Will “Big Ideas” Reduce/End the Achievement/Opportunity Gap? How Will Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) Impact Student Learning?

For decades researchers, think tanks, politicians, talking heads have chipped in with programs and policies to shrink/eliminate the “achievement gap.” The Moynihan Report (1965), entitled “The Black Family” pointed to dysfunctional Black families as a source of poverty, a Report long since discredited. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act  (1965), at the core of the President Johnson’s War On Poverty provided dollars to poor districts, vital dollars, and has not had the impact we had hoped for.  Court-ordered busing in the 70’s did integrate schools until higher courts intervened. No Child Left Behind (2002) was a bi-partisan widely supported law that ended up as “test and punish.”

Universal Pre-K and 3 for All in New York City will have significant impact over time.  Locally created integration plans will nibble around the edges; Race to the Top dangled dollars if states linked teacher accountability to student test scores, endorsed charter schools and the Common Core, and only succeeded in creating the Opt-Out movement.

All glowed brightly and faded to the dustbin of failed solutions.

In other words, there are no magic bullets.

School systems do need fixes.

More teachers of color, especially male teachers are a goal, although the school district with the largest percentage of teachers of color in New York City is a low achieving district. Around the city about 40% of principals are of color and a majority of superintendents are of color. Once again: no magic bullets.

In January, 2019, the Board of Regents adopted a policy endorsing Culturally Relevant Sustaining Education,

Culturally responsive-sustaining (CR-S) education is grounded in a cultural view of learning and human development in which multiple expressions of diversity (e.g., race, social class, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability) are recognized and regarded as assets for teaching and learning. CR-S education explores the relationship between historical and contemporary conditions of inequality and ideas that shape access, participation, and outcomes for learners.

 The goal of the CR-S framework is to help educators design and implement a student-centered learning environment that:

  ▪ Affirms cultural identities and fosters positive academic outcomes;

 ▪ Fosters and sustains meaningful relationships between schools and communities, with an emphasis on a personal investment in the lives of youth;

 ▪ Develops students’ ability to connect across cultures;

 ▪ Empowers students as agents of positive social change; and

▪ Contributes to an individual’s engagement, learning, growth, and achievement through the cultivation of critical thinking.

 In order to make this a reality, the Department, under the Board of Regents, created a framework for CR-S practices.

Gloria Ladson-Billings has been publishing research on CRE since 1994.

“New” ideas imposed from above have depressing history in schools; few are “sticky,” they tend to fade over time as classroom teachers take a look, incorporate elements, or not, and move along.

I am unclear as to how the implementation of CR-S plays out in the classroom.

If we’re talking about choosing texts that include a range of authors including teachers of color I certainly agree, and, many teachers would agree.

If we talking about mandating specific texts or evaluating teachers on the implementation of CRE practices in classrooms, I’m  skeptical.

I asked a friend, an extraordinary high school English teacher,

Yep………reading “liberal” literature by white authors, reading “authentic” literature by authors “of color” always was a problem for me as a high school teacher.

 So…lotsa Langston Hughes and Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Piri Thomas, et.al.in my classes….. in addition to Cuban, Chilean poets and Indian novelists, et.al

 “To Kill a Mockingbird” did not engage students…too dense, too complicated, too long.

 And….the “canon” – do we want everyone to be familiar with Shakespeare?

 Many teachers in urban schools have been seeking out and teaching texts that reflect the diversity of the city, probably not enough. I spent a few years facilitating common planning time in an urban high school. In the sophomore year teachers taught “Fences,” the August Wilson play and Jack London’s, “To Build a Fire,” both texts were engrossing to the kids.

I mused, what engrossed kids, the quality of the text or the race of the author?

I posted on Twitter and Richard Gray, Jr., the Deputy Director of the Metro Center at NYU responded,

Peter Goodman

Do racially identifiable characters engage students or is it the strength of the text itself?

Richard Gray Jr


It’s both. The attacks on Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) are based on the belief that People of Color don’t create quality content. CRE is grounded in the knowledge that culturally identifiable content and strength of text are not mutually exclusive.

Peter Goodman


  • I agree – you can’t have one w/o the other, simply reading a book by a person of color that is not engaging is a disservice; and, on a parallel topic: do we still teach Shakespeare?

Richard Gray Jr


  • I think we can agree curricula must change over time with authors being added & replaced. I’m 56 years old & hope students are not reading the exact same text as me 40 years ago. CRE says that change must include adding authors that reflect the culture of students in schools.

Richard Gray Jr

I’m not sure how answer that question until you tell me why you are asking it. When Shakespeare was added to the curriculum, he was deemed worth of replacing some other authors. Are you saying the curriculum must stay the same and no authors can ever be replaced or added?

Finally, I challenge the implication of your phrase “simply reading a book by a person of color that not engaging” for three reasons

Richard Gray Jr

  • There are many ENGAGING books by Authors of Color. I was not exposed to engaging Black writers like Lorraine Hansberry or Ralph Ellison until I was in college. It should have been much sooner. CRE is saying it should be sooner, too;

Richard Gray Jr

2) While we can’t assume students will be engaged by reading books by authors from their own culture or ethnicity, we can assume it will greatly increase the probability of their engagement with the text content, given their limited exposure to those authors;

Richard Gray Jr

3) Let’s be real…if “being engaging to students” is the standard, I’m not sure we would be teaching Shakespeare.

I agree with most of what Richard espouses, I worry about how CRE is rolled out across the state. New York City decided that pedagogical employees need anti-bias training?  Has the training made teachers more aware of their biases or alienated teachers by the presumption that they’re biased? In other words, how do we know the effectiveness of the training?

We may agree or disagree with Common Core State Standards; we probably agree that the roll out was terrible; it was forced down teachers’ throats and they gagged.

A colleague who served with distinction, meaning excellent results in an exceptionally poor district continues to argue,

Sometimes what remains unsaid is most telling.  The rigor and sophistication of the on-grade curricula that is ‘actually taught’ in the classrooms brings at least an additional and prominent measure of clarity as to why districts in low-socio economic areas are not competitive with those that teach higher levels of study across the board. 

 It is not surprising that what you teach has a direct relationship to how high students will reach and achieve – a further and reasonable explanation for the sturdiness of the achievement gap. Still wondering why so few minority students meet the criteria for entrance into specialized high schools? 

  Next, failure to design assessments around what is taught in classrooms is another nail in the coffin of reasonable practice – to actually measure how well the students are doing in acquiring grade-level content, knowledge, understandings and skills (standards). 

I find considerable merit in my colleague’s position, time and time again I see schools teaching below grade level arguing the grade level work is “too hard” for their poor students of color. Teachers, Black and White and Hispanic, totally invested in the success of their students falling into the trap of inexorably lowering standards.

I continue to argue that our current education model disempowers teachers and tries to turn them into mechanical widgets; akin to “by the number” painting.

School leadership, distributive leadership, a commitment to lifelong learning, a deep toolkit, namely schools with rich collaborative cultures, schools with common goals incorporate “what works,” and, with external supports, can and do change kids lives.

One response to “Will “Big Ideas” Reduce/End the Achievement/Opportunity Gap? How Will Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) Impact Student Learning?

  1. A University of Michigan study some years ago asked why Asian students generally perform better in school than students from all other nationalities/races. The answer? “They work harder.”
    We dance around myriad reasons for student performance gaps (rightfully so to some extent), but neglect the one that actually matters. Teachers can’t “pour” information into students’ heads. Student performance is, like reading a book, a two-way street. One gets out of it what one puts into it.


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