Culturally Relevant Education

Increasing Diversity in United States Schools

We frame this CEM as Culturally Relevant Education, extending the Culturally Responsive Teaching Innovation Configuration by discussing the commonalities and evolution of related terms and providing resources for conceptual understanding, content area application, and behavior support. The National Center on Education Statistics (NCES; de Brey et al., 2019) projects that by 2027, the United States’ student population will be majority non-White, with Hispanic/Latinx representation increasing most significantly. Between 2000 and 2015, the numbers of students identifying Hispanic/Latinx (16-26%), Asian/Pacific Islander (4-5%), and of two or more races steadily increased; American Indian/Alaska Native (1%) remained stable; and White (61-49%) and Black (17-15%) declined. The teaching workforce remains overwhelmingly female (77%) and White (80%; NCES, 2017). Two strategies to support all learners include: (a) continuing efforts to diversify the workforce, and (b) ensuring all educators are prepared to be culturally relevant educators.

Academic Achievement Discrepancies

Standardized academic achievement measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), suggest that the education received by some of our nation’s learners — mostly those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds — is insufficient. Academic achievement gaps between White and Black and White and Hispanic students have declined modestly, but gaps remain in almost every state across the nation with enough representation to be counted. Some states have made strides in closing the gaps between White and Black and Hispanic students while others have experienced widening gaps (Hansen, Levesque, Quintero, & Valant, 2018). However, even with gaps narrowing, underachievement for any segment of our student population is a problem.

Disproportionality in Special Education

When students experience persistent academic and behavioral difficulty, they are increasingly referred for special education services. For some, the referral process happens inappropriately and/or prematurely; for others, it is slow, allowing academic deficits to solidify. Disproportionality in special education has been examined and reported in different ways for decades. The issue remains that certain groups of students face greater risk of being referred to and receiving special education services. According to the 40th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2018), the risk ratios for receiving special education services were as follows:  American Indian/Alaska Native, 1.7; Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 1.5; Black/African American, 1.4; Hispanic/Latino, 1.0; White, 1.0; two or more races, 0.9; and Asian, 0.5. In other words, American Indian/Alaska Native students are 1.7 times as likely and Asians are half as likely as all other groups to receive special education services. These data and service delivery vary widely. Some states and districts employ Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) for instruction and intervention and attempt to individualize the educational program for all learners with a focus on the most vulnerable.

MTSS — Panacea or Restructured Problem?

MTSS is a framework designed to structure team-based decision making to support academic and behavioral learning with increasing intensity (i.e., tiers of supports) based on need. Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) are variations of this concept (Center on PBIS, n.d.). Over the years, cautions have emerged about implementing intervention without considering culture and without looking to the learning environment rather than the child for deficits. If a child fails to respond to an intervention, he or she might be considered a non-responder rather than the intervention being considered inappropriate (Garcia & Ortiz, 2008).

Instruction and intervention must consider student background, including family, culture, and community. The innovation configurations (ICs) on Culturally Responsive Teaching (Aceves & Orosco, 2014) and English Learners (Richards-Tutor, Aceves, & Reese, 2016) provide background information on these topics and serve as tools for identifying the extent to which the essential components are addressed in courses and professional learning opportunities.

Policy-Informed Practice

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) represent hallmark legislation guiding schooling for learners in the United States. Revisions and amendments over the years have intended to meet the increasingly complex needs of diverse communities.

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA; Elementary and Secondary Education Act) non-regulatory guidance for Title II, Part A (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) includes:

  • Establishing outcome-oriented performance metrics to facilitate oversight by the authorizer and provide common expectations and standards for academies to include developing rigorous qualifications for teacher and/or principal candidates to successfully complete the program such as demonstration of cultural competency, classroom management skills, subject area and content-specific knowledge, and the ability to use standards-based, data-driven, and differentiated instruction (p. 6).
  • Providing ongoing professional development aimed at cultural competency and responsiveness and equity coaching, designed to improve conditions for all educators and students, including educators and students from underrepresented minority groups, diverse national origins, English language competencies, and varying genders and sexual orientations (p. 19)

The importance of providing culturally relevant instruction and intervention has been acknowledged in IDEA. An Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) archived document (U.S. Department of Education, 2007) outlines the following culturally relevant instructional principles:

  • Link assessments of student progress directly to the instructional curricula rather than to abstract norms for standardized tests.
  • Examine not only the individual child, but also his or her instructional environment using direct observational data.
  • Create classroom environments that reflect different cultural heritages and accommodate different styles of communication and learning.
  • Develop and implement family-friendly practices to establish collaborative partnerships with parents and other caregivers, including those who do not speak English.

The racial/ethnic mismatch between teachers and students cannot continue to be a barrier to student learning and achievement. All teachers, regardless of background, are responsible for the outcomes of students, and the accountability measures are increasing for professionals and the programs that prepare them.


The purpose of this course enhancement module (CEM) is to provide foundational knowledge related to culturally relevant education, including common terms, examples in selected content areas, and information about managing the classroom and individual behaviors. It is designed to be used flexibly for pre- and in-service teacher and leadership professional learning.


After engaging with these materials, users will be able to:

  • Understand differences and the evolution of terms describing education while taking culture into account.
  • Describe implications for student outcomes.
  • Explain the role of the teacher in providing culturally relevant education.
  • Explain the role of the school leader in supporting culturally relevant education.
  • Identify ways to provide culturally relevant education in specific content areas.
  • Examine school and classroom environments to include appropriate classroom and behavior management strategies.