A Brief History of Culturally Responsive Teaching in Arizona

Arizona is an incredibly unique state for many reasons. Geographically, we have everything from desert to coniferous forests. The demographics of our state mirror this diversity. Arizona has the 7th highest Native American population and the 4th highest Hispanic population of all fifty states. As a college educator and administrator in Arizona, I can see firsthand the need to change how we approach teaching a diverse audience of students. In fact, the college I work for currently serves a predominantly Hispanic population of students, yet this demographic has the lowest graduation rate at the college. By far. This kind of statistic is not unique to my college. Regardless of what percentage of the student population they make up, non-white students consistently demonstrate lower levels of achievement throughout the state.

Historical Context of Education in Arizona

Percentage of White Residents in Each State (United States Census Bureau, 2021)

Arizona is a unique region occupying the confluence of both Native American and Mexican land. This regional diversity is reflected in the state’s current population demographics. With almost 32% Hispanic, 5% American Indian, and 5% Black or African American residents, Arizona is one of the most racially diverse states in the US, as the US Census Bureau graph above illustrates (lighter colored states demonstrate a lower percentage of white residents). Despite its high level of diversity, Arizona has a fraught history when it comes to race, which has inevitably extended to education.

Arizona History Timeline

10000 BCE: Prehistoric Paleo inhabitants of what we now know as Arizona

8000 BCE: First evidence of Tohono O’odham habitation of Sonoran Desert region of what we now know as Arizona

2000 BCE: Cochise begin farming primitive corn

1200 BCE: Anasazi (ancestors of the Hopi) migrate to what we now know as northeastern Arizona

300 BCE: Hohokam arrive in Sonoran Desert region of what we now know as Arizona

1200-1500 CE: Apache and Navajo migrate to what we now know as northeastern Arizona

1539 CE: Spain becomes first to rule over what we now know as Arizona

1821 CE: Mexico defeats Spain and gains full independence

1851 CE: Indian Appropriations Act is signed into law, forcing native tribes onto reservation land and restricting them from leaving without permission

1852 CE: Gadsden Purchase is signed making all land south of the Gila River to current Arizona boundary part of United States

1863 CE: Arizona is established as an official US Territory

1884 CE: Yaqui arrive in Arizona territory fleeing persecution in Mexico (Arizona State Library, n.d.)

1891 CE: Phoenix Indian School opens following a system of rigid assimilation (Ryman, 2015)

1912 CE: Arizona gains statehood

1948 CE: Native Americans are given voting rights (Arizona State Library, n.d.)

1953 CE: Arizona Superior Court declares segregated schools in Phoenix illegal (Ryman, 2015)

1978 CE: Federal court finds that discriminatory segregation exists in Tucson Unified School District; TUSD remains under court monitoring for 43 years (Khmara, 2021)

1992 CE: Flores family sues the state for not providing enough money and help for students learning English

1994 CE: Arizona passes legislation allowing first charter schools to open in state, opening door to “white flight” and reduced diversity in schools

2000 CE: Ballot initiative to end bilingual education is approved

2010 CE: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signs the controversial SB 1070 bill into law, opening the door to racial profiling and civil rights violations

2010 CE: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signs a law banning Tucson’s Mexican American studies program; a federal court would later rule that the ban violated students’ constitutional rights (Ryman, 2015)

As the timeline above demonstrates, this region was home to Native American and indigenous Mexican tribes for thousands of years before it became a United States territory and eventually became Arizona state. The indigenous peoples of this region have seen hundreds of years of oppression under both Spanish and American rule. Some of the worst atrocities were carried out in the name of education. In 1891, for example, the Phoenix Indian School was opened under the strictest of assimilation practices. Following the culturally genocidal practices of assimilation school leaders, such as Richard Henry Pratt (“kill the Indian, save the man”), students were stripped of their traditional clothing, their hair was shorn, and they were forbidden from speaking their native language under threat of physical beatings. The Phoenix Indian School remained open for nearly 100 years until it was closed in 1990. The major arterial city street named after the school during its founding remains to this day (Lindauer, 1998).

