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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

July 2018


What does the research say about the relationship between culturally relevant education and student outcomes?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies about the relationship between culturally relevant education and student outcomes. The ERIC database defines culturally relevant education as “educational practices and resources that reflect the culture, values, customs, and beliefs of students (i.e., help to connect what is to be learned with the students’ own lives).” In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to African-American or Black student outcomes. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Ahram, R., Fergus, E., & Noguera, P. (2011). Addressing racial/ethnic disproportionality in special education: Case studies of suburban school districts. Teachers College Record, 113(10), 2233–2266. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: The last two reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act established a policy mandate for districts to take action to reduce high rates of minority overrepresentation in special education. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in special education suggests a convergence of two distinct processes: (1) assumptions of cultural deficit that result in unclear or misguided conceptualizations of disability and (2) the subsequent labeling of students in special education through a pseudoscientific placement process. This article explores how the social construct of the ‘normal child’ became racialized through the special education referral and classification process, and subsequently produces disproportionality. Setting: This research was conducted in two multiracial suburban school districts in New York State that were identified as having an overrepresentation of students of color. Population/Participants/Subjects: Participants in the study consist of teachers and administrators within the two identified districts. Intervention/Program/Practice: Intensive technical assistance was provided to these districts to identify the root causes of disproportionality and was subsequently followed by customized professional development. Three overarching activities of technical assistance were: observing in classrooms in each of the school districts; providing root cause analyses of disproportionality; and providing culturally responsive professional development. Research Design: This research used mixed methods in collating district data, conducting technical assistance sessions with districts to identify the factors contributing to disproportionality, and creating 3-year professional development plans to address overrepresentation. In addition, researchers facilitated culturally responsive professional development to targeted groups of practitioners on topics related to improving teacher and district effectiveness in meeting the academic needs of children of color. Findings/Results: Findings were: (1) cultural deficit thinking in educators’ construction of student abilities; (2) the existence of inadequate institutional safeguards for struggling students; and (3) attempts at addressing disproportionality often result in institutional ‘fixes’ but not necessarily changes in the beliefs of education professionals. Conclusions/Recommendations: The implementation of a culturally responsive framework can produce a shift in the special education placement process and lead to a reduction in disproportionality rates. Of note is confirmation that teacher-student interactions that begin the procedures triggering disproportionality are mired in teachers’ cultural deficit thinking. However, although teachers’ beliefs about students may change extremely slowly, effective school practices can interrupt the influence of deficit thinking.”

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. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Many teachers and educational researchers have claimed to adopt tenets of culturally relevant education (CRE). However, recent work describes how standardized curricula and testing have marginalized CRE in educational reform discourses. In this synthesis of research, we sought examples of research connecting CRE to positive student outcomes across content areas. It is our hope that this synthesis will be a reference useful to educational researchers, parents, teachers, and education leaders wanting to reframe public debates in education away from neoliberal individualism, whether in a specific content classroom or in a broader educational community.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Bottiani, J. H., Larson, K. E., Debnam, K. J., Bischoff, C. M., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2017). Promoting educators’ use of culturally responsive practices: A systematic review of inservice interventions. Journal of Teacher Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Few educators are well-equipped to bridge cultural differences to ensure that all students have opportunities to learn and succeed. Existing frameworks for culturally responsive practices (CRP) suggest its potential for promoting equitable learning environments, yet the state of the science has not been assessed. This systematic review aimed to (a) describe the features of empirically examined inservice CRP interventions, (b) analyze the quality of the empirical studies, and (c) characterize study measures, outcomes, and conclusions regarding intervention impact. We found a total of just 10 empirical studies of the impact of CRP inservice training models (two quantitative and eight qualitative). Study methods universally failed to meet standards of evidence for efficacy, effectiveness, and dissemination; none employed rigorous design features to allow causal inference. Findings suggest that the research base is inadequate to draw conclusions regarding effectiveness and that more rigorous CRP inservice intervention research is needed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2016). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum (CEPA Working Paper No. 16-01). Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “An extensive theoretical and qualitative literature stresses the promise of instructional practices and content aligned with the cultural experiences of minority students. Ethnic studies courses provide a growing but controversial example of such ‘culturally relevant pedagogy.’ However, the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these courses is limited. In this study, we estimate the causal effects of an ethnic studies curriculum piloted in several San Francisco high schools. We rely on a ‘fuzzy’ regression discontinuity design based on the fact that several schools assigned students with eighth-grade GPAs below a threshold to take the course in ninth grade. Our results indicate that assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students.”

