to realize that two weeks of holidays were not enough and that she would have to integrate children’s cultures into every aspect of teaching and learning from the beginning of each academic year. The process of analyzing her teaching led to changes in her practice. Mitchell embodied a “humble stance” (p. 274), allowing cultures and practices of students to take center stage. Further, she blended the role of student and learner (sharing ownership of knowledge and expertise), and she also took on the role of a researcher/ethnographer (learning about her students’ cultures and practices, families, and home lives). She discussed how “there is often a belief that change must happen in the children. In this case, a change in teacher stance modified the atmosphere of the classroom, making it respectful of differences and embracing of diversity (of families, perspectives, languages, etc.)” (p. 274). In closing, Souto-Manning and Mitchell highlighted that the processes that led Mitchell to enact culturally relevant teaching should not be considered a “how-to-list,” but reinforced the importance of having a mindset that engages situated and grounded practices built on ongoing reflection and learning.

The concept of CRP as a mindset was introduced by Ladson-Billings (2006) and reinforced by Milner (2011), who stated, “more than a set of principles, ideas, or predetermined practices, the practice of CRP involves a state of being or mindset that permeates teachers’ decision making and related practices” (p. 68). While it is important to note that one should possess ideologies of justice and democracy in order to engage culturally relevant teaching, it is important to examine practices in teacher education that seek to support and develop pre-service teachers’ propensities to successfully enact culturally relevant teaching. It is also important to avoid the essentializing of students’ culture. Often an essentializing of culture means a rigid, narrow, and homogeneous understanding of a culture or an ethnic group. Such static interpretations can be harmful and stereotypical in approach and can undermine any attempts to develop culturally relevant approaches to instruction. They can also lead to a superficial approach to culturally relevant teaching which does not provide a deeper connection to students and learning. Sleeter (2012) stated that “oversimplified and distorted conceptions of culturally responsive pedagogy, which do not necessarily improve student learning, lend themselves to dismissal of the entire concept” (p.572).

Paris (2012) has questioned whether the terms cultural “responsiveness” and “relevance” go far enough in helping youth of color to maintain their cultural and linguistic norms and ways of being while also helping them understand dominant literacies and practices. Hence, he has called for culturally sustaining pedagogy, which he said “has as its explicit goal supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism in practice and perspective for students and teachers . . . seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (p. 95).

In addition to the work on culturally sustaining pedagogy, a growing number of scholars have advocated for hip-hop culture to be an integral part of school curriculum that speaks to students’ realities and everyday experiences (Alim, 2007; Hill, 2009; Stovall, 2006). This work has gained increasing momentum as a form of culturally meaningful pedagogy, as hip-hop culture goes beyond rap music, also encompassing an entire way of life, language, and literacy that is pertinent to today’s youth.


It is important to note and explore the ways in which race consciousness and racial identity also contribute to the ways in which one understands and incorporate CRP, as well as the ways in which these processes may differ for teachers of color and White teachers. A 2009 study by Gere, Buehler, Dallavis, and Haviland offered a race-based analysis of how White and Black students enrolled in a teacher-education program differed in their engagement of cultural responsiveness in their practice. Analyzing various sources of qualitative data from two focal participants, an African American male and a White female, Gere et al. found that while both students brought a race consciousness to the program, their different identities shaped their responses to and engagement with culturally relevant practices. While the African American male student was able to demonstrate both racial consciousness and racial self-awareness, his White counterpart chose to downplay her racial identity, despite having what the research team describes as a “strongly raced consciousness” (p. 834). Further, in classroom discussions of CRP the African American male student pushed forward the importance of attending to academic achievement, despite the decision of the instructional team (also the authorship team) to devote more time to cultural competence. That being said, this work also brought to light the need to examine the role that race consciousness plays in designing teacher-education curriculum to prepare teachers to take up CRP. The research team shared their own reflections regarding how their own racial identities affected their work as teacher educators. Specifically, Gere et al. made note of how they unconsciously privileged cultural competence at the expense of other components of culturally relevant teaching, tailoring instruction to White teacher-education students who struggled with how to be White and culturally responsive at the same time. In reflecting on their own practice, they stated: “Instructors need to recognize how their own raced consciousness and that of students shapes the creation of a curriculum, the construction of assignments, the responses to assignments, and the stereotypes that may emerge when beginning teachers seek to demonstrate cultural responsiveness” (p. 845). They went on to argue for a need for future scholarship to address the needs of beginning teachers of color as they strive to take up culturally relevant teaching in their practice.

