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Closing the Achievement Gap Through Culturally Responsive Teaching

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Culturally responsive teaching connects students’ lived experiences with what they learn in school. These connections help all students access and navigate rigorous curriculum by removing barriers formed by the default educational structures formed by the culture of power. Culturally responsive teaching is heavily informed by neuroscience research and connected to social cognitive theory by way of self-efficacy. In this article, I will address the evidence exists for the efficacy of culturally responsive teaching in closing the achievement gap.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

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).

The infographic below by explains these three key steps of recognition, respect and incorporation in order to become a culturally responsive teacher.

3 Steps to Becoming a Culturally Responsive Teacher (Kline, 2014)

Seven Principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching

1. Positive Perspectives on Parents and Families- Parents are our students’ first teachers, and families are their first communities. While this principle mostly applies to K-12 education, as it encourages active communication and engagement with students’ parents and families, educators in higher ed can also actively gain cross-cultural knowledge of their students by engaging in local community centers and cultural activities.

2. Communication of High Expectations- Educators must hold a genuine belief in the capabilities of their students. All students need to receive consistent messaging that they are expected to achieve high standards in their education. It is important that this messaging be communicated by all persons involved in the students’ academic lives. Student behavior should be understood in the context of the communities to which they belong, and their lived experience should be respected as valuable acquisition of knowledge.

3. Learning Within the Context of Culture- Cultural differences influence how people learn. The learning process can be hindered for students whose culture and language are different from those of the school. Students from these backgrounds often experience alienation and become disengaged from learning. Learning opportunities can be maximized by teachers learning about the cultures represented in their classrooms and adapting lessons to reflect familiar forms of communication and learning.

4. Student-Centered Instruction- Student-centered instruction diverges from familiar teacher-centered instruction. Rather than the teacher being the sole source of knowledge, students themselves become knowledge creators through cooperation and collaboration in a community-oriented educational environment. In addition to working collaboratively, students learn about topics and ideas that are culturally and socially relevant to them. This enforces self-confidence and self-direction in every student. 5. Culturally Mediated Instruction- Culturally mediated instruction encourages and intentionally integrates diverse viewpoints and knowledge that is relevant to the students. It incorporates diverse ways of knowing and understanding. Within this instructional paradigm, students learn that there are myriad ways to interpret a statement or an event. 6. Reshaping the Curriculum- The curriculum should be relevant and student-centered. Issues and topics that reflect the students' background and culture should be included with the intention of challenging students to develop higher-order thinking skills. Educators should look beyond the use of textbooks to encourage students to research topics within their own community. 7. Teacher as Facilitator- While the learning should be student-centered, rather than teacher-centered, the teacher’s role as a facilitator cannot be understated. They must strive to develop their culturally responsive learning environment so that it is relevant and reflective of their students’ experiences. In this way, in addition to performing and instructional role, teachers also act as guides, mediators and advocates for students (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Why is Culturally Responsive Teaching Necessary?

Diversity Index Infographics 2010 and 2021 (Census, 2021)

Culturally Responsive Teaching acknowledges the reality of the steadily increasing globalization and diversity of our country’s population. As the two US Census graphs above show, the national diversity index has grown significantly over the last decade, and continues to do so. Culturally Responsive Teaching serves to engage students from underrepresented cultures by infusing learning with culturally relevant scaffolding and content. Culturally Responsive Teaching can take many forms, and is necessary for closing the achievement gaps that exist between students from underrepresented cultures and their white counterparts. While the graph below focuses on the achievement gap between black and white students, it should be noted that achievement statistics for other underrepresented students compared to white students is similar.

The Black-White Achievement Gap (Black, 2013)

Connections to Brain Development and Neuroscience

Social and cognitive neuroscience are at the core of culturally responsive education. This type of teaching leverages students’ neural pathways by using culture as a cognitive scaffold. This makes learning easier. Social neuroscience tells us that relationships are the foundation for learning. This is why children learn so easily from their parents. When students don't feel that their teacher sees or values them, this leads to a breakdown in learning. The stress associated with this type of situation adds an additional barrier to learning as the stress hormone cortisol is known to cause impairment to the brain's executive function (Hammond, 2016). Leading teacher educator and national education consultant Zaretta Hammond explains the connection between Culturally Responsive Teaching and neuroscience in the video below.

