Is Your Curriculum Culturally Responsive?

Use a scorecard to find out—and restart discussions about representation and equity.

Topics: Curriculum and Instruction, Equity and Diversity

Our team at New York University (NYU) Metro Center conducted a nationwide study in 2022 of the “big three” elementary English language arts (ELA) curriculum companies. Using its Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, the study revealed that all major curricula were rated as “culturally destructive” or “culturally insufficient.”

This means that sample curricula from McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Savvas “reinforced stereotypes, centered on white or Eurocentric ideas or culture, and offered little guidance for teachers to connect curriculum to students’ lives,” says “Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA’s Curriculum.” In addition, “all three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity.”

When considering the diversity of perspectives, the research team found that the preponderance of narratives were dominated by and written from the white American experience. This doesn’t mean characters of color were absent, but more often than not, they were not central to the storyline, not the authors of their own stories, and not in control of their own narratives. This leads to stereotypes and dehumanizing “deficit” narratives that focus only on oppression.

The lowest scores, however, were in the teachers’ materials offered. They didn’t offer adequate guidance on connecting students’ prior knowledge or cultural backgrounds to the curriculum content, didn’t offer opportunities to make space for discussion about teachers’ personal biases or belief systems, and didn’t prompt teachers to encourage critical reflection or questions, implying that students should accept fictionalized stories as historical truth.

Additionally, the research team found that all three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling of historical narratives and employed language and tone that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous, and characters of color. One example was a fifth-grade curriculum with a section on “Immigration and Expansion in the United States” that provided a timeline from 1620 to 1954 that evaluators found to be ahistorical and dismissive of the role land theft and chattel slavery played in European colonization.

These three companies are responsible for providing resources and tools to schools across the country at the cost of hundreds of millions in tax dollars. The study sheds light on how little the major curricula have budged on diversity and representation, offering a counternarrative to the critical race theory hysteria and culture wars (see sidebar, “Education, Not Indoctrination”) currently plaguing popular media discussions.

What Is Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education?

Scholarship on culturally responsive education (CRE) was established by Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay more than three decades ago. They articulated three pillars of CRE that have guided continued scholarship and practice in the area: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness.

The foundation and first pillar of CRE is premised on the idea that all students can achieve academically and are deserving of high-quality and rigorous learning opportunities. CRE insists on this by rooting practice in the second pillar: cultural competence. This means educators and staff understand culture and its role in education, and they reflect on their policy, practices, beliefs, and biases on an ongoing basis. Cultural competence also means students and their communities are reflected in the curriculum.

The third pillar is about transferring power to students by ensuring that they have a rigorous, sociopolitically conscious analysis of the world. Educators can support this by understanding and being transparent about the sociopolitical context of schools and communities and incorporating these understandings into their teaching. The goal is for students to become agents of social change and transformation.

Culturally responsive practices hold high expectations for all students. But they also ask educators and school staff to build their own racial literacy “muscles” and their understanding of culture and its role in education. Educators can begin this work by refining their own analysis of culture and identity.

Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, associate professor at Columbia University, describes this work as “the archeology of self,” a practice that includes reading, reflecting, and situating one’s own identity in the context of society and school. Finally, culturally responsive educators are cognizant of the sociopolitical context of schools, communities, and their students, and they ensure that students develop a sociopolitical consciousness and see themselves as agents of social change.

Over the years, Ladson-Billings and Gay’s work has been expanded upon to become culturally responsive and sustaining education (CRSE). Developed by Django Paris and H. Samy Alim, CRSE argues that simply being responsive to students’ identities is not sufficient; instead, schools must be sites for “sustaining—rather than eradicating—the cultural ways of being of communities of color.”

This means leveraging community practices, resources, and expertise as assets that go beyond representation to see the intrinsic value and learning opportunities in students’ communities—giving representation to the culture of the community and using it to teach rather than concentrating solely on materials created from an ethnocentrically white mindset.

CRSE honors and leverages the cultural artifacts young people bring to the classroom. We’ve heard of passionate teachers using hip hop music to teach students about the poetry of Shakespeare and other white authors of the past, but we call upon teachers and students to see the brilliance in today’s poets. For example, Kendrick Lamar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist, and his work—and other works like it—should be honored for its own merits and contributions to culture.