Finally, many of the studies on CRP revealed a direct acknowledgement of the political nature of teaching. Freire’s (1970) notion of reading the word and the world is relevant here; these studies each highlighted teachers who view their works as a more than just a job, but a specialized craft, a unique calling, a moral endeavor embedded in a cultural context that seeks to defy conventional thinking about culturally diverse and low-income students. These works seemed to be informed by an authentic desire to empower students, enhance their learning opportunities, transform dismal academic outcomes, and to help students view themselves as transformation agents (Dixson, 2014). In short, the political approach to teaching recognizes that the profession offers no space of neutrality or indifference and that the high stakes of teaching include practitioners who are either helping students become better academically, socially, culturally, and emotionally or contributing to their continued disenfranchisement.


While the empirical development of CRP continues to grow, additional work remains. For scholars who continue to look for ways to make meaningful contributions to the field for practitioners, theorists, and policymakers, we believe that there are areas that remain in need of further development. By no means are the following areas exhaustive or the only areas that need developing, but, based on an analysis of the current literature, they do shed light on areas that remain under-researched and theorized and call for future inquiry to help the field expand by providing work in the following areas:


A crucial step that needs to be given careful investigation is the manner in which CRP is provided to pre-service teachers. There will be a considerable turnover in the teacher force over the next decade. Many new teachers will remain largely homogenous racially and ethnically; thus, there will be a pressing need for teacher-preparation programs, be they university- or school-based, to help pre-service candidates to understand culture, how it influences learning, and how teaching can connect students to learning as a result. Pre-service preparation must place an authentic and sustained focus on CRP and identify teachers who are embodying such teaching practices so that they can be model mentor teachers to help teachers have a hands-on understanding of the practice.

A recent quantitative study utilized survey methods to evaluate the restructuring of one undergraduate early-childhood education program in response to shifting demographics and the need to prepare teachers to embody culturally relevant teaching. Groulx and Silva (2010) examined how pre-service student teachers’ beliefs and efficacy about different aspects of culturally relevant teaching varied, how they changed over time, how prior experiences with diverse others related to their beliefs and efficacy, and how their efficacy and beliefs regarding culturally relevant teaching connected to students’ career goals. While the survey was distributed to a total of 232 teacher-education students, Groulx and Silva reported on data that represented a cohort of 28 students (mostly White females) who completed both pre- and posttest measures of the Multicultural Efficacy Scale (MES) (Guyton & Wesche, 1996, 2005) at the beginning and end of their teacher-education program. Results indicated that, while some ceiling effects were present, participants still demonstrated growth with regard to favorable attitudes toward culturally relevant teaching and efficacy. While participants in this study understood the theory behind culturally relevant teaching and could analyze curriculum, they had limited opportunities in the field to actually practice culturally relevant teaching, highlighting the importance of creating spaces in teacher education to put principles into practice. The attention to context is critical, as we can also see that identities play a critical role in the uptake of culturally relevant teaching. In short, pre-service teachers need to move beyond conceptualization of CRP and have the opportunity to work with mentor teachers who practice the concept regularly, so that novice teachers can emulate such approaches and receive mentorship in the process.