Connections to Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory views individuals as “proactively engaged in their own development." According to the theory, a person is the result of a complex interaction between their external and internal selves, as well as their past and current behaviors. A central idea within this theory is the notion of self-efficacy, which refers to a person's perceptions of their own ability to formulate a plan and execute said plan to achieve a specific goal. The application of knowledge and skills alone cannot ensure success in performing a given task. Self-efficacy affects one’s decision-making processes, which, in turn, influences the overall outcome (Carter, 2019). Self-efficacy is determined by four sources:

  • Performance outcomes (past self experiences)

  • Vicarious experiences (observed experiences of others)

  • Verbal persuasion (coaching and feedback from others)

  • Physiological feedback (self experience of physical and emotional sensations)

Self-Efficacy (Redmond, 2016)

When it comes to Culturally Responsive Teaching, self-efficacy is important for both the student and the teacher. In order for the teacher to be effective, they must hold a genuine belief in their ability to effect change in their students by employing culturally responsive pedagogies (Carter, 2019). Culturally Responsive Teaching builds self-efficacy in students by providing verbal persuasion through the communication of high expectations and providing them with relevant models for success through vicarious experiences. It also builds successful performance outcomes by reshaping curriculum to be more relevant to students’ cultures, allow for more accessibility and more successful navigation of learning.

Although there is quite extensive research on the self-efficacy of teachers using Culturally Responsive Teaching, there is little research on student self-efficacy when exposed to CRT methods. One such example is the extensive study of Alaskan middle school children in 2016 and 2017 which determined that there is a relationship between culturally responsive teaching and student self-efficacy in Alaskan Middle Schools. The study included surveys and interviews of teachers, principals and students, and evaluated the connection between CRT and five contributing factors to student self-efficacy: 1. Caring for Others, 2. High Expectations, 3. Peer Climate, 4. Social and Emotional Learning and 5. Community Support (Christian, 2017).

Culturally Responsive Teaching in Practice

  • Indigenous Teacher Education Program (ITEP)

ITEP aims to increase the number of Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous students. This program prepares Indigenous teachers to utilize transformative teaching and learning practices that reflect the unique cultural and political contexts of Indigenous communities. To cultivate the next generation of critical Indigenous educators, ITEP works with educators to develop curriculum based on historical and contemporary issues impacting Indigenous communities (Indigenous, 2021).

Indigenous Teacher Education Program Spring 2021 Inaugural Conference Flyer

  • Students as Content Creators: A Brooklyn Ethnography

When eighteen students started from diverse backgrounds started his class one school year, a Brooklyn high school teacher saw a unique opportunity. Between the eighteen students, they spoke nine different home languages, and nearly all had lived in poverty. In trying to decide what common materials could possible be relevant to all students, the teacher decided to shape the class around allowing the students to develop their own content- an ethnography of the people in their school community (Mumper, 2019). In-depth information about this project can be found here on page 12.

Evidence Gained from the Practice of Culturally Responsive Teaching

  • The Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP)

This reading program adapted to meet the cultural needs and abilities of young Hawaiian children became part of a study which concluded that KEEP program students scored better on three tests compared to their control group counterparts. Additionally, KEEP students demonstrated higher abilities in vocabulary in comprehension over control classrooms (Demmert, 2003).

  • Creole and English Languages Bilingual Instruction in Aboriginal Australians

Students who participated in this study were Creole-speaking Aboriginal Australian children from two different schools. One school instructed students only in English, while the other instructed students in both Creole and English. The results of the study found that the bilingually schooled children were superior in English and mother-tongue oral language proficiency when compared to the monolingually schooled children (Demmert, 2003).

  • Meta-analysis of Bilingual Education Efficacy

Based on the statistical combination of 11 “methodologically acceptable” studies, this meta-analysis concluded that limited English proficiency students who are taught using at minimum some of their native language perform significantly better on standardized tests than similar students taught only in English (Demmert, 2003).


Culturally Responsive Teaching is sometimes looked upon as a “buzz” phrase in education. This is often because educators lack the deep understanding of its evidence-based underpinnings or proper implementation. Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to understanding is that it is often confused with Social Justice Education or Multicultural Education (Hammond, 2016). (The graphic below, created by Zaretta Hammond parses the difference between the three.) Most recently, the acronym for Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) has been confused with the acronym for Critical Race Theory.

Dimensions of Equity (Hammond, 2016)

There is a significant amount of literature that focuses on specific culturally responsive practices in education and a wide range of neuroscientific evidence to support the theory of Culturally Responsive Teaching (Region, 2016). The biggest hurdle to a wider acceptance and implementation of Culturally Responsive Teaching seems to be a lack of understanding about what it is and is not. It cannot be argued that our nation is growing increasingly diverse, and the achievement gap is ever-widening. Culturally Responsive Teaching offers us an opportunity to close the achievement gap while acknowledging and responding to our increasingly diverse communities.

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