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Valuing Student Experiences: An Introduction to Culturally Responsive Education (CRE)

July 20, 2021

SRI International
   Daniela Saucedo, REL Appalachia
   Cris Jimenez, REL Appalachia

stock image of students studying together

When I went to college, I took a linguistics course where we explored the cultural relationship between the Spanish language and United States society. After my first day of class, I came home crying after realizing that the Spanglish I spoke at home was worthy of its own field of research. Prior to that linguistics course, I didn't know that my Latinx culture had a place in my education. In high school, I learned about White settlers' westward expansion absent the perspective of the Mexican and indigenous communities from whom the land was stolen. In contrast, my college course was taught entirely in Spanish and we learned about the historical and political factors that influenced the ways the Spanish language exists in the U.S. The course validated my lived experiences in ways I had never encountered before.

The feeling of connection and pride to what I was learning was the result of a well-documented phenomenon. Research shows that teaching students of color “through their own cultural and experiential filters”—in other words, making a meaningful connection between students' cultural background knowledge and their experiences at school— can improve their academic achievement.1 As the number of students of color in the public school system continues to increase,2 how can educators make educational experiences relevant for students from diverse backgrounds? This is where culturally responsive education (CRE) comes in.

What is CRE?

CRE is a pedagogy that “advances equity and social justice by:

  • Centering and valuing students' cultures and identities.
  • Using rigorous and culturally relevant curriculum and anti-oppressive teaching practices.
  • Building strong, positive relationships between students, families, and school staff.
  • “Supporting students to develop the knowledge, skills, and vision to transform the world toward liberation.” 3
CRE in the United States developed from desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s that demanded equal and just educational experiences for Black students. At that time, dominant narratives of “cultural diversity” resulted in the assimilation of students of color into an education system that centered White norms, while devaluing students' diverse experiences.4 CRE challenged this notion of assimilation by deliberately centering the culture, knowledge, and experiences of students of color.5

Culturally responsive pedagogies and practices demand a comprehensive understanding of the educational system by acknowledging historical forms of oppression in instructional materials and assessments; teacher expectations, attitudes, and practices; and administrative policies.6 These different dimensions of CRE interact to impact student experiences; it is important to consider how each one can be addressed when working to improve cultural responsiveness in a classroom, school, or larger educational system.7 Examples of CRE in practice include ensuring curricula contain instructional materials written by authors of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, providing professional development to increase teachers' awareness of their implicit biases or the stereotypes they hold toward students of color, and reviewing administrative policies on disciplinary practices that disproportionately target students of color.

Why does CRE matter?

Today, CRE continues to be a strategy to challenge systemic racism in the educational experiences of students of color. While educational systems have made some progress, students of color face resource disparities and inadequate access to “technology, enrichment activities, suitable school buildings, and diverse and effective teachers.”8 Further, students of color “are often held back by low teacher expectations, exclusionary disciplinary practices, curricula that neglect the struggles and contributions of people of color, and school norms that privilege White and middle class ways of communicating, thinking, and even dressing.” 9 For example, Black students often come from cultures where a frank and direct communication style is preferred; however, in White cultures where indirect communication is the norm, forthrightness is often viewed as defiance, which can lead to the misperception that Black students have behavioral problems.10 Taken together, these issues contribute to students of color dropping out of high school at higher rates and enrolling in college at lower rates than their White peers.11

CRE offers one approach to mitigate these systemic issues and improve outcomes for students of color.12 Implementation of CRE practices is connected to positive increases in academic skills and concepts across content areas including mathematics, science, history/social studies, English language arts, and English as a second language. CRE is also related to improvements in student motivation, interest in content, ability to engage in content area discourse, student perceptions of their capabilities, and confidence when taking standardized tests.13 For example, in one qualitative study, a middle school mathematics teacher created problem sets using real traffic-stop data, which led students to discover and acknowledge racial profiling. Students in the class demonstrated increased interest and engagement in mathematics, improved mathematics grades, and increased sociopolitical awareness, defined as students' ability to “recognize, understand, and critique current and social inequalities.” 14 In another study, researchers estimated the causal effects of participating in an ethnic studies course on grade 9 student outcomes. The course focused on social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements in U.S. history, and included a service-learning project in students' local communities. Researchers found that students who took the course as part of a pilot program had higher rates of attendance, earned higher GPAs, and earned more credits in grade 9 as compared to students with similar grade 8 GPAs who did not take the course.15

How can I learn more?