CRP must grow in the area of assessment and evaluation. While research on the practice has grown over the past 10 years, there is a need for more empirical data to demonstrate the effects of the practice (Sleeter, 2012). If the premise of culturally relevant instruction is to recognize the uniqueness of cultural knowledge, skills, and dispositions that diverse students possess, its effects cannot be effectively measured with traditional evaluative tools and approaches (Flanagan & Ortiz, 2007; Hood, 2001; Letiecq & Bailey, 2004; Stokes, Chaplin, Dessouky, Aklilu, & Hopson, 2011). Culturally relevant evaluation must offer consideration of student factors such as immigration, acculturative status and stress, race, socio-economic status; the often problematic history of educational programs and language assessment that mischaracterize students’ assets as deficits should provide helpful information for the selection of appropriate assessment instruments in the evaluation process. For assessment personnel, culturally competent assessment requires the integration of culturally sensitive attitudes, knowledge, values, communication approaches, instructional strategies, and evaluation practices (Rhodes, Ochoa, & Ortiz, 2005). Ultimately, the purpose of evaluation is to determine appropriate intervention techniques and strategies designed to promote success for students. The focus of culturally relevant evaluation should be to analyze the data fairly in order to link the results to appropriate intervention. The case for culturally relevant evaluation should not be concerned only about academic outcomes; there is a need for behavioral instruments that are culturally sensitive in order to disrupt the chronic overrepresentation of students of color in classrooms and the misdiagnosis of students of color with conditions such as attention-deficit disorder and serious emotional disturbance. Often this type of misdiagnosis is a direct result of cultural misunderstanding by school personnel and by the instruments that are used to evaluate behavior. Culturally relevant instruments would also be able to challenge the misrepresentation of diverse students’ behavior as being aberrant, disruptive, and in need of change, when in many instances student behavior is culturally misunderstood by practitioners and current tools do not take cultural context into account (Artiles, et al, 2010). Milner (2007) reminded us that “in short, there is value and promise in people who have had a range of experiences in life; different, in this sense, does not necessarily mean deficit or deficient” (p. 389). The value of culturally relevant evaluation is not limited to identification or classification; rather, it should be extended to inform appropriate instructional interventions, accommodations, and instructional program development.


The current education-reform efforts in U.S. schools, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), will have a significant influence on course content, instruction, and assessment across most states. The call to create instructional approaches that merit a more analytical and deeper understanding of content, as CCSS would do, appears to fall in line with approaches to CRP. However, many teachers resist such reform efforts because they believe that the reforms undermine approaches to culturally relevant teaching by restricting instructional variation and autonomy (Picower, 2012). Therefore, CRP advocates must be aware of how new calls for rethinking content and instructional standards coincide or clash with culturally informed pedagogy and content. Much has been written about the neoliberal reform movement that has caused significant changes in how many schools adopt curriculum standards and the narrow manner in which teaching is expected to be delivered. Sleeter (2012) has discussed the manner in which current school-reform efforts will require that advocates of culturally relevant teaching be more deliberate about how it contributes to and improves student outcomes, or it runs the risk of being excluded altogether. She suggested three recommendations:

 “A clear need for evidence-based research that documents connections between culturally responsive pedagogy and students outcomes” (p.578);

 “A need to educate parents, teachers and education leaders about what culturally responsive pedagogy means and looks like in the classroom” (p.578); and

“A need to reframe public debate about teaching, especially teaching in diverse and historically underserved communities” (p.578).

To illustrate the point about potential disconnects between culturally relevant approaches and narrow teaching approaches, Esposito and Swain (2009) examined how teachers who were mandated to use scripted curriculum incorporated culturally relevant teaching into their practice and discovered that teachers had to take calculated risks, devote additional time, and engage in ongoing self-reflection about how to augment and modify curriculum which did not allow students to think critically about issues tied to social justice, equity, and power. There is a pressing need for additional studies such as this one to develop a better understanding of how teachers teach against the grain when placed under severe restrictions about curriculum and instruction.


Some of the more troubling explanations for disparate educational outcomes that culturally relevant teaching attempts to disrupt are the deficit-based explanations of poor performance by students of color (Valencia, 1997). These explanations have historically been centered on students lacking or being devoid of culture, coming from a culture of poverty which is not suited for academic success, possessing an oppositional culture, having a disdain for academic achievement, or having parents who lack concern for their children’s academic aspirations (McWhorter, 2000; Ogbu, 1987; Steele, 1990; Valencia, 1997). These deficit-based accounts of students have also derided students’ language as being deficient because of its variation from Standard English. Others have maintained that academic achievement outcomes are a direct result of innate differences in intelligence between racial groups (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), a belief that is not as prevalent today as it was half a century ago but is still present nonetheless, in more covert and subtle ways.

