Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 17
What Should Culturally Relevant
Teaching Look Like Today?
By Madeline Will
Nearly three decades ago, researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings
set out to understand what effective teaching of Black students
looks like. Too often, she said, Black children were considered
deficient and deviant-but in some classrooms, they were
thriving. What were those teachers doing differently?
The need for Ladson-Billings' work still holds true today,
as Black students continue to lag behind their white peers on
standardized test scores and are disciplined
at higher rates, particularly by white
teachers. A body of research has affirmed
Ladson-Billings' conclusions-that the
practices of culturally relevant teaching can
lead to students, and especially students
of color, having more academic success,
increased engagement in the content, better
attendance, and a stronger perception of
themselves as capable learners.
Even so, some of this work has come under
the microscope, as conservative lawmakers
across the country push to restrict how race
is discussed in classrooms. The crusade
against the academic concept of critical race
theory-of which Ladson-Billings is a leading
scholar-is underpinned by the fear that
children are being taught to view themselves
as oppressors or the oppressed. Some school
programs or curricula that refer to culturally
relevant teaching have been called into
question by parents, policymakers, and other
community members. Education Week
spoke to Ladson-Billings, who is a professor
emerita of urban education at the University of WisconsinMadison,
about what culturally relevant teaching looks like in
the classroom and her thoughts on the national debate about
critical race theory and schools. This interview has been edited
for length and clarity.
How do you define culturally relevant teaching
in 2022? Is it different from how you originated
I think it's still the same. There are three components. One,
of course, is student learning-you have to have a focus on
student learning, that's the reason people send their kids to
school, that's our reason for being. The second is what I call
cultural competence. By that, I mean the ability of students to
draw on their own backgrounds, languages, histories, customs,
and experiences as they gain fluency and facility in at least one
other culture. If you think in terms of Black and brown kids,
that one other culture is usually going to be the mainstream
culture, but we don't want their home language denigrated,
we don't want their home customs denigrated. We often use
those home customs and traditions as analogies or metaphors
for understanding this new culture. Also, I want to be clear that
when I say cultural competence, it doesn't leave white middle
class kids off the hook. Even though schools are pretty much
organized around their culture, they are going to have to be
able to communicate with people in a lot of different places,
in a lot of different circumstances. The third piece is the piece
that I call the most-ignored-critical consciousness. People
think, " Oh, I don't want to get involved in that. I shouldn't
have anything to do with politics. " Well, you shouldn't have
anything to do with partisanship. But the truth of the matter is,
we live in a political context. The critical consciousness is what
I call the " so what " piece. We teach kids all kinds of things, and
kids will say, " OK, so we learned this, so what? We're not going
to have to use this, what is this any good for? " And we tend to
give them very weak answers. We tell them things like, " Oh,
you're going to need this one day. " Well, somewhere around
4th grade, they figure out, " I'm not ever going to need this. "
So we've got to be able to show our students that what they are
learning can have applications to the problems that they are
confronting in their daily lives.
What I think has changed over time is when I did this
research starting in the late 1980s, I was in elementary
classrooms. What I was missing was the influence and the
impact of youth culture. You can be talking about contributions
of Black people-Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, whatever-
but teenagers are making culture. They are making culture
through music, through art, through fashion,
through language. So I would say that in this
iteration of my work, I've been looking very
carefully at the role that youth culture plays
in informing students and in shaping what I
would call a culturally relevant approach to
of urban education,
You wrote in the '90s that people
may ask, " Well, isn't what you
described just good teaching? "
And your response was, " Indeed,
but why does so little of it seem
to occur in classrooms with mostly
Black students? " Do you think
that's still the case, almost
30 years later?
I wish I could say no, but if there's anything
that I think Black and brown children suffer
from, it is under-teaching. So much of their
school day is caught up in policing their
bodies- " sit here, keep your mouth closed,
put your hands there " -that very little of it is really pushing
them intellectually. Even just the insistence that everything
has to be geared toward a standardized test so bankrupts the
educational experience. ... It's as if we believe we can punish
our way to success.
Particularly in those districts serving our most-vulnerable
kids, all we keep hearing about is, " We gotta get the reading
scores up. We gotta get the math scores up. " With that
particular mandate, it's very difficult to do more-innovative,
more-creative-not just teaching, but assessments. Why does
the assessment have to only be a test? Why couldn't it be a
performance? Why couldn't it be an exhibit? That's exactly
what happens to kids in private schools-they get all kinds of
opportunities to display their knowledge and skills.
I've seen critics saying that culturally relevant
teaching is a rebrand or a part of critical race
theory. What do you make of that?
Well, I have to laugh at that. I really do. Critical race theory
doesn't have anything to do with K-12 curriculum. At all. It's
interesting because Christopher Rufo from the Manhattan
Institute said in his own words that we're just going to make
the whole brand toxic. Guess what else they said is critical
race theory? Social-emotional learning. It's everything. If I
don't like it, it's critical race theory. It's probably feminism. It's
probably special education. It's probably bilingual education.
