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Why culturally responsive education matters: Never mind the naysayers

2019-08-22

New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy voted to formally adopt what’s known as Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CRSE) as policy throughout the nation’s largest public school district. (skynesher/Getty Images)

Last month, New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy voted to formally adopt what’s known as Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CRSE) as policy throughout the nation’s largest public school district. This is a monumental feat that should be celebrated by every student, parent and educator across the city.

CRSE has been mocked as some ultra-progressive, soft pedagogical philosophy that will devalue learning and set back students, especially low-income and Black and Latino students, as they struggle to acquire the basics of reading, math and other subjects. I want to explain why that’s wrong.

But first, we need to understand what CRSE means. It’s a way of thinking about education where we imagine a system in which every student’s identity and history is reflected in their schools, where students are seen as assets to learning and not deficits in need of an illusory “fix,” and where teachers and students alike view education as a vehicle for improving the world.

In practice, CRSE involves taking an inventory of the materials currently in use in our schools, and making sure they well reflect and speak to students in all their diversity. One recent study found massive disparities in the authorship and character representation of a sample of New York City elementary English curricula.

In place of the traditional paradigm of delivering static material in front of students, educators utilizing a CRSE lens integrate cultural references into their units of study and ensure that students have a choice in their learning. Many of the best teachers have utilized student choice by giving students a say in the policies and culture of the school or a given class, and providing students multiple options for projects that can demonstrate mastery of a given outcome or unit. Many educators throughout the city have incorporated community-based, real-world elements into projects: science and math labs focused on the disproportionate effects of our city’s infrastructure and water supply or English and music units connecting student skill development with a school community’s local playwrights and musicians.

With this lens, educators can redefine learning experiences to reflect students’ cultural brilliance and develop students’ sense of identity. In committing to this mindset, we elevate, respect and reflect the experiences of every student in all their distinctive identities — language, race, gender identity, ability, socioeconomic status, and so on. This allows students not only to see themselves but to truly see and understand their peers.

Crucially, research shows that when this happens, academic achievement follows close behind. NYU Steinhardt MetroCenter recently found that CRSE “produces better academic outcomes for students who have found themselves traditionally sidelined in curriculum, in school discipline policies, and in the greater economic frontiers of our nation,” and that “students were more engaged and effective learners and peers when they feel positive about being in school, starting with feeling their beliefs, languages, and cultures are valued and included.”

At the heart of much of the angry opposition to these changes, I see the demonstration of a worldview too narrow in its scope, too centered on selective, individual group interests, and devoid of an understanding of our essential, collective history. While some linger on the anger and resentment of those who fight for the continuation of the status quo, what resonates for me is that the misunderstandings and limited perspectives on display highlight exactly why we need culturally responsive and sustaining education in the first place.

In educating the public, we have an obligation to teach the truth about the world. We have a responsibility to develop a critical and social consciousness of our youth to contextualize our past in order to solve our most pressing, existential problems today. As a society facing historic challenges such as massive income inequality, abysmal racial disparities and a climate crisis that threatens life as we know it, our best hope is to get more real than we’ve ever been before about investing in our future — our students.

Chan-Kraushar is a Queens resident and a director of implicit bias and culturally responsive education at the Office of Equity and Access within the New York City Department of Education.