I’ve always loved to read. When I was in elementary school, my parents had a special book made for me where I was the main character. The Jessica in the story shared my background and interests, and for the first time ever I could literally and figuratively see myself in a text. That book opened my eyes to a world where someone like me could be a hero in a story. Unfortunately, when I went back to school and asked my teachers for more books with Black characters or characters from my communities like mine, the options were limited.
So many students across the country have had an experience like this. But when we give learners access to culturally responsive education (CRE)—including materials in which they see their own experiences and communities reflected back authentically, and gain authentic insight into diverse communities outside of their own—we give them the chance to thrive.
According to a Chiefs for Change research summary, “several studies demonstrate that culturally relevant pedagogy and instructional materials may increase student attendance, GPA, and course completion; others suggest that culturally relevant approaches boost students’ interest in school and their sense of belonging.”
States and districts have an opportunity to help give all students equitable access to realize their full potential: by promoting cultural responsiveness in the curriculum review process. EdReports has contributed to two recent resources in support of this effort: a landscape analysis of 15 free tools educators can use to review materials for culturally responsive practices, and a primer of key CRE terms and their implications for the field.
By creating the conditions for effective evaluation of curriculum for cultural responsiveness, educational leaders increase the chances of getting materials into classrooms that are standards-aligned, honor and reflect all students’ experiences, and support every student to learn and grow. I’d love to share a few best practices to support your work toward this goal.
Lay a strong foundation
Applying a culturally responsive lens from the very start of the curriculum review process sets the stage for CRE to be prioritized in all the decisions and actions that follow. This includes:
- DEFINING GOALS AND PRIORITIES:
If cultural responsiveness is integral to your definition of quality in materials, name that explicitly when you develop and articulate your goals for adopting new materials and establish your local priorities. Likewise, CRE should absolutely be a focus area when setting your instructional vision. The vision should call out the importance of meeting the needs of all learners, including those from diverse populations (here’s one example from Aldine ISD).
- ENSURING DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES:
Your process should be educator-centered and include varied educational perspectives (e.g. grade levels, subjects, seniority levels) on your curriculum review team or adoption committee. Additionally, assembling a group that’s representative of your community’s diverse identities and experiences makes it more likely that your process will be shaped equitably and stay aligned with your priorities for cultural responsiveness.
- DEVOTING SUFFICIENT TIME AND RESOURCES:
Incorporating cultural responsiveness into curriculum review requires significant resources to do well. For example, training reviewers to assess materials for cultural responsiveness takes a lot of time and effort. Likewise, allowing reviewers to put that training into action via careful, rigorous examination of curricula is time-intensive.
Choose the right tool
Each of the CRE review tools surveyed in EdReports’ landscape analysis has its own intended purpose and set of strengths. Inevitably, no single tool fits all contexts—here are some standout considerations based on key findings from the analysis:
- Does the tool include user guidance on how to rate materials, and what to look for when assessing curricula against its criteria? These qualities enable reviewers to evaluate materials with integrity and consistency, but we found that relatively few tools offered substantial implementation guidance or “look-fors.”
- Does the tool reference a research base? When a tool points back to the frameworks that inform its use of culturally responsive practices, that suggests it’s been developed robustly and thoughtfully. It also allows users to better understand the tool’s criteria and reference the research directly as needed.
- Does the tool assess representation in a meaningful way? Rather than simply counting the number of individuals of a particular identity, some tools highlight more nuanced aspects of representation such as the centrality and authenticity of diverse populations and histories.
Invest in reviewer training
After you’ve selected a tool, your reviewers need training to use it effectively. Allowing sufficient time and being deliberate about sequencing can both make a big difference.
For example, EdReports supported the New Mexico Public Education Department in their 2021 materials adoption process by training local educator reviewers. The first session was an asynchronous webinar on implicit bias that participants could watch independently and at their own pace. This allowed reviewers to pause and reflect on what biases they may hold and how they may present during the review process.
The New Mexico trainees also spent dedicated time focusing on the CRE evaluation tool itself. Reviewers broke down each indicator (or evaluation criterion) with intention to ensure they fully understood it, then applied that lens to actual examples from textbooks and other materials. Most participants were classroom teachers, and it was really powerful to hear how the process helped to inform their practices and mindsets as educators.
Stay the course
Opportunities to promote cultural responsiveness continue through the entire curriculum review process and beyond. In investigation and selection, curriculum review teams should seek materials in which standards alignment and cultural responsiveness are seamlessly interwoven—at the same time recognizing that no single program will meet all needs straight out of the box.
Further, even after a district or school has made their choice, curriculum-aligned professional learning is essential so that educators can use materials with integrity and are empowered to fill any CRE gaps in the chosen program.
There remains much work to be done before culturally responsive practices become the norm rather than the exception in our classrooms. By prioritizing CRE from the very beginning of the curriculum review process, educators and decision-makers can take a step in the right direction.
Let us move toward a vision of high-quality instructional materials that reflect the diverse needs and experiences of all students, no matter their background or language; curricula that give learners equitable access to grade-level, standards-aligned content that they find relevant, meaningful, engaging, and sustaining.