This troubled history has certainly affected the state’s ability to educate its diverse citizenry. Overall, the state is consistently ranked among the bottom in all facets of education. These dismal statistics include:

  • 48th in educational spending (the graph below demonstrates the large disparity in educational spending between Arizona and other states) (Hanson, 2021)

  • 49th in overall K-12 education

  • 51st in student-teacher ratio

  • 49th in high school graduation rates (McCann, 2021)

K-12 State Public Education Funding Map (Hanson, 2021)

As we delve into these statistics to parse the educational success of the individual demographics that make up the overall student population, we see that non-white students demonstrate lower rates of success. This can be seen in the 2018 graph below, which shows Arizona’s high school graduation rate by race and ethnicity. It should also be noted that English Language Learner (ELL) students demonstrate by far the lowest graduation rate at just 18 percent (Jung, 2017).

Arizona Graduation Rates by Race (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018)

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

I won't go into detail about what culturally responsive teaching is in this article, as I already covered it in depth here. Broadly, culturally responsive teaching acknowledges that culture is fundamental to learning. Not only does culture inform communication and information exchange, but it also plays a crucial role in how individuals and groups think. When pedagogy recognizes and respects cultural differences among learners, and incorporates those differences throughout the curriculum, students of all cultures can receive true equitable access to education (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Mexican-American Studies Program Controversy

Tucson Unified School District serves a majority-Latinx population in a largely poor district. TUSD students demonstrate lower test results than their statewide peers, with students of color demonstrating even lower test results than their white peers (Stephenson, 2021). In the 1990s, Tucson educators Jose Gonzalez and Curtis Acosta wanted to find a way to engage Latinx students and improve graduation rates. They founded the Mexican-American Studies program in 1997 to provide a meaningful learning environment for students who felt disengaged from conventional coursework that didn’t reflect their lived experiences and to increase the disproportionately low graduation rates of Latinx students. The program was wildly successful, which may have led to its downfall, as school board members became aware of the program and raised concerns that the course was “un-American” and “radicalizing” students (Riechers, 2017).

The controversy reached the governor’s office, and in 2010 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a law banning Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. In 2017, a federal court ruled that the ban violated the constitutional rights of the students by depriving them of specific knowledge. The judge opined that those who targeted the program were motivated by racism and political opportunism. Further, the ruling required that the school district create new classes that meet the needs of their Latinx students. For the last eleven years, the MAS program has been in limbo due to ongoing litigation. Any attempts at creating other culturally responsive educational programs in the state have been hampered by the high-profile controversy surrounding the MAS program. The gravity of the situation is conveyed well in the documentary trailer for “Precious Knowledge,” which can be viewed below.

(Latino Public Broadcasting, 2012)

Reviving CRT in Arizona

The impact of the high profile MAS debate and litigation can be felt throughout education in Arizona. One of the biggest hurdles that the state now faces is garnering support from instructors for CRT. The evidence that teacher self-efficacy is the key to successfully implementing CRT is clear and abundant. Student success is directly correlated to the self-efficacy of the instructor delivering CRT, so it is critical that teachers believe in their students’ ability to succeed through their instruction (Lopez, 2016).

A 2016 study of Arizona teachers and students engaged in CRT pedagogy sought to examine the extent to which teacher-reported behaviors and self-efficacy in CRT are related to Latinx students’ self-identity and achievement outcomes in reading across grades three through five. The framework below was applied to the study to establish evidence on student outcomes.

Framework for studies using CRT to establish evidence of student outcomes. (Lopez, 2016)

The study took place in three urban schools in a Southern Arizona district comprised of 63 percent Latinx students, wherein 46 percent of said Latinx student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Five percent of Latinx students in the district are ELLs (Lopez, 2016). The table below demonstrates the demographics of the participating schools and their comparison to overall district demographics.

Study Demographic Table (Lopez, 2016)

Of the three schools, one (Clark) received a “D” rating from the state accountability system. The other two participating schools (Brea and Acacia) are dual-language magnet schools and received a “B” rating from the state accountability system. Brea conducts kindergarten and first grade classes almost exclusively in Spanish and maintains a language arts block in Spanish in first through fifth grades. Acacia runs classes on a 50/50 language model, alternating between English and Spanish. The study ultimately found that teacher’s beliefs about Spanish instruction, funds of knowledge and critical awareness were all positively associated with positive reading outcomes for their students. At the end of the school year, reading scores were higher among students whose teachers reported the highest level of each of the aforementioned dimensions (Lopez, 2016).

