Canavero & Wright: Students & Families Have Unique Stories to Tell. As Schools Plan to Reopen, They Should Work to Celebrate Them in the Classroom

Parents and families are the first teachers in a child’s life. They give children language and instill in them the culture and values of their household and community. It should be impossible to divorce that teaching from the learning that is imparted in schools and other formal settings, but too often the systems we have set up attempt to do that very thing.

Rather than embrace and celebrate the cultural and linguistic education and practices of diverse American families, school systems use standards and rules to set guardrails — as if there were only one way to be. For many, this makes schools seem rigid, unwelcoming, even nullifying. School climate research shows that many children feel school is not for them, that the very institutions charged by 50 state constitutions to provide the foundational skills each one of us needs to succeed in life are somehow exclusive clubs to which all are not granted admittance.

State departments of education and school districts across the country are now preparing to reopen schools (in whatever form that may take). Some are looking to reimagine what school might look like, while others are consumed with managing the logistics of schedules and space. Whichever path they choose, their leaders would be well served to prioritize educational equity by making culturally and linguistically responsive education a centerpiece of the work. After the unprecedented and traumatic events in 2020, schoolteachers need the first teachers’ help more than ever.

Dating to the 1990s as a formal education practice, culturally and linguistically responsive education (CLRE) is rooted in the idea that in order for all students to achieve academically, schools must engage learners whose experiences and cultures traditionally have been excluded from mainstream settings.

Two hundred years ago, one purpose of public education was to assimilate a nation of immigrants into a cohesive workforce able to live together despite diversity. Today, research into the science of learning and development demonstrates that productive struggle, a sense of belonging and confidence advance learning far more than earlier deficit-based approaches. The conditions for learning that are rooted in brain science are more about independence and growth than the factory-floor mindset of the past. We now know that instilling an individual sense of belonging is important for unlocking the brain’s natural desire to explore new ideas and gain new knowledge. We also know that safe and respectful learning environments foster learning. Both of these concepts require educators to be adept at building relationships and creating rigorous lessons that draw on students’ lived experiences and home languages, while sharing power over school decision-making with families and communities.

Aspen Education recently pulled together a group of experts and advocates to press further on these ideas. The result, which we both endorse, was five recommendations for state action:

1. Enable community partnerships to bring valuable cultural capital into schools.

2. Ensure that students have access to rigor.

3. Equip the education workforce to engage students with rigor through culturally and linguistically responsive education.

4. Amend state laws and regulations to define “safety” and “school safety” in ways that encompass students’ experiences of psychological/intellectual safety and belonging.

5. Improve and prioritize school climate measurement and support to better attend to cultural and linguistic diversity.

If these policies are put in place at the state and district levels, classrooms will have more community resources to build on, rigorous content will be relevant and therefore more accessible to independent learners, and instruction will include more discourse that reflects students’ recent experiences, whether about social distancing or racial justice. At the high school level, it will reflect the differences in the ways adolescents learn as compared to young children.

Underpinning all five recommendations, which support and amplify 10 earlier recommendations for fostering connectedness released by Aspen, is a belief in a richer vision of student success.

If we are truly as concerned about student success in work and in life as we are about test scores, culturally and linguistically responsive education makes good sense. If we are truly interested in recovery from the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn, we will work for more than simply restarting the old system with new public health measures added in. If we truly want equity, we will meet all students where they are.

Students and their families are more than data points or state accountability metrics related to math and English language arts. They are unique stories waiting to be told. Culturally and linguistically responsive education builds on the skills and knowledge found at home and in
their cultural community, because it is these “funds of knowledge” on which young people’s life stories will be based. And that is what every first-teacher parent wants for his or her child.

Dr. Steve Canavero is the former state superintendent of public instruction in Nevada. Dr. Carey Wright is the state superintendent in Mississippi.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today