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106–116. Retrieved from Full text available at

From the ERIC abstract: “Promotes the improvement of school success for ethnically diverse students via culturally responsive teachers and the preparation of preservice teachers with necessary knowledge, attitudes, and skills to do this, highlighting: development of a cultural diversity knowledge base; design of culturally relevant curricula; demonstration of cultural caring; development of a learning community; cross-cultural communication; and cultural congruity in classroom instruction.”

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Geneva Gay is renowned for her contributions to multicultural education, particularly as it relates to curriculum design, professional learning, and classroom instruction. Gay has made many important revisions to keep her foundational, award-winning text relevant for today’s diverse student population, including: new research on culturally responsive teaching, a focus on a broader range of racial and ethnic groups, and consideration of additional issues related to early childhood education. Combining insights from multicultural education theory with real-life classroom stories, this book demonstrates that ‘all’ students will perform better on multiple measures of achievement when teaching is filtered through students’ own cultural experiences. This perennial bestseller continues to be the go-to resource for teacher professional learning and preservice courses. While retaining its basic organization and structure, the Third Edition features: (1) New research that validates the positive effects of culturally responsive teaching. Examples that broaden the racial and ethnic groups that can benefit from culturally responsive teaching; (2) More information on the needs and benefits of culturally responsive teaching with young children; (3) More attention to the quality of life for students of color in colleges and universities; and (4) The addition of Practice Possibilities at the end of chapters that describe how culturally responsive teaching can be implemented.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The achievement gap remains a stubborn problem for educators of culturally and linguistically diverse students. With the introduction of the rigorous Common Core State Standards, diverse classrooms need a proven framework for optimizing student engagement and facilitating deeper learning.”

Culturally responsive pedagogy has shown great promise in meeting this need, but many educators still struggle with its implementation. In this book, Zaretta Hammond draws on cutting-edge neuroscience research to offer an innovative approach for designing and implementing brain-compatible culturally responsive instruction.

The book includes:

  • Information on how one’s culture programs the brain to process data and affects learning relationships
  • Ten ‘key moves’ to build students’ learner operating systems and prepare them to become independent learners
  • Prompts for action and valuable self-reflection

With a firm understanding of these techniques and principles, teachers and instructional leaders will confidently reap the benefits of culturally responsive instruction.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Howard, T., & Terry, C. L., Sr. (2011). Culturally responsive pedagogy for African American students: Promising programs and practices for enhanced academic performance. Teaching Education, 22(4), 345–362. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The academic outcomes for African American students continue to lag behind their White, Latino, and Asian American counterparts. Culturally responsive pedagogy has been purported to be an intervention that may help to reverse the persistent under performance for African American students. This article highlights findings from a three-year study of an intervention program designed to increase college going rates for African American students. The authors document the manner in which overall student outcomes, graduation rates, and college going rates increased when culturally responsive pedagogical practices were used. Finally, this work calls for academic rigor to be a more germane characteristic of the culturally responsive pedagogical framework.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Larson, K. E., Pas, E. T., Bradshaw, C. P., Rosenberg, M. S., & Day-Vines, N. L. (2018). Examining how proactive management and culturally responsive teaching relate to student behavior: Implications for measurement and practice. School Psychology Review, 47(2), 153–166. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The discipline gap between White students and African American students has increased demand for teacher training in culturally responsive and behavior management practices. Extant research, however, is inconclusive about how culturally responsive teaching practices relate to student behavior or how to assess using such practices in the classroom. Identifying proactive behavior management and culturally responsive teaching practices that are associated with positive student behavior may inform teacher training and bolster efforts to reduce disparities in behavioral and academic performance. The current study examined the association between student behaviors and the observed use of and teacher self-reported efficacy in using culturally responsive teaching and proactive behavior management practices. Data were collected from 274 teachers in 18 schools. Structural equation modeling indicated a statistically significant association between observations of culturally responsive teaching and proactive behavior management practices, with observed positive student behaviors in classrooms. Implications for measurement and practice are discussed.”

McIver, M. C., Kearns, J., Lyons, C., & Sussman, M. (2009). Leadership: A McREL report prepared for Stupski Foundation’s Learning System. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Created for the Stupski Foundation, this document synthesizes recent research and theoretical literature on leadership practices needed to support the success of underserved urban students of color. The report identifies four options for creating and supporting successful school leaders of underserved students: (1) Redefine the role of the school principal; (2) Develop a culturally responsive leadership preparation program; (3) Expand effective leadership preparation and retention programs; and (4) Refine effective leadership evaluation and support programs. An appendix provides a description of the review method, including a general explanation of McREL’s approach and descriptions of the particular procedures used for each phase of the review: identification of key hypotheses and research questions, literature search, identification and cataloging of finds, and generating and communicating recommendations.”