The Benefits of CRSE

Multiple studies cited in a 2016 research review, “The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education: A Synthesis of Research Across Content Areas,” acknowledge CRE’s benefits in student motivation, academic engagement, pride in identity, self-efficacy, agency, grades, and test scores. But even though these benefits hold for students of color and white students alike, the scholarship is often ignored, making it almost absent in teacher and school accountability tools.

There are signs of hope. States, cities, school districts, and individual schools across the country have taken it upon themselves to invest in CRSE and ethnic studies. In 2018, for example, the New York State Board of Regents established the CRSE Education Framework, followed by the adoption of a CRSE Definition by the New York City Department of Education in 2019. The California Department of Education has also established resources, definitions, and tools in support of CRSE.

The CRSE Curriculum Scorecard

CRSE Curriculum Scorecards were developed in partnership with New York City parents, students, advocates, and researchers to help measure to what extent ELA and science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics studies are culturally responsive. Parents from the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice led the charge to use and share the tool throughout New York City, while building a campaign to bring culturally responsive training and curricula to all city schools and teachers.

NYU Metro Center designed the scorecard so that it can be customized for use by parents, youth, educators, and community members in any school or district. Using it as part of an inclusive, participatory evaluation process offers a comprehensive analysis of the cultural responsiveness of a particular curriculum sample in the following areas:

Representation. This section helps evaluators determine the level of meaningful representation of the school community in the curriculum with statements about:

  • Diversity of characters. “The curriculum features visually diverse characters, and the characters of color do not all look alike.” This statement prompts evaluators to identify the basic visual representations presented in a set of materials before moving on to representation in stories and other materials.
  • Accurate portrayals. “Characters of diverse cultural backgrounds are not represented stereotypically or presented as foreign or exotic.” This statement prompts evaluators to look for narratives in which characters of diverse cultural backgrounds are not represented as one-​dimensional or stereotypical, going beyond representation to include accuracy in portrayals and experiences of characters from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Social justice. This section provides prompts for reviewing the role curriculum plays in “decolonizing” and analyzing power and privilege, centering multiple perspectives, and connecting learning to real life. Sections and questions include:

  • Decolonization/power and privilege. “The curriculum communicates an asset-based perspective by representing people of diverse races, classes, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations through their strengths, talents, and knowledge rather than their perceived flaws or deficiencies.”
  • Centering multiple perspectives. “The curriculum provides avenues for students to connect learning to social, political, or environmental concerns that affect them and the school community.”

Teachers’ materials. This section offers statements prompting evaluators to consider the role teachers’ materials play in guiding educators to enhance, approach, and customize lessons for their student populations. For example:

  • “Guidance is provided on being aware of one’s biases and the gaps between one’s own culture and students’ cultures.”
  • “Guidance is provided on giving students opportunities to contribute their prior knowledge and experience with a topic, not just respond to the text and information presented in class.”

Using the CRSE Scorecard is simple: Build a diverse evaluation team; choose the grades, units, and lessons to analyze; and pull out keywords to look for. The scorecard will then ask participants to assess their levels of satisfaction with the curriculum on the various measures, producing a unified score that spurs discussion and helps determine the next steps for your curriculum.

Schools and districts across the country have used the CRSE Scorecard to analyze their curricula and make significant changes. Based on its results, schools have invested in new materials, allowed teacher teams to develop new or supplemental resources to the existing curriculum, prioritize professional development in culturally responsive practices, and initiate a range of other interventions.

The CRSE Scorecard can be a powerful catalyst for starting discussions surrounding equity and offers an opportunity to engage parents and caregivers, students, and community members in meaningful discussions about curriculum and teaching practices.

We are in a sociopolitical moment when much of the rhetoric surrounding public education is misinformed, fear-mongering, or dedicated to upholding the status quo. We hope this tool can serve as a way to center curriculum discussions on the practices research and experience show are most effective for children. School leaders have an opportunity to lead the way.

Matt Gonzales is director of the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative at NYU Metro Center.