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Culturally responsive instruction in middle school math — October 2019


Could you provide research on culturally responsive instruction in middle school math?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on culturally responsive instruction in middle school math. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Aguirre, J., & Zavala, M. (2013). Making culturally responsive mathematics teaching explicit: A lesson analysis tool. Pedagogies, 8(2), 163–190. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “In the United States, there is a need for pedagogical tools that help teachers develop essential pedagogical content knowledge and practices to meet the mathematical education needs of a growing culturally and linguistically diverse student population. In this article, we introduce an innovative lesson analysis tool that focuses on integrating mathematical thinking, language, culture, and social justice. We argue that these are essential components to culturally responsive mathematics teaching. Using data collected from a 3-year professional development initiative focused on culturally responsive mathematics teaching including teacher discussions, lesson artefacts, and interviews, the study yields two main results about the tool and its impact on teacher thinking: (1) the tool enabled teachers to systematically analyze and critique mathematics lessons with multiple dimensions including mathematical thinking, language, culture, and social justice; (2) the tool fostered purposeful pedagogical dialogue to improve a mathematics lesson along specific culturally responsive dimensions. The findings illustrate the potential of this tool to engage teachers in strategic lesson planning and purposeful discussions to make mathematics lessons culturally responsive and improve the quality of mathematics teaching in the classroom.”

Battey, D., Neal, R. A., & Hunsdon, J. (2018). Strategies for caring mathematical interactions. Teaching Children Mathematics, 24(7), 432–440. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “How we handle classroom relationships between teachers and students plays an important role in how all students experience mathematics. Students may worry about judgments from peers and teachers related to their mathematics ability, or they may feel vulnerable to labels that might include ‘nonmath person’ or ‘slow.’ The importance of countering this narrative in authentic, meaningful ways cannot be overemphasized. Although the ‘nonmath’ narrative may have an impact on all students, considering the ways that underserved students are often positioned as deficient or incapable in relation to mathematics, challenging this narrative by explicitly framing underserved students as mathematically able is especially important for teachers. Compounding this, students who are in urban schools comprising African American and Hispanic students often receive low-quality mathematics instruction (Lubienski, 2002). Countering these impoverished practices, teachers can frame students’ mathematics ability positively by focusing on the following three strategies: (1) Eliciting a complete explanation from students; (2) Re-voicing student thinking; and (3) Highlighting students’ mathematical competence. The article mentions Common Core (CCSSI, 2010) Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) emphasizing the importance of quality instruction through problem solving, mathematical discussion, and student explanations. It also mentions effective mathematics teaching practices and social factors influence emotional tone.”

Bonner, E., & Adams, T. (2012). Culturally responsive teaching in the context of mathematics: A grounded theory case study. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 15(1), 25–38. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “In this grounded theory case study, four interconnected, foundational cornerstones of culturally responsive mathematics teaching (CRMT), communication, knowledge, trust/relationships, and constant reflection/revision, were systematically unearthed to develop an initial working theory of CRMT that directly informs classroom practice. These cornerstones were found to interact in unique ways. Results have implications for teachers of mathematics who aim to become more culturally responsive, mathematics teacher educators and supervisors, and school administrators who seek to promote equity in mathematics.”

Leonard, J., Brooks, W., Barnes-Johnson, J., & Berry, R. Q. (2010). The nuances and complexities of teaching mathematics for cultural relevance and social justice. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 261–270. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Mathematics is not a race-neutral subject. Access and opportunity in mathematics for students of color in the United States continue to be limited. While a great deal of attention has been given to increasing the number of underrepresented minority students in the mathematics pipeline, there is little consideration of who they are as learners or the context in which their mathematics learning takes place. We argue that culturally relevant instruction coupled with teaching for social justice can motivate marginalized students to learn mathematics. Throughout this conceptual article, we (a) explore the theoretical frameworks underlying culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) and social justice pedagogy (SJP), (b) present illustrative cases of mathematics teaching that reveal the possibilities and challenges associated with these pedagogical approaches, and (c) offer to the field of teacher education recommendations related to the successful use of CRP and SJP within today’s classrooms.”