Mitchell, D., Hinueber, J., & Edwards, B. (2017). Looking race in the face. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(5), 24–29. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Schools that achieve strong results for black students address racial dynamics directly, empower students to bring their whole selves to school, and teach in ways that leverage students’ experiences and cultures. These schools do four things to ensure success with their black students: They direct attention, strategies, and resources to black student achievement; they provide opportunities for adult learning about race, culture, class, and power; they foster strong relationships between educators and black students; and they create classroom environments that emphasize excellence and empower students to exercise agency over their own learning.”

Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D. G. (2008). Operationalizing culturally relevant pedagogy: A synthesis of classroom-based research. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(4), 433–452. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In this article, we present a synthesis of classroom-based research on the implementation of culturally relevant pedagogy. We examine 45 classroom-based research studies from 1995 to the present, highlighting culturally relevant pedagogy as enacted in classrooms. In the final section we address a few conundra and unanswered questions stemming from the research. By describing and synthesizing how others have operationalized culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom, we offer illustrative discussion points that will assist preservice teachers, experienced teachers, and teacher educators in developing a more holistic understanding of what culturally relevant pedagogy ‘looks like’ in classrooms.”

Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic. (2015). Culturally responsive education: Diversity in our classrooms [Webinar]. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The webinar, ‘Culturally Responsive Education: Diversity in Our Classrooms’ focused on the concept of culturally responsive education. Goals of the webinar included: (1) Learning what the research says about effective ways to promote culturally responsive education; (2) Discussion of ways to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of all learners; (3) Exploration of effective pedagogical practices that create an equitable classroom; and (4) Consideration of how culturally responsive practices can increase teacher effectiveness and student engagement. In addition to exploring the impact of a diverse student population on school achievement, frequently asked questions and answers of the presenters are featured along with suggestions of ways in which teachers can engage their students in meaningful learning experiences.”

Smith, C. A. (2005). School factors that contribute to the underachievement of students of color and what culturally competent school leaders can do. Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development, 17, 21–32. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Both socioeconomic and school factors contribute to the underachievement of poor children and children of color. This article explores factors that contribute to the underachievement of students of color and offers practices that culturally proficient school leaders can use to build a school culture that may positively impact the academic achievement of students of color.”

Warren-Grice, A. (2017). Advocacy for equity: Extending culturally relevant pedagogy in predominantly white suburban schools. Teachers College Record, 119(1). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: This article describes Black educators in predominantly White suburban schools who have used advocacy through the lens of culturally relevant pedagogy and serve as Educational Cultural Negotiators to help the students of color in these spaces academically and socially. This article highlights the advocacy needed to address the plight of students of color in suburban schools who disproportionately lag behind their White and Asian counterparts. Purpose/Focus of Study: This research focuses on the experiences and reflections of five Black educators who have directed after-school programs in predominantly White suburban schools. Through their experiences and reflections, this study provides a snapshot—part of a larger study—of the ways Black educators use culturally relevant pedagogy to advocate for students of color. Setting: Four suburban high schools in a Midwest metropolitan region of the United States. Research Design: Qualitative research (i.e., portraiture) was used to capture the reflections and experiences of five Black educators (18-30 years of experience) in predominantly White suburban high schools. I interviewed participants three times during the course of a year, with the last interview conducted as a focus group. I developed interview questions thematically to provide information on each director’s background, the role they played in influencing Black and Latino/a student achievement, their experiences as they helped program participants, their insight on sustaining program directors, and suggestions for educational leaders and educators of Black and Latino/a students. Findings/Results: Participants shared a sense of racial uplift to address issues of concern with Black and Latino/a students. Racial uplift manifested in the form of racial and academic advocacy. Racial advocacy came through protecting students from various types of mistreatment, neglect, and macro and micro forms of racism. Educators worked with the staff and students to help navigate and negotiate the racial space. Academic advocacy came through encouraging and supporting students to reach their highest potential though mentorship, tutoring, student life workshops, college visits, and cultural field trips.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • descriptor: “African American students” descriptor: “academic achievement” descriptor: “culturally relevant education”

  • descriptor: “academic achievement” descriptor: “culturally relevant education”

  • “Cultural proficiency”

  • descriptor: “culturally relevant education” descriptor: “principals”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.