If you're new to CRE, or if you're looking to learn more, check out the guides and frameworks in the table below. These resources provide concrete examples of CRE in action and can help educators become more culturally responsive in their approach to student learning. Staff from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia categorized the resources according to four dimensions educators can use to embed CRE into schools and classrooms: (1) instructional materials and assessments, (2) teacher practices and activities, (3) teacher attitudes and beliefs, and/or (4) administration and policies.16 Remember that CRE is not a finite initiative or a set of diverse classroom materials; it requires a deep analysis of institutional systems, along with deliberate action. For this reason, it's important to keep these four interconnected dimensions in mind as you review.

Guide/Framework Source Excerpt from Developer Description Dimension(s) of CRE addressed
Culturally Responsive Teaching: What You Need to Know Understood for All (2020) “This guide defines Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), explains what it looks like in classroom settings, and includes ways to integrate CRT into classroom practices and family partnerships. Additionally, it describes how to use CRT during distance learning.” Teacher practices and activities

Teacher attitudes and beliefs
Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework New York State Education Department (2018) “The Culturally Responsive-Sustaining (CR-S) framework is intended to help education stakeholders create student-centered learning environments. It also assists stakeholders in developing and implementing policies that educate all students effectively and equitably, as well as provide appropriate supports and services to promote positive student outcomes.” Teacher practices and activities

Teacher attitudes and beliefs

Administration and policies
Guide for Racial Justice & Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning Abolitionist Teaching Network (2020) “This guide builds from the premise that injustice manifests differently in different schools and communities. This guide does not provide a list of ‘best practices’ because Abolitionist Teaching is a way of life. As such, the guide is an invitation for Abolitionist Teachers to individually and collectively generate critical reflection and action.” Teacher attitudes and beliefs

Administration and policies
Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children's Books Louise Derman-Sparks (2016) “This guide for selecting anti-bias children's books provides nine recommendations to assist educators in critically examining book selections.” Instructional materials and assessments
How to be an Antiracist Educator Dena Simmons (2019) “Educators have an obligation to confront the harm of racism. This blog recommends five actions for teaching for an antiracist future.” Teacher practices and activities

Teacher attitudes and beliefs
Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching Geneva Gay (2002) “This article makes a case for improving the school success of ethnically diverse students through culturally responsive teaching and for preparing teachers in preservice education programs with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to do this. The ideas presented here are brief sketches of more thorough explanations included in Gay's book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice(2000).” Teacher practices and activities

Teacher attitudes and beliefs

More resources from the REL Program

If you're looking for more information about CRE, check out REL Midwest's recent resource roundup on culturally responsive practices as well as REL Appalachia's resource compilation on implementing inclusive education through culturally responsive practices and resource on instruments for measuring the cultural responsiveness of students' educational experiences.



1 Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106–116.

2 de Brey, C., Musu, L., McFarland, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Diliberti, M., Zhang, A., Branstetter, C., & Wang, X. (2019). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups 2018 (NCES 2019–038). U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.

3 Culturally Responsive Education Hub. (n.d.)

4 Johnston, E., D'Andrea Montalbano, P., & Kirkland, D. E. (2017). Culturally responsive education: A primer for policy and practice. Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, New York University. Booklet_170817.pdf

5 Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.

6 Johnston et al., 2017.

7 Richards, H. V., Brown, A. F., & Forde, T. B. (2007). Addressing diversity in schools: Culturally responsive pedagogy. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(3), 64–68.

8 C. Muñoz, J. (2020). Culturally responsive teaching: A reflection guide. New America. https://d1y8sb8igg2f8e.

9 Muñoz, (2020).

10 Johnston et al., 2017.

11 de Brey et al., 2019.

12 Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163–206.

13 Aronson & Laughter, 2016.

14 Aronson & Laughter, 2016.

15 Dee, T. S., & Penner, E. K. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127–166.

16 Richards et al., 2007.