Spring 2010

Culture

Cultural and Academic Excellence as Antecedents to Teacher Quality and Continuous School Improvement

Cultural and Academic Excellence as Antecedents to Teacher Quality and Continuous School Improvement

Borrowing from the admonition attributed to Socratic wisdom which implores us to “Know Thyself”, it becomes essential to the teaching and learning process for both the delivers and the receivers of knowledge and skills to embrace self knowledge. This admonition can be utilized to accommodate the concept of culture and the knowledge thereof as a critical ingredient in successful and effective pedagogical approaches to the diversity that exists in classrooms and schools.

Borrowing from the admonition attributed to Socratic wisdom which implores us to “Know Thyself”, it becomes essential to the teaching and learning process for both the delivers and the receivers of knowledge and skills to embrace self knowledge. This admonition can be utilized to accommodate the concept of culture and the knowledge thereof as a critical ingredient in successful and effective pedagogical approaches to the diversity that exists in classrooms and schools. While this diversity can be manifested in many forms such as religion, race, age, gender, and social economic status, the premise for this treatise is that cultural diversity can be addressed in significant ways through the careful and skillful application of culturally responsive pedagogy.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

While there is general agreement in the profession that all children can learn the more appropriate premise might be stated as follows: All children can learn when taught properly and effectively. This premise serves as the launching pad for detailing the importance of culturally responsive teaching. Padrón, Waxman, and Rivera (2002) utilized the earlier work of a practitioner-scholar to provide a framework for this area of inquiry. “Culturally responsive teaching emphasizes the everyday concerns of students, such as critical family and community issues, and tries to incorporate these concerns into the curriculum. It helps students prepare themselves for meaningful social roles in their community and larger society by emphasizing both social and academic responsibility. It addresses the promotion of racial, ethnic and linguistic equality as well as the appreciation of diversity (Boyer, 1993).

What are the positive lessons to be learned from this discourse? Authors such as Gay (1990), Edmonds (1981), Ellison (1995), Hillard (1995) and Sizemore (1984) have encouraged the profession to embrace diverse student populations by mastering the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the children where they are and to take them where they need to be in the interest of societal values that undergird academic and cultural excellence.

If continuous school improvement is an expectation for quality, equity, and legitimacy in working with students, then a valid determinant of its presence might be revealed by examining cultural and academic excellence. Let us pause at this juncture to define cultural and academic excellence as the means by which one might explore their connections through the structural and psychological prisms of continuous school improvement.

Working Definitions For Practice

Therefore a working definition of culture would expand beyond the identification of customs, traditions, artifacts and thought patterns to include beliefs and values imposed on children by internal and external environments. These phenomenal impositions often fuel a dual set of expectations that are at odds with excellent teaching and successful learning. It can have the effect of lowering expectations for the students and the teacher based on preconceived realities fortified by misinformation, disinformation, and mostly lack of information. When cultural diversity is seen as strength and a teachable moment in the classroom and school environments, the imposed mindsets can be overcome. However, one can only overcome these barriers to effective teaching and learning by realizing and addressing their presence in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that invade far too many school-based relationships.

The most satisfying approaches to embracing the value of culture as a component of the critical make-up of students, teachers, administrators, schools, classroom, communities and cities occur when teaching and learning are of paramount concern. The culture of the teaching and learning environment must foster a climate of inquiry that views diversity in its many forms as a strength, to be built on for understanding, application, and critical problem solving.

Tread With Caution

An oppositional perspective has emerged in the conversation about cultural diversity that signals an alarm to educators and policymakers who see the strengths in children and people of color. Broussard et. al (2006) discussed the impact of color blindness and its contributions to the diminution of cultural diversity and the advent of culturally responsive pedagogy. A useful language metaphor emerged as the mathematical concepts of addition and division were used to underscore the need to address individual affiliations before the collective of all students.

  • How do cultural understandings enhance learning?
  • What are organizing and teaching adaptations that validate cultural diversity and enhance student engagement time?
  • What’s in the name: culture, ethnicity, race, diversity, color-blindness?

In developing the skills and knowledge to use culturally responsive teaching to embed the norms and experiences of students in the content being taught, it becomes necessary for effective interactions to discard all notions of cultural deficit thinking. Oftentimes cultural deficit thinking is a covert expression of a lower expectation held toward a certain group of children in a classroom or school associated with language, race, ethnicity, dress and poverty. Those who deploy culturally responsive pedagogy identify strengths of children from diverse backgrounds in the classroom and practice bridging the instruction or activity toward strengths that foster engagement. Farber (1967, pg. 22) provides a provocative perspective when he quoted the late James Farmer as follows: “America would only become color blind if we gave up our color. The white man, who presumably has no color, would have to give up only his prejudices. We (African Americans) would have to give up our identities.”

This harsh reality has hampered the discussions historically and led to the so-called cultural wars that brought about more distance than harmony because of a serious conversation void on this sensitive area.

Challenges for Service Delivery

In conclusion, the concept of culture is described under several definitions in the literature related to teacher quality and efficacy as well as student academic achievement. For additional information, definitions and insights in preparation for the very important conversations that might be facilitated by this article, strong consideration of the listing that follows is encouraged:

  • Cultural Pluralism
  • Multiculturalism
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Cultural Congruency
  • Cultural Discontinuity
  • Cultural of Poverty
  • Acculturation
  • Enculturation

When the main ingredients of the conversations about culture and diversity are distilled, educators will be left with the possibilities and potentialities of positive human relationships, emboldened by interactions in the context of classrooms and schools that have the will and capacity to connect academic and culture excellence significantly. At this very important juncture, teacher quality, continuous school improvement, and cultural diversity are reconciled in the interest of academic achievement, effective classrooms, and successful schools. An appropriate summary of the educational challenges herein have been captured in the ponderables attributed to a Jewish Rabbi and an African American Journalist.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? (self)

But if I am only for myself, what am I? (relationships)

If not now, when? (action)

If not us, who? (educators challenge)”

References

Padrón Y.N, Waxman H.C, and Rivera C. (2002). Issues in Education Hispanic Students. Educating At-Risk Students. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Boyer, James. (1993). Culturally sensitive instruction: An essential component of education for diversity. Catalyst for Change, 22(3). 5 – 8.

Gay, Geneva. (1990) Achieving Educational Equity through curriculum desegregation. Phi Delta Kappan (72)1.

Edmonds, Ronald. (1981). The characteristics of effective schools; Research and implementation. Paper presented to the National Conference on Education Issues, New York.

Ellison, Ralph. (1995). The Invisible Man. Second International Edition, New York: Random House.

Hillard, Asa. (1995). The maroon within us: selected essays on African American Socialization. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.

Sizemore, Barbara et.al. (1984). Saving the African American Child. Washington, D.C: National Alliance of Black School Educators.

Broussard, S, Bailey, D., Cummings, J., Johnson, J., and Levi, K. (2006). Cultural and Educational Excellence Revisited: Knowing, Doing, Being and Becoming as Through Saving the African American Child Matters, Portland, OR: Inkwater Press.

Farber, Charles. (1967). White Reflections on Power. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company.

Dr. Jay Cummings is regarded as an authority on urban education and effective schools that serve children from diverse ethnic, family and social economic backgrounds. He was a public school educator for 36 years, serving as a teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and state administrator. Dr. Cummings is the author of over 20 professional articles, four book chapters, one book and has served for 10 years as a Professor and Dean of a College of Education. His latest co-authored book is entitled, "Cultural and Educational Excellence Revisited: Knowing, Doing, Being, and Becoming as Though Saving the African American Child Matters".