Transcription of the episode “Culturally responsive practice and SEL: Effective professional development and programs”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow.  Our guest today is Dr Heather C. Hill, Jerome T. Murphy Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of  Education and Visiting Faculty Member at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Welcome, Heather. 

Heather H: [00:00:31] Great to be here. Thanks, Jon and Amy, for having me.

Amy H-L: [00:00:34] Heather, your primary focus is professional development for math teachers. Would you talk about how you became interested in social emotional learning, SEL, and also culturally responsive practice?

Heather H: [00:00:48] Sure. So I have been lucky enough to be on leave to Annenberg Institute at Brown for the last year. And my background is in, sort of broadly focused, STEM teacher professional development. But we have been lucky enough at Annenberg, Suzanna Loeb and I have been lucky enough, at Annenberg, to be able to start kind of a series in Ed Week about what works and what doesn’t. And so we’ve been trying to review different fields to then translate research for practitioners and say, okay, so if you’re thinking about SEL, here’s some things that you might want to think about. Or if you’re thinking about culturally responsive teaching, ethnic studies, here are some things that work and here are some things that don’t work. And so we’ve been able to write six to eight of these. They’ve become more Covid focused, I would say, in the six weeks or so, as districts have really turned their attention to helping kids and families cope with Covid.

Jon M: [00:01:44] So in one of those articles in Education Week, you wrote that you see “carefully designed, culturally responsive or CRT programs as one of the most promising avenues open to educators for improving children’s lives, but that the evidence is much stronger for certain types of CR programs and for others.”  What have you found in your review of the literature?

Heather H: [00:02:10] Right. So this this is the first thing I want to emphasize, this is a very well established older literature, and there’s a lot of promise in there. If you look at the classic studies in this area, that culturally responsive pedagogy, culturally responsive teaching, has enormous potential for engaging kids in school, advancing their academic progress, giving them critical thinking skills. So it has a lot of the whole package that we look for as education policymakers.

What’s been less often done in the literature have been studies that are evaluative of two types of programs. One is programs that districts put together that are sort of loosely thought of as ethnic studies classrooms and or classes. And the second are programs intended to train large fractions of teachers in how to do culturally responsive pedagogy. So the old style literature that’s out there looks at teachers who are already really good at doing it, and then looks at what those classrooms look like and how kids respond, but much less is known about how you would take a school that’s already functioning and existing and has a bunch of things on its plate and say, let’s steer the ship a little bit toward this culturally responsive pedagogy area.

So we took on looking at those two areas, and what we found were in the area of ethnic studies curriculum, there are two studies by Tom Dee and Emily Penner, both out in California, that show that programs that are sort of loosely focused on ethnic studies, you know. teaching kids cultural history, teaching kids to appreciate their own ethnic heritage and the ethnic heritage of others, how to recognize inequality, how to act against inequality. Those studies have very strong or show very strong results in terms of keeping kids in school, raising GPA, all of the kinds of things that we care about in education and that are really meaningful. So to me, one of the strengths of these studies is they go beyond just looking at test scores and looking at, you know, are kids actually completing school, are kids doing better in school, which is really what gives them opportunities in college. So that was an area that, when I read that, I was really excited. I think that, you know, that both of those studies are in my top 10 studies of the last decade in terms of making me feel like there’s a real hope and chance to really change the way education happens for kids of color, for low income kids. I was really pleased to see those.

There’s much less known about how to answer, or there’s many fewer answers, to the second question about how you would train large swaths of the teaching workforce to enact culturally responsive teaching. There are a couple studies that were smaller in nature or they were kind of add ons to a particular existing program. They took an existing program and they tweaked it to be more culturally responsive in some way. But there weren’t any kinds of studies that said, “okay, so we’re taking a hundred teachers and we’re going to see whether we can actually change their practice and change how their kids think about the classrooms and change those kids’ life chances.” So there’s a lot of work to be done right now in education around that second kind of program because it’s needed and it’s actually happening quite a bit. We just don’t know very much about how and whether it’s working.

Amy H-L: [00:05:33] You also wrote that “equipping a largely white teaching force with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to successfully lead CR classroom is likely to prove challenging.” What approaches might be more effective with the teaching force that we have?

Heather H: [00:05:49] This is an interesting question. So one of the things that’s hard about these programs that tend to foster culturally responsive teaching or move white teachers into a space where they are more sensitive to the needs of their kids is that it requires a certain amount of, I think what’s called identity work, where teachers have to understand who they are in terms of their own ethnic and racial identity, understand the power structure that they live under and then start to understand that their relationship to their kids, and that’s really hard work. It’s not something that you can easily fit into a two day workshop. It’s something that can go quite wrong easily in a two day workshop. And so that’s my worry with this. Not to say we shouldn’t do it, but I think the sort of, the typical traditional professional development format may not be well suited for this.

