The ‘other CRT’ — culturally responsive teaching — can truly make a difference

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I had a student I will never forget, a young man who was destined to become the product of low expectations from educators who didn’t believe in his potential. He was told multiple times he didn’t belong in certain courses, based on implicit bias or racist ideas about Black boys in school settings that too often serve to marginalize instead of encourage. One teacher, a white woman, said to me: “Yes, he is quite smart but he will not ‘fit’ in the gifted program. He will certainly be a behavioral problem.” 

I believed in this young man, and had I not intervened to make sure he received the best possible education he deserved, who knows where he might have ended up. The truth is, as an educator of color, I shouldn’t have had to deal with that situation — and the student never should have faced bias and discrimination that could have locked him out of opportunity. What we all needed was a support system of culturally responsive educators who could see him for himself, and not through the lens of stereotypes and bias. 

There is much deeply misguided and misinterpreted chatter these days about “critical race theory” (CRT). Some teachers are banned from teaching about our nation’s complete history because critical race theory, an actual academic theory that isn’t taught in America’s public schools, has been co-opted for political points. But in fact, what we should be talking about is the “other CRT” — that is, culturally responsive teaching. One might argue the two are connected because if we had a better understanding about our lived experiences and racial and ethnic backgrounds, maybe more people would understand the value of teaching by affirming students’ backgrounds.  

Educators and education consultants provide professional development to masses of teachers seeking answers to fixing longstanding racial disparities in education. And teachers’ professional development needs will only increase as we re-enter schools this fall. Most educators agree that effective teaching is a key to our recovery from the pandemic. Culturally responsive teaching is a significant component of “effective teaching,” and yet, our nation leaders aren’t discussing how to ensure that teachers have the tools to be culturally responsive and effective come fall.

According to Geneva Gay, a professor of education at the University of Washington-Seattle, culturally responsive teaching can reverse the underachievement of students of color. She posits that by validating the strengths of students and connecting their learning to their cultural backgrounds, teachers can unleash their higher learning potential and increase students’ success. 

Research supports Gay’s framework. Culturally responsive teaching practices have enhanced the social, emotional and academic development of all students. For example, studies indicate that culturally responsive teaching and education positively influence students’ reading comprehension and mathematical thinking. And neuroscience research shows that culture drives how brains process information. In 2018, a research group found that culturally responsive teaching was significantly related to positive student behaviors in classrooms. As a result of this research, some teacher organizations and state education standards have embraced the need to train and place culturally responsive teachers in schools.

For comparison’s sake, critical race theory is a framework for understanding how racism has shaped social institutions such as the criminal justice system, education system, housing market and health care system. It can help Americans to understand how oppressive policies and practices have shaped public education, but politicians who fight over a fictitious definition of critical race theory are missing an opportunity to actually fix disparities in education for the most underserved students. 

I’m fearful that teachers may be listening and adjusting to the current debate, and not addressing “good teaching” in classrooms. Campaigns that ban teachers from teaching a broader U.S. history and new state legislation may drive educators away from learning how to impart lessons in a culturally responsive way. Worst of all, we risk having teachers ignore the potential of their students. This conundrum between the “two CRTs” could widen the gap in educational outcomes. 

I’ve often thought about my young student in the years following his schooling. One day, I ran into his mother and learned he became an engineer. Looking back, I’m glad I intervened in a  small way to help him early on. The future depends on our investing in students. This fall, we must ensure that educators return with the necessary skills and knowledge to be culturally responsive in classrooms. Our students and our communities deserve good teaching, not a divisive, political debate.

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Ph.D., M.Ed., is dean of the School of Education at American University. She has 30 years of experience as a former kindergarten teacher, elementary school counselor, family therapist and university professor and administrator. She is the author of “School Counseling to Close the Achievement Gap: A Social Justice Framework for Success” and her upcoming book, “Antiracist Counseling in Schools and Communities.” Follow her on Twitter @chm91364.

Tags Critical race theory Culturally relevant teaching Education holistic teaching

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