Journey Forward: The New York State’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework

Written By David E. Kirkland

On Monday, January 14, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) marked its journey forward by presenting its Cultural Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework to the New York State Board of Regents. It was likely one of the most important steps in New York State education history.

As some people know, NYU Metro Center is a leading voice pioneering culturally responsive and sustaining education; we also helped write the framework.

The vision of the framework emerged from years of equity work happening all over New York State. In Buffalo, our NYU Metro Center team has been supporting the district in the development of equity plans. In Greece, Albany, Syracuse, Schenectady, Rochester, throughout the lower Hudson, and sprinkled over the Finger Lakes, we have been supporting New York State school districts in deepening their commitments to sustained equity work.  

In New York City, we have joined with Chancellor Carranza, an assembly of equity allies such as the Coalition for Education Justice, a team of committed educators, parents, students, and community members to transform schools through CRE. Last year, our allies with the support of NYU Metro Center Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative played an important role in Mayor de Blasio’s announcement to take CRE to scale, promising $23 million dollars to train all employees of the NYC DOE.

This work that the new framework builds upon has been happening across New York State for some time, although in pockets and without any serious attempt for alignment or scale. The new framework presents a way forward.

Culturally responsive-sustaining (CR-S) education is grounded 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 for teaching and learning. It is the belief that culture is not an addition but is a critical component of education. It says that culture matters in shaping how people learn.

Therefore, we must register culture as we consider how and what to teach, how education is organized, who gets to participate, and on what terms. Educators committed to understanding both the concept of culture and the particulars of the many different cultures we encounter can now refocus our lens to viewing students’ cultures not as deficiencies to overcome but as assets, possessing vibrant realities and knowledge useful for teaching and learning.

The framework was built from the ground up, drawing on feedback from stakeholders across New York State who generously gave their time and insight. After three rounds of feedback, this framework incorporates the collective insights of these stakeholders.

The framework is needed for at least five reasons:

  1. It articulates a vision of learning that centers, affirms, respects, and cultivates the assets of our most precious resources in education—our student.
  2. 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 map forward to advancing education for all students.
  3. It inspires hope and healing, arresting the commitments of the 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:  that we can transform education; however, no one entity can transform education or sustain our students alone. But working together we can!
  4. 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 sustaining environments that are welcoming, affirming, 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); (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.
  5. 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 to 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 closer to justice. In grounding itself in sociopolitical consciousness and sociocultural responsiveness, the framework does not only focus on individuals or episodic incidents. It speaks more broadly to institutional realities—streams of policies and practices, collective beliefs and mindsets that are guided by a deep commitment to advance the best hopes of our democracy with the goal of making education available to all students across New York State, and eventually the entire country.

I deeply believe the framework has the aptitude to transform education across New York State, much as similar framings of education have transformed the education of boys and young men of color in places such as Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland, and even in New York State through its My Brother’s Keeper initiative. So, I want to make this point as clear as I know how: culturally responsive and sustaining education is not a blind commitment, for we know that when they experience an education that is connected to them, that builds on their lives, that sustains them, students succeed and feel actualized.

The research principles behind the framework are not new. They have been held up and adopted in almost every industry with the exception of education. In marketing, the principles are called “micro-targeting.” That is, when companies decide to sell a product or message, they do so in ways that are targeted to particular demographics, that connect their product to lives of their market audience in ways that speak most clearly to that audience. They do so in ways that look like, feel like, and sustain the people they value.

In medicine, physicians have learned that they cannot treat all patients the same, that medicine must be a culturally responsive practice to be effective. After years of experiencing disparity, the medical community has learned, and to our credit, not to treat women as men or children as adults. The evidence behind the impact of aligning practices in the belief that people are best served when their assets, knowledge, and abilities are valued and consulted sits clearly on the side of cultural responsiveness and sustaining approaches. 

Even in education, there seems to be a growing body of research evidence that relates the impact of CR-S to positive school outcomes. In one study, researchers reported statistically significant declines in out of school suspensions, a closing of disparities in special education identifications, and declines in pushouts. Other studies have recorded similar trends. For example, we conducted a study of a school in Detroit that used CRE supports; their suspensions declined from 300 one year to 7 the next. We at NYU Metro Center also saw suspensions almost disappear in District 17 in NYC over the course of four years. There are many other examples like these. Of course, keeping students in school is only part of the empirical story.

There is new evidence linking CR-S to improvements in student attendance, greater academic achievement, higher aspirations and college persistence, and even parent power. One study showed that when assignments are more culturally responsive—that is, connected to the lives of students and their families—parents feel more empowered to support their children’s learning. Finally, there is emerging evidence that CR-S positively influences teacher efficacy, school climate, and the elimination of waste, but the larger point is that there is a rather compelling and still emerging body of facts describing the impact of this work. We must not ignore it.  

I’ll say this to conclude because I don’t want to promote CR-S as a cure-all. For young people suffering, who have lived beneath a history of social trauma, who seem engulfed in the malaise of poverty or the blight of bigotry, for students who have all but been left behind by every meaningful system in our country, real CR-S won’t be cosmetic or a list of well-articulated principles. The impacts of CR-S will not be quickly detectable, and CR-S will not and cannot look the same across contexts.

For hurting children, CR-S will resemble trauma-informed practice that will be socio-emotionally based. In other contexts, it will mean providing resources for children who cannot see clearly (like the plan NYC recently committed to for primary-aged students). It will mean providing square meals, such as dinner programs in addition to free and reduced breakfast and lunch. It will mean providing restorative spaces, mindfulness, meditation, meaningful opportunities like the scratch academy or video game club at New Design High School in NYC, which gives students a safe place to go after the last school bell rings.

Perhaps, the most significant evidence to bear on the success or failure of CR-S will not be academic but will be human evidence: the smiles and laughter of children begging each of us for a fighting chance.

David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.