New Evidence On The Impact Of Culturally Relevant Teaching

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 28, 2016

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The achievement gap between white and minority students, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, has received much attention from education researchers, practitioners, and advocates. Despite widespread agreement on the importance of closing this gap, evidence on how to do so has been hard to come by. However, a recent study by researchers at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) suggests that culturally relevant teaching may be a powerful way to boost the achievement of minority students, particularly those labeled as “at-risk.”

What Is Culturally Relevant Teaching?

It has been hypothesized by some that one factor influencing the achievement gap is a mismatch between the culture around schools and the cultural background of students from traditionally underserved groups. In other words, the institution of education has created a barrier between learning and students from marginalized groups by not legitimizing their culture and history, which makes it more difficult for these students to access the curriculum.

According to this view, culturally relevant teaching can overcome this obstacle to students’ learning. According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education researcher at the University of Wisconsin, culturally relevant teaching aims to empower students from marginalized groups through cultural competence, academic success, and developing a critical perspective. This involves actions by educators to understand the background(s) of the students they serve and to use this knowledge as a vehicle for student learning.

San Francisco’s Ethnic Studies Course

The CEPA study examined the impact of an ethnic studies curriculum, one way of operationalizing culturally relevant teaching, in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which was initiated in 2007 and was developed by a team of educators over several years. In 2010, SFUSD approved a pilot of its ethnic studies program in 5 high schools as one means of closing the achievement gap. This course on ethnic studies was offered to 9th graders at each school, though how students were placed into the course differed between schools. The ethnic studies course has since been expanded and is now offered at all SFUSD high schools. More background on the course can be found here and here.

CEPA Study And Findings

To examine the impact of San Francisco’s ethnic studies curriculum, researchers examined the effect of taking this course at three schools that used it as an academic intervention for at-risk students who had an 8th grade GPA of less than 2.0 (the study was not able to determine how students with high GPAs responded to the course). Because not all 9th grade students were enrolled in the course at these schools, researchers were able to compare outcomes of similar students who either did or did not take the ethnic studies course. More information on the design of this research can be found on pages 11-16 of the report.

The CEPA study found impressive academic gains for at-risk students who completed SFUSD’s ethnic studies course relative to similar students in the same schools who did not complete the course. On average, students who completed the course had an attendance rate that was 21% higher, a GPA that was 1.4 points higher on a 4-point scale, and earned 23 additional credits-the equivalent of roughly 4 courses-in their freshman year. The authors argue that a significant contributor to these large impacts was likely a reduction in students’ tendency to drop out, though their data did not permit them to investigate this theory.

A Straightforward Means To Help Students

Results like those found in this study are rare and should draw the attention of education leaders and researchers. Thomas Dee, the report’s lead author, even expressed surprise at the magnitude of the impact the ethnic studies course had on student outcomes. Based on the strong evidence from this study, adopting culturally relevant teaching appears to be a relatively straightforward means to help struggling students from marginalized backgrounds succeed in school. At the same time, this should also be a call to investigate how an ethnic studies course may help higher-achieving students and how culturally relevant teaching may benefit students when integrated with the general curriculum.

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.