So some other things that I think about in terms of promising in this area are, for instance, working through the curriculum. So I think about curriculum like “Facing History, Facing Ourselves,” which is a social science curricula, which is really nice and sort of engages kids in talking and thinking about our history of oppressing folks in the United States, our sort of cultural relations that we have. That kind of curriculum gives teachers something to teach. So it’s not asking them to do all the work internally and then walk into a school and figure out how to interact differently with a group of kids. It gives teachers something to do differently in classrooms that they can then build on. So it’s sort of almost might be reactive backwards to their own thinking and their own identity and get a little bit further down the pathway of more humane classrooms for kids.

Another intervention that I’m also a big fan of are just interventions that try to build engagement and trust and respect between teachers and students. So there’s one out of the University of Virginia, which is a coaching program for teachers, and this program works in particular with teachers of adolescents. We know that adolescent engagement drops right off after about sixth grade, you know, kids become less interested in school, less engaged. And so what this program does is to try to get teachers to more outwardly show signs of care and respect for kids. So something as simple as, as kids are walking in the door to your classroom, stand at the door, greet every child by name, and for ones that, you know, something was going on last night or the weekend checkup on how that went for the child so that the kids are getting the message like, “Oh, somebody knows me. I’m not a widget in this school. Somebody knows and cares about me.: And that program actually shows benefits for kids in terms of, I believe both the classroom climate that kids are in, there’s, you know, better a sense that there’s a positive climate for kids, and also outcomes for kids in terms of test scores.

Jon M: [00:08:47] What are some of the key characteristics of effective professional development for teachers that might be useful in helping teachers with improving their practice in social emotional learning or other subject areas? Sort of building on what you were just talking about.

Heather H: [00:09:05] Yeah, so I can’t answer this question for the social emotional literature per se. We’ve looked at that from one lens and it didn’t, it wasn’t from the sort of lens of like which professional development practices work there. We did just finish a study of STEM instructional improvement programs. So these are programs that either use curriculum, materials, professional development, or both to try to improve math classrooms, science classrooms, and so forth. And so what we found was that the programs that tended to work better than average were programs that had both professional development and new curriculum materials. So there’s a chance for teachers to learn about something, but also take something back to the classroom to have to work on and work in. They didn’t have to go back to the classroom and invent things completely, which I think would be hard for most teachers. The programs also worked better when they focused on improving teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge or understanding how kids think about things.

And then there were these formats that seem to signal better performance on the part of programs. So when teachers had a chance to come back, say they learned something in a summer workshop, they had a chance to come back in the fall, even very briefly, to get together with other teachers and maybe the facilitator from the program to talk about, “How’s it going? What kinds of problems are coming up? How did you solve the problem? What do you recommend doing in this situation?” Letting teachers share information, have a contact and feedback to the program facilitator themselves. Those programs outperformed other programs. And then similarly you saw when teachers are collaborating with colleagues in their own school, those programs had a boost above and beyond the sort of typical program that we had in our sample.

Amy H-L: [00:10:51] There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of a school’s leadership in providing teachers with some support, especially in implementing these sorts of changes. What does the research show about professional development for principals?

Heather H: [00:11:09] So that’s a great question because principals, we know that principals have a strong influence over what teachers find important, how teachers do their job, how they collaborate with others. And there are programs out there that try to improve what I would call “principal leadership.” And unfortunately, both of those programs, both of the evaluations of those programs, show that there are no results. So principals in the control group did about as well as teachers, principals in the treatment group. So trying to directly improve principal’s practice when they were in their jobs does not seem to have the intended effect.

However, there are a few really promising programs in terms of selecting principals. So these are programs that think about the pipeline from the initial recruitment of a principal into a principal training program and then that principal into a district and that principal getting mentorship and the district and the school, once they’re in their position, and those programs actually are showing much better positive impacts. They’re much more likely to show a positive impact. So the pipeline is the way to go.

I think the other dimension of this is that it’s interactive with teachers’ professional development. So I did a study a few years ago where we assigned half of the teachers that enrolled in the study to this professional development program in math and the other half were in a control group, and we followed up with the teachers and the treatment group. And we had observed them in classrooms. We had a lot of classroom video and we didn’t see them using the ideals from the program very much in their practice.