It's whatever I don't like.
I just think it's very sad that people are not reading deep
enough to see that they are being misled, and that this is
misinformation that is being fed to them.
You're one of the first scholars to apply critical
race theory to education policy research. Was
your work with culturally relevant pedagogy
informed by critical race theory tenets?
No. I started that work earlier. Culturally relevant pedagogy,
I wrote that proposal in '88, it got funded by the Spencer
Foundation in '89. I didn't start reading critical race theory
until '91 when I got to Wisconsin, and I didn't publish anything
Yet some of the legislation that's been introduced
could limit culturally relevant teaching in schools.
How do you respond to that?
The attack on anything that allows more participation and
moves us toward equity is going full force. I don't know that
there's anything that will persuade someone who is convinced
that somehow they're not getting a fair shake. That giving
someone else an opportunity diminishes them. I mean, that's
the mindset. If you do this with these kids, then you're not
giving my kids [the same opportunity], or you're indoctrinating
my kids. Those sentiments really reflect the larger public
debate, and what's starting to happen is, no matter what the
issue is, we have people who decided they're going to take the
opposite side. ... It's hard to have an actual deliberative debate
if people don't even know what they're talking about.
So where does that leave schools that
are trying to do this work?
I think that schools that are segregated for the most part-and
unfortunately 60 percent of Black and brown kids do attend
segregated schools-will be fine because nobody cares what
we teach them. We [as a society] really don't. We spend
little time in their classrooms. The only thing we care about
with these kids is that they're not out in the streets hurting
somebody. That's our image of those kids.
The place that becomes difficult is the place where I think the
work is most needed, and that is in segregated white schools.
Schools in the suburbs, schools serving the wealthiest kids.
Unfortunately, what happens is we avoid these topics. We
avoid these issues, and then [the students] go to college, and
they're confronted with people from all over and experience
people who've had different experiences. And then they're
angry because, why didn't I know this? Why didn't anybody tell
I think a perfect example of the conflation of the notion
of critical race theory and " anything I don't like " is the 1619
Project. That woman [author Nikole Hannah-Jones] has
nothing to do with critical race theory whatsoever. And in fact,
nobody was [saying it was] until someone decided we're just
going to put this in here with all the stuff we don't like.
I did a talk for Stanford about this debate about 1619 versus
the 1776 [Report, released by a commission appointed by
then-President Donald Trump that emphasizes " patriotic
education " ]. And I said if I were still teaching the adolescents
U.S. history, they'd have to read both documents. I don't
have a problem reading a document that disagrees with my
perspective. But we've got to be able to look at, what does
the evidence say? What is it that is so objectionable about
one versus the other? That's how you develop this critical
consciousness. The idea is not to have students come up
believing what you believe, but it is to have them in a place
where they can defend what they believe.
Culturally relevant teaching is probably one of the biggest
[drivers] of parent involvement and parent engagement.
While the debate is about, " you're not letting parents have
their say, " culturally relevant pedagogy has always encouraged
parents and community members to participate in schools
and classrooms. If that's something people feel like they've
been walled off from, culturally relevant pedagogy is not
what's done it for them. I've always said that parents should
be in classrooms and engaged in what's happening and raising
questions and participating and sharing.
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by
a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content
of this coverage.
EDUCATION WEEK | May 11, 2022 | www.edweek.org | 17
Courtesy of Bryce Richter/UW-Madison
Education Week - May 11, 2022
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 11, 2022
Education Week - May 11, 2022
Why Misusing ‘Groomer’ as a Political Smear Is Especially Dangerous
School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?
What the Research Says
‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify To the Power of Poetry
Key Takeaways From Praying-Coach Case While U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates
1 in 5 Educators Say They’ve Experienced Long COVID
A Flood of Federal Cash and Then Layoffs. What Gives?
With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?
Online Tutoring Can Be Effective, Research Shows
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
What Should Culturally Relevant Teaching Look Like Today?
What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?
Why Students Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
Hardest Year Ever? One Teacher’s View
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Education Week - May 11, 2022
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW2
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 1
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 3
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What the Research Says
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - ‘It Can Save Lives’: Students Testify To the Power of Poetry
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 7
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Key Takeaways From Praying-Coach Case While U.S. Supreme Court Deliberates
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 9
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 9A
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 1 in 5 Educators Say They’ve Experienced Long COVID
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 11
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - A Flood of Federal Cash and Then Layoffs. What Gives?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 13
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Online Tutoring Can Be Effective, Research Shows
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What Should Culturally Relevant Teaching Look Like Today?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 18
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - 19
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - What If We Treated Public Education Like the Crisis It Is?
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Why Students Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - Hardest Year Ever? One Teacher’s View
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW3
Education Week - May 11, 2022 - CW4