There are many ongoing efforts to revive CRT in Arizona in the wake of the Mexican-American Studies controversy. However, one of the glaring concerns for Arizona education is the lack of efforts related to our Native American student population. The majority of efforts are aimed at Latinx students. While Latinx students make up a much larger student demographic, Arizona has one of the largest Native American student populations in the US. Arizona has 22 federally recognized tribes. The map below demonstrates how pervasive tribal lands are throughout the state. Arizona is home to the largest number of schools operated or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. One quarter of the state’s public schools (approximately 500) are on or near Indian reservations (WestEd, 2014). Given that Native American students hold the lowest graduation rate of any demographic at just 67.8 percent, it is imperative that large scale efforts are made to engage Native American students in CRT to close the achievement gap (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018).

Tribal Homelands of Arizona. (Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, 2021).

Arizona has a very troubled history for both education and race. Arizona consistently rates among the worst in education in all categories. Given that our state has one of the highest non-white populations in the US, and one of the highest numbers of ELL students, we must address the needs of these students in order to succeed overall. According to the available evidence, CRT efforts in Arizona are clearly bearing fruit. Yet, bureaucratic red tape prevents educators from fully embracing this proven tool for closing the achievement gap, and improving our educational outcomes overall. I implore educators and educational administrators at all levels in Arizona to look to our history and the dismal state of our current educational system and demand that we do better by our communities by responding to and celebrating the diversity of our beautiful state, rather than stubbornly clinging to educational models that aren't serving us.


Arizona State Library. (n.d.) Arizona’s Chronology. https://azlibrary.gov/arizona-almanac/arizonas-chronology Hanson, M. (2021, August 2). U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics. EducationData.org. Retrieved November 10, 2021 from https://educationdata.org/public-education-spending-statistics

Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. (2021). Tribal Homelands in Arizona. https://itcaonline.com/maps/

Jung, C. (2017, February 27). Arizona ELL Student Graduation Rate Lags Far Behind National Average. Kjzz.org. https://kjzz.org/content/440381/arizona-ell-student-graduation-rate-lags-far-behind-national-average

Khmara, D. (2021, April 20). TUSD’s decades-old desegregation case drawing to a close with judge’s approval. Tucson.com. https://tucson.com/news/local/tusds-decades-old-desegregation-case-drawing-to-a-close-with-judges-approval/article_4a35d55a-a17b-11eb-a0f7-035f73c4415c.html

Latino Public Broadcasting. (2012, March 15). Precious Knowledge Trailer [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ExJ2gly0m4

Lindauer, O. (1998, March 27). Archaeology of the Phoenix Indian School. Archaeology.org. https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/phoenix/

Lopez, F. (2016). Culturally Responsive Pedagogies in Arizona and Latino Students’ Achievement. Teachers College Record. https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=19369

McCann, A. (2021, July 26). States with the Best & Worst School Systems. Wallethub. https://wallethub.com/edu/e/states-with-the-best-schools/5335

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Making Action Possible for Southern Arizona. https://mapazdashboard.arizona.edu/education/high-school-graduation-rates

Riechers, M. (2017). Is Teaching Mexican-American Studies Un-American? To the Best of Our Knowledge. https://www.ttbook.org/interview/teaching-mexican-american-studies-un-american

Ryman, A. (2015, May 15). 10 Events that shaped Arizona’s educational landscape. AZ Central. https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/history/2015/05/15/125-republic-anniversary-events-shaped-arizonas-educational-landscape/27187655/

Stephenson, H. (2021, July 11). What Arizona’s 2010 Ban on Ethnic Studies Could Mean for the Fight Over Critical Race Theory. Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/07/11/tucson-unified-school-districts-mexican-american-studies-program-498926

United States Census Bureau. (2021). Quick Facts Arizona Map. Retrieved on November 10, 2021 from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/map/AZ/RHI825219

WestEd. (2014). Indian Education in Arizona, Nevada and Utah: A Review of State and National Law, Board Rules, and Policy Decisions. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED569493.pdf

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