OPINION | Towards a more culturally responsive school system


Like the fish that doesn’t know what water is, culture is generally imperceptible to us until someone else points it out to us or we encounter a culture that’s not our own. Even when we do consider cultural differences, we focus primarily on topics like food or ritual that are easily defined. You eat lefse, we eat kolaches. Your weddings have ceili dances, ours have polkas.

The really deep parts of culture aren’t as visible. It’s not just spoken language, but also nonverbal conventions and assumptions of what constitutes appropriate personal space. It’s not just what you eat, but who else you eat with and what the group dynamics are. Matriarchal or patriarchal? Individualist or collectivist? Depending on what definition of culture you use, all the food and dance examples I gave in the previous paragraph come from the same large European culture. Even as northern Europe, central Europe, and the British Isles feature a complex mixture of cultural heritages, there are certain common threads that run through pretty much all European cultures that are distinct from the cultural threads running through many African, Asian, or Native American cultures.

If teachers and their students all come from the same culture, and if that culture is the same as the one students can expect to participate in after they graduate, schools don’t need to worry too much about culture. Those aren’t our schools, though. Our student population as a whole is growing more diverse, and hopefully, it will grow more integrated. Our society, too, is diversifying, even as much of it remains segregated. Students going to school today need to see their cultures respected and represented, otherwise we risk disengagement, conflict, and loss of learning opportunities.

Of course, if this was easy, we’d already be doing it. Getting a handle on culture is very difficult, even for those invested in the work. As a particularly current example, read the ongoing conversation about race, poverty, and culture between The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait (with additional input from The Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie, among others). Both Coates and Chait come from the progressive end of the spectrum. Both are respectful and well-intentioned. The discussion, though, is intense.

In short, Coates — raised in West Baltimore during the Age of Crack — has objected to the conflation of black culture with the stereotypes of laziness, criminality, and low expectations associated with “the culture of poverty.” Chait has argued that the manifestation of the stereotyped behaviors in black communities is a natural outgrowth of the many abuses heaped on African-Americans in the United States. At the core of the debate is defining what “culture” means, competing descriptions (often implied rather than made explicit) of what constitutes black culture, and the relationship between culture and the behaviors people adopt to survive in conditions of high poverty and violence.

I don’t propose to offer a solution, but rather to demonstrate that well-meaning progressives can still get into deep, unintentionally hurtful, arguments when attempting to grapple with issues of culture. Add in conservatives and moderates, and you start to see how healthy cultural responsiveness in our schools will take a lot of work.

One additional point in the Coates-Chait discussion alludes to another difficulty schools face when addressing matters of culture: the long history of schools being used as tools of cultural oppression and destruction. Sometimes this was given a label: assimilation. Other times, it was treated more subtly. In the present conversation, Chait refers to the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP schools as being, in part, the teaching of “middle class norms.” Coates argues instead that the goal shouldn’t be to replace students’ current culture with “middle class norms,” but that students “need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds.”

This begins to get at what a culturally responsive education can do for students. In addition to making school more welcoming and less hostile for students and families, it gives teachers and students a way to discuss the different ways that culture and norms play out in our modern society. In doing so, the intention is not to teach students “the right way” to be, but to give them the awareness and tools to present themselves appropriately and safely wherever they may be.

Translating all of this into meaningful action is a challenge. Diversifying the teaching force is a necessary step, and one that gets recommended most often. At present, the overwhelming majority of teachers are white, with a background in one or more European cultures. A corps of teachers that better represents the student cultures of today and tomorrow will help schools ensure more students have more teachers with whom they can feel culturally comfortable.

That’s not enough, though. All teachers need to be prepared to work with all students, regardless of their respective cultures. That means more explicit training in cultural responsiveness, not just for teachers, but for all adults in positions of power in the school system. If our schools are to be welcoming, healthy places for all students and families, we need schools that are comfortable and effective navigating culture.