Nasir, N. S., Hand, V., & Taylor, E. V. (2008). Culture and mathematics in school: Boundaries between “cultural” and “domain” knowledge in the mathematics classroom and beyond. Review of Research in Education, 32(1), 187–240. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “This chapter is about culture and mathematics teaching and learning. The authors’ goal is to offer a thoughtful treatment of the role of culture in the teaching and learning of mathematics and to synthesize literature that is relevant to this concern from multiple subdisciplines in education, including math education, educational anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics, and critical theory. Here, the authors consider boundaries between what is commonly thought of as ‘cultural’ knowledge (that is, knowledge derived from settings outside of school, typically in students’ homes and communities) and ‘domain’ knowledge (that is, knowledge valued in the practices prescribed by mathematicians and math educators). They briefly explore relations between ‘everyday’ informal math knowledge and school math as a way to begin the conversation about the cultural nature of mathematics. They attend to the ways in which the field has conceptualized how issues of culture matter in mathematics classes, highlighting three lenses that researchers have used to understand culture and math learning: (a) the way that language mediates knowledge; (b) features of math classrooms as contexts that support or constrain different forms of knowledge; and (c) the way that racialized identities and expectations play out in mathematics classes. They examine how these issues of culture have taken shape in conversations and research about reforms in mathematics education. They also explore distinct programs and approaches that offer tools and ideas for blurring the line between domain and cultural knowledge in mathematics, and briefly reflect on the implications of these issues of culture and math learning for teacher professional development.”

Parker, F., Bartell, G., & Novak, J. D. (2017). Developing culturally responsive mathematics teachers: Secondary teachers’ evolving conceptions of knowing students. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 20(4), 385–407. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Research advances in teaching, learning, curriculum, and assessment have not changed the continued underperformance of marginalized students in mathematics education. Culturally responsive teaching is a means of addressing the needs of these students. It is sometimes challenging, however, to convince secondary mathematics teachers about the importance of culture in mathematics education. To contribute to what is known about supporting secondary mathematics teachers in developing a culturally responsive teaching practice, we studied the impacts of a graduate course called Culture in the Mathematics Classroom on 13 teachers enrolled in the course. The course was designed to guide secondary mathematics teachers in understanding and growing their capacity to enact culturally responsive teaching in their classrooms. The purpose of our research was to explore how teachers’ perceptions changed as a result of their engagement in the class with respect to understanding the role of culture in knowing and being responsive to their students. Specifically, we examined how each of the four course projects seemed to individually and collectively influence teachers’ thinking. Overall, teachers appeared to expand their cultural awareness and dispositions for cultural responsiveness that would support them in knowing and supporting their students in the manner of a culturally responsive teacher. Teachers did not, however, develop some more ‘advanced’ understandings related to power and privilege in society. This study provides researchers and mathematics teacher educators with a potential analytic framework for understanding teacher change with respect to culturally responsive teaching.”

Parks, A. N., & Monette, R. (2012). Enacting responsive research strategies in mathematics education: Answerability and action in close-to-the-classroom ethnographic work. Paper presented at the 34th Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Kalamazoo, MI, Nov 1–4, 2012. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Researchers in education broadly, and in mathematics education in particular, have made progress in defining culturally responsive or relevant pedagogies and have documented a variety of contexts where these pedagogies have supported the mathematical learning of various groups of non-majority children. However, little attention has been paid to examining research practices in light of the demand to become culturally relevant. The purpose of this paper is to examine the impact of our conscious choice to make our methodological work responsive to the children involved.”

Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic, at Mathematica. (2019). Factsheet: Teaching diverse learners using culturally responsive pedagogy. Princeton, NJ: Author. Full text available from

From the infographic: “Students from historically marginalized backgrounds experience poorer educational outcomes than their peers who are white, more affluent, or whose native language is English. To address this disparity, states and districts expend considerable resources on efforts to improve student achievement. Against this backdrop, educator interest in using culturally responsive pedagogy as one important approach to improving students’ outcomes has increased. Culturally responsive pedagogy aims to address social barriers believed to contribute to disparities in student outcomes. These social barriers include but are not limited to lower educator expectations for academic outcomes and deficit-based mindsets about students from historically marginalized backgrounds.”

REL West note: This infographic describes a set of culturally inclusive practices for teachers, including some examples for math.

Schmidt, P. R. (2005). Culturally responsive instruction: Promoting literacy in secondary content areas. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). Full text available from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how secondary teachers implement culturally responsive literacy instruction in their content areas. Culturally responsive instruction makes connections with students’ backgrounds, interests, and experiences to teach the standards-based curriculum. Learning becomes more meaningful and relevant as teachers draw upon students’ prior knowledge (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Raphael, 1986). This paper describes culturally responsive lessons observed in public secondary classrooms in mathematics, physics, biology, social studies, and English. One school was in a rural setting, another was an alternative school housed in a village church, and three were located in urban areas. The objective of this paper is to describe and portray culturally responsive instruction so educators can have a more concrete understanding of the teaching and learning successes in secondary schools in which poverty issues and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of students seem to contribute to academic failure.”

Stevens, T., Harris, G., Aguirre-Munoz, Z., & Cobbs, L. (2009). A case study approach to increasing teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching and strategies for building students’ math self-efficacy. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 40(7), 903–914. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Teachers of middle school mathematics should have a deep conceptual understanding of the elementary mathematics taught in middle school, should possess the mathematics knowledge for teaching that is required to effectively teach mathematics in middle school and should have the ability to effectively teach mathematics to, and enhance the math self-efficacy of, a culturally and socially diverse middle school student population. The challenge is to design effective professional development activities that enhance these desired attributes in both in-service and pre-service middle school mathematics teachers. This article reports on an attempt to design and evaluate one such activity that focuses on mathematics knowledge for teaching and self-efficacy building.”