In short, deficit ideologies have sought to change student knowledge, language, culture, and behavior in ways that are more consistent with mainstream ways of being (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Valencia, 1997). These efforts have been typically been met with student resistance and disengagement, and ultimately result in educational disenfranchisement for millions of poor and culturally diverse students (Kohl, 1994; Solórzano & Bernal, 2001; Solórzano & Kohli, 2012). Kohl (1994), in particular, discussed the manner in which students state that they make the deliberate choice “to not learn” from educators who do not recognize their uniqueness as learners or respect their ways of knowing and communicating and their need to be humanized in the classroom. While many educational theorists have suggested eradicating deficit-based notions of diverse students, perhaps further numerations of culturally relevant teaching must speak to the depth of deficit-based thinking by many teachers and offer instructive and tangible ways to challenge such thinking.

A number of works responded to cultural-deficit theory by stating that students from diverse backgrounds are not deficient in their ways of being, but merely different (Ford, 1996; Irvine, 2003; Lee, 2007; Moll, 2000). CRP can provide practitioners with a framework to articulate how cultural manifestations shape cognition, influence engagement, and subsequently influence learning. These works posed different ways of thinking about students, their families, and communities, and thus offered different ways of thinking about closing the outcome disparities. In essence, CRP represents an important shift that calls upon educators to adopt an asset-based approach to their view of culturally diverse students and move away from the deficiencies-based model that defined students of color for far too long (Moll et al., 1992). It is our contention that the disruption of deficit thinking among teachers is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a more authentic manifestation of culturally relevant teaching in schools and classrooms.

The manner in which deficit ideologies have played out in classrooms has become more nuanced than ever. For example, a growing number of scholars have documented racial microaggressions as a way that students’ names, language, culture, and intellect are frequently dismissed as a manifestation of negative beliefs about certain students (Solórzano, Allen, & Carroll, 2002; Kohli & Solórzano, 2012), and some scholars have contended that colorblind approaches to student identities can cause considerable damage to the quality of teacher-student interaction and learning opportunities of diverse students (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). Hence, additional research on CRP must pay careful attention to work that has looked at how teachers are able to disrupt the age-old ideology that situates students of color, along with their cultural practices, as pathological, deviant or, problematic. A number of scholars have discussed the manner in which practitioners must be provided the necessary skills to self-examine, self-critique, and reflect on thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that are ingrained in U.S. systems, ideologies, and practices (Howard, 2003; Schon, 1987). In short, any authentic efforts to fully incorporate culturally relevant practices and policies must be informed by Singleton and Linton’s (2005) notion of “courageous conversations, wherein school personnel and staff are willing to engage in honest, sustained, and structured dialogue centered in interrogating what teachers really believe, think, and feel about race, culture, their students, and the communities they teach. The ongoing punitive environments in many schools, where students of color are undereducated and, in disproportionate numbers, suspended and expelled at alarmingly high rates, would suggest that cultural connection and understanding are lacking in many schools. Moreover, it should be noted that the lack of cultural congruence between students and teachers is not located merely in a White teacher–student of color framework. To the contrary, much of what is known about cultural competence and cultural proficiency is tied to a larger ideology wherein even people of color can subscribe wholeheartedly to the problematic depictions and deficit beliefs of student culture. In short, the disruption of negative teacher ideology must center on terms such as privilege, cultural hegemony, White supremacy, and the articulation of how systemic ideologies permeate U.S. media, politics, policy, and laws, which can easily contribute to implicit bias and the replication of practices which continue to negate the cultural strengths that students possess.

Twenty years later, where do we go from here? The professional literature has been enhanced by the conceptual contributions that CRP has brought to teaching and learning. Nuanced and complex notions of culture, dynamic discussions on pedagogy, and rethinking ways of envisioning content and instruction have been an integral part of the educational discourse of students of color. It is our hope that, over the next 20 years, CRP will be discussed along with tangible and dramatic improvements in the schooling experiences and educational outcomes of students of color. By no means do we think that CRP by itself will bring about such a transformation, but we remain hopeful that it will be a vital part of the solution.


1. All names are pseudonyms given to participants by authors of original studies.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 1, 2017, p. 1-32 ID Number: 21718, Date Accessed: 1/24/2021 5:05:52 AM

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