Schools adhere to ideas of what is the “correct” way to be, act, learn, and communicate. They institutionalize these ideas through school policies, teaching choices, and curricula. But these norms are not neutral or arbitrary; they mirror the norms that allow society’s justification for why certain groups such as white, middle-class, and cisgender people accumulate privilege while groups such as Black, trans, and disabled people accumulate vulnerability. When schools establish norms that uphold privilege and vulnerability, they yield inequitable outcomes.
Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CRSE) provides a lens to study the ways schools are complicit in structuring social imbalances and, through reflection and practice, can work with communities, families, and students for educational equity. While CR-SE has associated practices, it is not a set of readymade strategies for schools to simply adopt. Neither is the New York State Education Department’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework. Before jumping to “doing”, CRSE requires a humanizing mindset about education and about students that is meant to transform the project of schools.
Consider two hypothetical math teachers, Teacher A and Teacher B, working in the same school implementing the NYSED CRSE Framework. Both teachers say they believe all children can learn. They each have seven years of experience teaching in schools with Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and white students. By drawing a comparison between Teachers A and B, we suggest that change in education happens in the heads and hearts of educators before it happens in their hands.
Teacher A: Well-intentioned and caring, but complicit
Teacher A believes in the achievement gap and decides to tackle it by focusing on what their Students of Color can do to better succeed. They plan to bridge this gap with CRSE. Caring deeply about their students, Teacher A notices their students are into hip-hop. They decide to make the day’s math lesson more relevant to their students by adding hip-hop to the lesson plan. They take a popular song that they hear students in their class playing, but switch the words of the song with math content. This way, they hope students will better memorize the content and be better prepared for the tests.
This teacher cares, is paying attention to students, and is trying. However, they have not fully grasped CRSE because they still see the student as the problem, broken and needing to be fixed. Their inclusion of hip-hop does not sustain their students’ cultures, it uses a surface-level part of culture to further a white-centric paradigm of education focused on testing and a pedagogy of remediation.
CRSE does not buy into “gaps” because it disrupts the premise of achievement, exchanging deficit views of students with placing students as both the starting and ending places of learning. When inequities arise, CRSE names them what they are: racism, cis-heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, white supremacy, and ableism, viewing the challenges we face in education as historical as opposed to individual.
The theory of change that a deep study of CRSE offers Teacher A begins with the transformation of their mindset from a deficit mindset to a humanizing one. With a CRSE lens in place, Teacher A can begin to shift their practices and, ultimately, redefine student outcomes. This radical transformation occurs by locating the problem away from students and their cultures and placing it on institutional mindsets, practices, and policies.
Teacher B: Critically conscious cultural sustainer
Teacher B studies the way their school–and schools in general–reproduces inequity. They understand that part of studying the power dynamics that privilege some groups over others means studying their own cultural points of view, examining how these points of view shape their teaching and perceptions of their students. In the same vein, they study their students’ cultural ways of knowing and get to know their students’ lives. Teacher B considers how all these things shape students’ learning and how to use this knowledge to help each student best flourish in school.
When Teacher B notices their students are passionate about hip-hop, they ask students to relate aspects of hip-hop to what they are learning in math. When students begin to bring up connections between musical rhythm and mathematical principles, Teacher B sees the opening for students to not only bring this cultural form into the classroom, but for the classroom to sustain this cultural form. Prompted by students, Teacher B makes hip-hop an interdisciplinary ongoing unit of study that shifts the locus of expertise away from the enterprise of whiteness that is distant from their students, away from the white gaze that would typically frame how we see and understand schooling. Their shift in thinking would imply as well a shift in methods of teaching and learning.
Because hip-hop in this classroom is not tokenized, but treated as a vehicle for and the object of learning, we can walk into the classroom (which is no longer Teacher B’s, but the classroom of the cultures of their students) on any given day and see hip-hop culture authentically represented. For example, we might see students engaging in battling techniques (cyphers) or using word/number art as class activities. We might see them leading discussions and explaining concepts as they are living them in ways that value not only their knowledge but also their lives.
Teacher B’s students know that in their classroom, they do not have to compartmentalize their lived experiences, cultures, and learning . They know that their cultures are starting points for learning and that culture is a practice of learning itself. They never have to give up or turn off a part of themselves simply to assimilate (and always unsuccessfully) into the default of whiteness, for their students know they can never be white.
Teacher A’s students likely enjoy their hip-hop math lesson. However, there is an important difference between the teachers in their depth of understanding of how to be truly reflective and responsive to students. Teacher B begins with the recognition that they do not know something about their students, and begins the process of teaching by learning more about them. What emerges is more than a single lesson or strategy but a process of teaching and learning that centers students’ interests and cultures. This practice reflects a mindset, which in the long-term morphs into CRSE practice.