Thomas, C., & Berry III, R. (2019). A qualitative metasynthesis of culturally relevant pedagogy & culturally responsive teaching: Unpacking mathematics teaching practices. Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College, 10(1), 21–30. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “This article uses Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) as the theoretical frameworks and qualitative metasynthesis as the methodological framework to synthesize qualitative research published between 1994 and February of 2016. Initial searches produced 1,224 articles, but through a process of appraisals, 12 articles were synthesized to understand how researchers interpret mathematics teaching practices that support CRP and CRT in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. There were five findings focused on teacher practices, classroom interactions, and student experiences with CRP and CRT within mathematics education, including: caring, context, cultural competency, high expectations, and mathematics instruction.”

Ukpokodu, O. N. (2011). How do I teach mathematics in a culturally responsive way?: Identifying empowering teaching practices. Multicultural Education, 19(3), 47–56. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Often students’ inquiry can be a great teachable moment as well as a ‘researchable moment.’ Today, even though much has been written about culturally responsive teaching, the author is often surprised to find that the notion of culturally responsive teaching does not resonate with urban teachers and when it does, they do not know how to teach their specific subjects from that pedagogical stance. The author investigated why teachers are not teaching in a culturally responsive way in their subject areas and what it would mean to teach content areas in culturally responsive ways. The purpose of this article is to report on one aspect of that study—‘why’ are teachers not engaged in culturally responsive mathematics teaching practices and ‘what’ are culturally responsive mathematics teaching practices.”

Wachira, P., & Mburu, J. (2019). Culturally responsive mathematics teaching and constructivism: Preparing teachers for diverse classrooms. Multicultural Learning and Teaching, 14(1), 1–8. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “As the school population becomes increasingly diverse with students of differing ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, there is a need for more responsive practices that capitalize on the cultural capital that such students bring to the learning process. Current practices especially in mathematics teaching are failing to meet the learning needs of most diverse students thus contributing to their lack of success. Further, few teacher education programs have successfully tackled the challenging task of preparing teachers to meet the learning needs of diverse students. This article explores the theory of constructivism and its implications to mathematics teaching. The article further explores culturally responsive pedagogy and what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher. In their analyses, the authors draw parallels between culturally responsive pedagogical practices and strategies for teaching based on a constructivist view of learning. They demonstrate why the general principles derived from the constructivist theory are particularly suited for teaching diverse students consistent with notions of culturally responsive pedagogy. Some recommendations for teacher preparation are then provided.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) –

From the website: “Founded in 1920, NCTM is the world’s largest mathematics education organization throughout the United States and Canada. The NCTM advocates for high-quality mathematics teaching and learning for each and every student.”

REL West note: NCTM has four resources that are relevant to this request:

Iliev, N., & D’Angelo, F. (2014). Teaching mathematics through multicultural literature. Teaching Children Mathematics, 20(7), 452–457. Abstract available from and full text available from

Karp, K. S., Bush, S. B., & Dougherty, B. J. (2014). 13 rules that expire. Teaching Children Mathematics, 21(1), 18–25. Abstract available from and full text available from

Mirich, D. L., & Cavey, L. O. (2015). Lacing together mathematics and culture. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 21(1), 16–24. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

Selling, S. K. (2016). Making mathematical practices explicit in urban middle and high school mathematics classrooms. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 47(5), 505–551. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

TODOS: Mathematics for All (TODOS) –

From the website:TODOS: Mathematics for All is an international professional organization that advocates for equity and excellence in mathematics education for ALL students—in particular, Latina/o students. As articulated in the mission and goals, TODOS advances educators’ knowledge, develops and supports education leaders, generates and disseminates knowledge, informs the public, influences educational policies, and informs families about education policies and learning strategies. All of these goals ultimately result in providing access to high quality and rigorous mathematics for ALL students.”

REL West note: TODOS has two resources that are relevant to this request:

TODOS: Mathematics for All. (2016). Mathematics education through the lens of social justice: Acknowledgment, actions, and accountability. Full text available from

TODOS: Mathematics for All. (2008). Promoting high participation and success in mathematics by Hispanic students: Examining opportunities and probing promising practices. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“Cultural responsiveness” OR “culturally responsive” OR “culturally competent” OR “culturally relevant”) AND (“best practices” OR “promising practices” OR “research” OR “example” OR “teaching” OR “instruction”) AND (“math” OR “mathematics”) AND (“middle school” OR “secondary”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 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 and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. 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.