5 Elements of Cultural Proficiency

By Reyes Quezada, Delores Lindsey, and Randall Lindsey
August 2015, Volume 38, Issue 12


“There’s nothing wrong with the kids.” Those words, spoken by New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera, encapsulate the belief that educators must embrace to effectively educate English-learning students. For far too long, English-learning students have existed in the margins. Educators must value students’ diverse backgrounds, instead of perceiving their language background as a troublesome obstacle.

The 2010 U.S. census reported that English learners comprise 10 percent of the total K-12 student enrollment in U.S. schools. In California alone, the English learner enrollment for 2010 was reported at more than 1.5 million, representing 24.7 percent of the total student enrollment for that state.

Given the growing numbers of English-learning students, school principals, educators, and district officials must strengthen their cultural proficiency knowledge and skills.

Five Elements of Cultural Proficiency

Culturally proficient principals take into account the five essential elements of cultural proficiency for including and supporting English-learning students. They further implement specific culturally proficient practices for each element.

1. Assess Cultural Knowledge—Principals initiate learning about their own and others’ culture(s) as assets for making changes that benefit underserved students.

Practices: Culturally proficient principals advocate for linguistically and culturally diverse students’ success by engaging with families, communities, and agencies as partners in the education of all students.

2. Value Diversity—Principals are inclusive of people and cultures with viewpoints and experiences different from their own for the benefit of their school and community.

Practices: Principals promote and develop mechanisms for creating a socially just school, with particular emphasis on linguistically and culturally diverse students. They continuously engage educators and parents in all aspects of their school community to collaborate on common goals and share resources.

For example, they hold school and community meetings in neighborhoods where English-learning students live. They also enhance access of opportunity and eliminate achievement gaps. This can be accomplished by hosting afterschool and weekend programs with local institutions, such as libraries, and paying particular attention to linguistically and culturally diverse students.

3. Manage the Dynamics of Difference—Principals use problem-solving and conflict resolution strategies as ways to include multiple perspectives and to teach others about the dynamics of cultural interactions.

Practices: Principals resolve issues that occur between cultures, both within the school and between the school and its diverse communities, such as misunderstandings about school procedures and expectations. Principals also deepen school and community knowledge of educational challenges experienced by linguistically and culturally diverse students and their families. These include translation needs and migrant family work schedules.

Finally, principals actively address and resolve issues English-learning students confront, just as they would any other student group.

4. Adapt to Diversity—Principals use their cultural knowledge to guide school policies that achieve equitable educational and socially just outcomes.

Practices: Culturally proficient leaders find ways to meet the needs of all students, paying particular attention to linguistically and culturally diverse students. These principals help parents—and the school community—understand opportunity and achievement data. They consider divergent and often conflicting points of view regarding topics such as student grouping for instruction and using curricular materials that represent students. They also challenge local practices, such as length of time students are in language development classrooms and lack of qualified instructional staff.

5. Institutionalize Cultural Knowledge—Principals’ cultural knowledge is evident in their behavior, as well as and in school policies that address educational inequities and close access, opportunity, and achievement gaps.

Practices: Culturally proficient principals advocate for equitable practices. For example, they use data to understand student needs, make sure that translation services are available when needed, and encourage both written and visual communication during home visits.

Improving Lives
A primary purpose of education today is to improve the lives of all students through culturally proficient teaching and learning. Culturally proficient schools are well positioned to foster an environment where teachers and all learners can do their best thinking and learning. To accomplish cultural proficiency, schools will need strong leadership from principals.

Reyes Quezada is a professor of learning and teaching at the University of San Diego.

Delores Lindsey is a retired professor of educational administration at California State University, San Marcos.

Randall Lindsey is a professor emeritus at California State University, Los Angeles.

*This article was originally published in the November/December 2013 issue of Principal magazine. Read the full article here.

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