And so we did follow up interviews with teachers to try to find out how they were thinking about their own practice. As time went on, this was a three year study, so we talked to them at the end of the three year study, and. What they said to us was, “Well, I actually really loved the program. Like I, you know, this is a great program. I learned a ton. It’s terrific. Like I love the facilitators, but one of the things that was really hard was it was not in line with what my principal wanted to see in my classroom and in the school.” And so in this particular case, one teacher said, “You know, I would love to do the extended investigations that this math program has, but my principal is going to show up in my room and he wants me to be on that day’s pacing guide. I have to be on lesson 21 from blah, blah, blah of this, you know, this particular curriculum material.” So that was a big problem.

The other thing that we saw in that district was that the program was not well lined up with the state test and you would walk around the schools and the teachers, kids’ test scores were on the walls, on the bulletin boards, on the walls of these schools. And so teachers were, their feet were held to the fire in terms of raising test scores and raising interim test scores and felt like they had to just really be on the program that the district was wanting them to be on and were not able to teach in this much more creative way that would give kids more voice and give kids more opportunities to have mathematical thinking and reasoning opportunities. 

Jon M: [00:14:19] Very interesting. So moving on from professional development, you’ve also reviewed the research on social emotional learning programs. What are the positives and the negatives that you found?

Heather H: [00:14:31] Yeah. So these are programs that intend to help kids, it’s a very diverse set of programs, some of them try to help kids with cognitive regulation, so getting kids to better understand their own emotions, increasing the planfulness of kids’ actions. They try to help kids with emotional skills, like being able to reflect on their feelings or learning to address those feelings in a positive way, and also social social skills. So helping kids manage conflict and navigate social situations. And there was a really prominent review, Jon, of these kinds of programs. I think the most recent one was done two or three years ago, but the original one was done around 2011 and it promised really big benefits for kids’ test score outcomes, like 11 percentile point difference in academic performance.

But when we sat down to go through the studies in those reviews, we were, I’m not as impressed as the authors of those reviews. There were some issues with the way the review was conducted. There were also some issues with the studies. We found a much smaller impact than has been advertised in the past of by these, these old reviews. It was about 4 percentile point difference on student outcomes. Now, that said, these programs still do still seem very impactful when it comes to helping kids with some of this emotional regulation, emotional skills, and social skills. So to some extent, as we write in the piece, we don’t think it matters what the impacts on test score outcomes are if kids are having better experiences in school, which matters to me as much as any kind of accountability assessment. So there’s some sense in which that’s what these programs are actually up to, but maybe if you’re buying one of these programs, thinking it’s going to radically improve your students’ performance, that’s actually not the case.

Jon M: [00:16:23] Did you also find that certain groups of students might be particularly impacted in a positive direction, say academically, whereas other students, there just wasn’t much of an effect?

Heather H: [00:16:35] Yeah, so I have a colleague at Harvard, Steph Jones, who does this research. And one of the points that she thinks is that these programs may be helping the kids who have the most difficulty in schools, who are having the most behavioral disruptions, are having the most difficulty concentrating in class. They may be bothering their seat mates, and if you can help those kids, that’s what drives up the classroom climate. So if you can help like a very small number or percentage of kids with these these programs, that actually is going to help everyone in the classroom. I will also say that the programs that had the biggest effect were programs that directly addressed kids, sort of social, emotional, cognitive regulation, and were really helping giving kids tools to improve their own sort of mental health situation. And this was actually also true of the ethnic studies curricula that Emily Penner and Tom Dee looked at. I believe both of those had sort of SEL components to them.

Amy H-L: [00:17:36] Heather, do you have any thoughts on how Covid 19 will impact these areas?

Heather H: [00:17:45] I think districts right now are searching for SEL programs that can help kids who are having a rough time. This is tremendously disruptive for children, even children who are in relatively secure households. But of course, that’s not across the board. There’s a lot of kids whose both parents are out working at this point because they’re in essential jobs. There’s kids whose families there is someone sick in their family or someone who has died in their family. So I think the SEL programs that may be most applicable for these districts would be ones that help kids deal with trauma or deal with different changes to the routine and so on and so forth.

I think it’s pretty early. We’re early on in this whole story and it’s just hard to know how the rest of this is all going to roll out. You know, I just was on a long call about whether there’s going to be school in the fall, and I think until we know something like that, it’s very hard to say, well, what does that look like for teachers and what does that look like for families? 

Jon M: [00:18:47] Thank you, Dr. Heather C. Hill, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thank you very much.

Heather H: [00:18:55] Thank you. It was a pleasure being here

Jon M: [00:18:57] And thank you listeners. You can check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews in order to facilitate their use in classes and workshops. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. You can contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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