“Being” vs. “Doing”
There is a deeper distinction arising from these two hypothetical educators. We support efforts to spread the teachings of Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education, such as those currently underway in NYC DOE and the statewide NYSED framework. However, the difference between success and failure of such programs will come down to whether they successfully result in a system of educators who see CRSE not only as something they “do,” but rather something they “are.”
Teacher A in the example above “does” cultural responsiveness the way they understand it. They see CRSE as a set of practices (or changes to practice) that they implement, like a checklist. Therefore, Teacher A will improve their classroom library by making it more diverse, will display more student work, and perhaps create space for one or a few multicultural events during the school year. By ticking enough boxes, they will feel confident that they’ve “done” cultural responsiveness adequately and will look to grades and test scores as indicators of whether CRSE was an effective program.
Teacher B, on the other hand, “is” culturally responsive and sustaining because they understand that CRSE is more than an initiative. They recognize that it is a mindset that pervades all of their thinking from student relationships, to instruction, to the nature and purpose of education. Teacher B knows that students from vulnerable groups have and will face greater obstacles to their own success, including in school, and not only works to remove those barriers, but teaches and supports students to recognize, organize, and successfully challenge systemic barriers wherever they face them. Teacher B understands identity is a journey, more than something to be displayed: something to be celebrated, complicated, supported- and sustained– within schools. Teacher B knows that test scores are poor measures of the success of an initiative because of the deeply and historically problematic history of racial, linguistic, and cultural bias in the creation and “norming” of tests. Instead, Teacher B assesses their own effectiveness by asking students for feedback and by reflecting on their lessons, relationships with students, relationships with families, and whether they feel a fulfilled sense of purpose in what they do.
Ultimately, this is the most important distinction between what some perceive CRSE to be and what it is. CRSE is a mindset, a way of being, that permeates all aspects of the way a teacher thinks about what they do and how they do it. It is not a defined set of practices. It is not a curriculum. It is not a packaged product. It is an ongoing ethic of care and accountability to students and families. It is a mindset, and the CRSE initiatives support teachers in cultivating and sustaining that mindset throughout their practice, even when it asks that they upend some of the ways they were previously trained or taught to think. CRSE is not an “add-on” to existing teaching methods. CRSE is a deconstruction and reconstruction of thinking about education to center all students, rather than figuring out how to force vulnerable students toward the dominant students’ center.
To push forward, sometimes we need to get out of the way
NYSED CRSE Framework is a powerful starting point in the project to rethink our schools. This rethinking centers students’ lives and identities; however, it can only go as far as those who are asked to implement it. Therefore, educators at all levels must be willing to stretch by shedding problematic and harmful pedagogies that stand in the way of truly liberatory education. Stretching will also mean examining how cultural, linguistic, gender, and other biases based on their own identities can lead them to misperceive or mischaracterize students and their abilities in harmful ways. With these initial steps, educators can come closer to ensuring they view and treat students’ whole lives as assets.
As former teachers, we feel the urgency, the weight of bureaucracy, that arises when a new initiative “comes down the pipe.” We understand the unrealistic pressure placed on teachers to have a game plan the next day to apply the new initiative. We also understand teachers’ and school administrators’ calls for clear and concrete strategies and policies that will help them meet the new demands to get them from points A to B.
However, no set of strategies and policies alone will make teachers or schools culturally responsive and sustaining because CRSE is not a “one-size-fits-all” prescription for educating students. It cannot be. CRSE requires tailored education and not education based on a preset list of strategies. It is a philosophy of education and not a lesson plan.
The NYSED Framework for Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education is based in the philosophy that we must and we can do right by students historically made vulnerable. Thus, all actors involved in the education of our most vulnerable students (e.g., teachers, support staff, administrators, communities, universities, etc.) must embrace a philosophical shift. With this shift, the Framework advances some of the most powerful, progressive, and liberating pedagogical approaches for transforming an educational system.
Because we understand teachers’ impulses to act, we caution educators that the adoption of a CRSE framework must prioritize philosophical alignment with CRSE rather than a call for actionable steps or a pathway to “doing” CRSE. Ultimately, with or without a framework, culturally responsive-sustaining education will truly begin when you admit you’re willing to change your mind.
Both research staff at the NYU Metro Center, Pamela D’Andrea Martínez and Evan M. Johnston were early writers of the NYSED CRSE framework. Pamela is a Ph.D. student of urban education and the intersections of race, immigration, and language. Evan is a Ph.D. candidate of urban education and special education.
Pamela D’Andrea Martínez is a Ph.D. student of urban education at New York University focusing on the intersections of race, immigration, and language. She is also a graduate researcher at the NYU Metro Center and an adjunct professor of teaching and learning. Previously, Pamela was a teacher in Orange County Public Schools in Florida.
Evan M. Johnston is a doctoral candidate in Urban Education at NYU Steinhardt and the Managing Editor of Voices in Urban Education at the NYU Metro Center. He is a New Jersey-certified teacher in Early Childhood, K-6, and Students with Dis/abilities. Before coming to NYU, Evan was a teacher with Newark Public Schools.