Skip to main content

Search NYU Steinhardt

We left 2020 with a clearer vision about what ails us in education. Seeing clearly, our insights about the failure of urban education a practice of recognition, which is a political act. Thus, we cannot talk about sight or insight without talking about the power inherent in revelation. Like other systems of power, what we see in education is defined by who is seen and heard, and who is seen and heard are students who happen to be well fed, well rested, and do language in ways compliant with the dominant systems of discourse. By flattening language in the image of the imagined or idealized (for some) discourse, a narrow version of us got baked into teaching and learning during and prior to COVID. This version was incomplete, favoring an intersection of cis, heteronormative, White, abled, mono-lingual English-speaking, monied, and Judeo-Christian—or put simply, privileged—identities. The farther away our students were from this identity, the less likely classrooms, virtual and otherwise, worked for them. 

There are many lessons that we should take from 2020. The year gave us clear evidence that our failure to see and hear some students drive educational outcome disparities. We learned that the problem was not necessarily what we do not see or hear but what we think we see and hear—thus, the problem that 2020 revealed was our assumptions. 

Assumptions are kinds of stereotypes, and “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” [1]. The dominant assumption we make about culturally and linguistically plural students is that there is something wrong with them if their access to whiteness or English does sequence well with dominant varieties of culture or language. When we assume that something is wrong with a student because of our biases, we seek to change her, him, or them to fit the system rather than changing the system to fit our students. The logic here is that our students should learn the way we teach rather than our searching to find ways to teach the way our students learn. From birth, we have been “conditioned into accepting and not questioning these ideas.”  [2].

Virtual education put a spotlight on the pure issues of with this logic; it dramatically showed us the damage that is done when education fails to respond to the needs of the learner. Thus, we learned how powerful of a framework that culturally responsive-sustaining education (CR-SE) could be for teaching and learning. We learned that we must ground education, virtual and otherwise, in a cultural view of learning and human development in which multiple expressions of diversity (e.g., race, social class, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability) are recognized and regarded as assets. We learned that culture is not an addition to but are critical components of education. This past year taught us that culture matters in shaping how people learn, that we cannot do education without attending to both. 

This past year also raised awareness of the ways that hierarchies of oppression and exploitation are kinds of inhumane systems that restrict, limit, deny, distort, or destroy individuals’ and groups’ of people access to their full potential. The acts of these systems include ignorance, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence (both symbolic and real). In education, these systems have borne unbelievable consequences for linguistically plural students: silencings and fears, hatreds of self and others, feelings of inferiority and superiority, entitlement and disentitlement. 

As we register culture in how and what we teach, the question of power also compels us to examine how education is organized, who gets to participate, and on what terms (linguistic and otherwise). Educators committed to understanding both the concept of culture, the place of language within it, and the particulars of the many different cultures and languages we encounter can now refocus our lens to viewing students not as deficiencies to overcome but as assets, possessing vibrant realities and knowledges useful for not only teaching and learning but the dismantling of power hierarchies.

These lessons from 2020 are in keeping with the New York State Education Department (NYSED) framework for CR-SE. The framework articulates a vision of learning that centers, affirms, respects, and cultivates the assets of our most precious resources in education—our student. It claims the challenges that we face as a nation in education—disparities that articulate themselves along the lines of language, SES, race, ability, gender, housing status, and so on—and instead of resigning ourselves to the incomplete narrative that we must be hostage to the status quo—the framework provides a theoretically sound, evidence-based roadmap for moving forward and advancing education for all students. 

It inspires hope and healing, arresting the commitments of NYSED as articulated in the state’s ESSA plan, building capacity through partnerships, where all stakeholders hold important roles and responsibilities for designing education and transforming the lives of our children. This is the basic premise of the framework—which is the most powerful lesson we learned in 2020—that we can transform education; however, no one entity can transform education or sustain our students alone. But working together we can!

The framework presents a bolder vision of education, yet offers a pragmatic set of clearly articulated conditions that ground high-quality education on (a) foundations of culturally and linguistically sustaining environments that are welcoming, affirming, and challenging, but also supportive; (b) a belief in students equaled by high expectations and rigorous instruction that connect deeply to the lives all our students; (c) equitable curricula and assessment strategies (that is, the provision of knowledge and assessment used to understand and map student learning as opposed to limiting it); and (d) a view of educators as a network of professionals who require time for critical reflection, ongoing development and support, mentoring, insightful feedback, and community.

Finally, the framework sees inequities in education as structural consequences of long, deep, and complex histories. It suggests that we can improve education by not ignoring or running from those histories, but by claiming them, confronting them, and dealing with them. At the core of the framework are foundations set on bedrock principles—sociopolitical consciousness and sociocultural responsiveness. These principles are visioned as keys for unlocking the doors of opportunity in ways that emit the light of change and bend old histories along the slant of the moral universe and yet closer to justice. 

In grounding ourselves in these principles, we collectively become more empowered to speak more broadly to institutional realities—streams of policies and practices, collective beliefs and mindsets that are guided by a deep commitment to advancing the best hopes of our democracy with the goal of making education available to all students across the entire country, regardless (or better yet, because) of cultural heritage. 

The contributions in this issue of VUE is a step toward remaking.

[1] From Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, 2019. Retrieved from:

[2] From Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, 2018, p. 21.