Cultural Responsivity and School Leadership

Table of Content

With a growing number of diverse students in today’s classrooms, educators must learn to meet their academic and social-emotional needs. The culturally responsive approach was developed to address this challenge. Practices such as cultural acknowledgment and acceptance, inclusive curricula, and family and community relationship building (Ladson-Billings, 2002), make the school experience relevant, meaningful, and successful, to historically marginalized students (Gay, 2000). Yet a majority of schools across the country continue to reflect only values of dominate White culture, often disregarding the richness of diverse students, families, and communities. As a result, a growing body of literature recognizes the significance of culturally responsive schools.

This article review further explores the research of cultural responsivity. While it is not a comprehensive review of literature, it does consider several themes of cultural responsivity within education. The themes identified include pedagogy and teacher professional learning, family and community engagement, and lastly, implications for how cultural responsiveness can lead to school improvement. First, the role of leadership in creating culturally responsive schools will be examined.

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Within culturally responsive education reform, school leadership has become a focal point for researchers (Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016). Khalifa, Gooden, and Davis (2016), highlight school leadership policies and practices that impact school structure and climate, instruction, and student performance. The authors claim culturally responsive school leadership has significant influences in addressing the needs of students, staff, families, and community (Khalifa et al., 2016). To support their claim, Khalifa et al., (2016) conducted a literature review, based on a search methodology, incorporating 58 books and journal articles. Key search terms included culturally responsive teaching and learning contexts, and responsive leadership.

After synthesizing the literature, 4 key behaviors of culturally responsive school leadership were identified: critical self-reflection, culturally responsive teacher development, promoting inclusive environment, and authentic engagement of students and families (Khalifa et al., 2016). According to Khalifa et al. (2016), cultural responsivity is deeply undertheorized and under-researched when considering research on transformative, and other, leadership theories. Specifically, the authors stress implications for culturally responsive leadership preparation programs. Strategic leadership, discussed in the following article, is one approach utilizes to support leaders in creating culturally responsive schools.

Dimmok and Walker (2004) consider how strategic leadership can lead to holistic and responsive school programming. Within their article, Dimmok and Walker (2004) classify 6 themes of effective strategic leadership: community building, educational programming, culturally responsive practices, teacher management and development, resources allocation, and multicultural decision-making. Strategic leadership is thus driven by values, culturally relevant, and focused on the instructional core (Dimmok and Walker, 2004).

Also, strategic school leadership incorporates long-term planning, while offering flexibility, and culturally responsive strategies to address policies, and short-term setbacks. For these reasons, Dimmok and Walker (2004) argue that strategic leadership fosters school improvement, by encouraging goal completion, while being culturally responsive. The following piece explores an additional framework.

Bakken and Smith (2011) explain a blueprint for developing culturally responsive school administrators. The purpose of their article is to answer the question of, how can schools meet the needs of a diverse learners? To do so, Bakken and Smith (2011) believe that things need to change. Similar to Dimmok and Walker’s (2004) strategic leadership themes, the authors identify 7 key responsibilities of culturally responsive school administration: establishing a vision, school improvement planning, staff recruitment, hiring, retention and evaluation, curriculum development, parent and community engagement, creating and supporting professional learning communities, and responsive systems to meet student needs (Bakken and Smith, 2011).

With greater diversity, Bakken and Smith (2011) assert that school administration is responsible for developing, maintaining and supporting a positive climate for every student. School administration must learn and understand how culture can, and will impact, student learning (Bakken and Smith, 2011). Furthermore, culturally responsive school leaders must lead by example. What does leading by example look like? The next articles provide examples of leaders modeling the way (Kouzes and Pozner, 2017).

Khalifa (2013) declares that Hip-Hop culture is problematic, and school policies and practice often marginalize students live within that culture. However, if schools are to be culturally responsive, Khalifa (2013) questions how schools can incorporate Hip-Hop identities. Despite the fact Hip-Hop can glorify illegal behavior and unrealistically lavish lifestyles, Khalifa (2013) argues that Hip-Hop is also vibrant; a multifaceted representation of many individuals. This 2-year ethnographic study of Metropolitan Alternative School, investigates a culturally responsive school leader acknowledgement and validation of student Hip-Hop culture. Khalifa (2013) was a participant observer during the first year.

Throughout Khalifa’s (2013) qualitative research, interview transcripts, field notes, newspapers, and official school documentation, were collected. The principal of MAS was the focus, with particular attention to principal-to-student interactions, and principal-to-teacher interactions. Axial coding distinguished 3 broad categories: student Hip-Hop culture, marginalization of Hip-Hop associated student behavior, and school leader validation of Hip-Hop cultures (Khalifa, 2013). Khalifa’s (2013) study reveals a principal who challenged exclusionary practices.

Implementing inclusionary practices, the principal of MAS developed a safe school environment in which “Hip-Hop behaviors, speech, clothing, and identities” (Khalifa, 2013, p. 78), could exist without shame. The findings suggests that students can succeed, while maintaining their Hip-Hop identity. Additionally, two main ideas emerged: traditional schooling continues to devalue Hip-Hop culture, and culturally responsive school leadership can leverage it. Khalifa (2013) ultimately asks, “On whose terms should schooling occur” (p. 88)? Madhlangobe and Gordon (2012) attempt to answer that question.

Madhlangobe and Gordon (2012) discuss culturally responsive leadership practices in nurturing equity for teachers, students, and families. Through a social constructivist and transformation lens, Madhlangobe and Gordon (2012) conducted a case study at Washington High School (WHS). Guided by interpretative and grounded theory, they interviewed teachers, parents, and the school leader. In addition, observations were conducted over 8 months (Madhlangobe and Gordon, 2012).

Findings include a description of the high school, the leadership’s educational philosophy, a definition of culturally responsive leadership, and summary of themes. According to WHS school leadership, culturally responsive leaders create and facilitate opportunities for staff, to grow all students (Madhlangobe and Gordon, 2012). Like previous articles, the themes identified are: caring for others, relationship building, persistence and persuasiveness, being present, modelling cultural responsiveness, and enabling others to act culturally responsive (Madhlangobe and Gordon, 2012; Kouzes and Posner, 2017). To address the challenge of meeting the needs of today’s diverse schools, leaders must support their staff in doing so (Madhlangobe and Gordon, 2012). Next, we explore culturally responsive pedagogy, and professional learning.

Today, teachers are tasked to meet the wide range of student needs, interests, and abilities; that is no easy feat. Within their article, Garcia, Arias, Murri, and Serna (2010), reflect on teacher preparation for supporting such a diverse student population; they emphasize improving pedagogy by interacting with diverse communities. The expose identifies 4 features of effective culturally responsive teacher education programs: coherent vision of best teacher practices, developmentally appropriate curriculum, learning and social contexts, and subject matter pedagogy, taught in the context of practice, explicit strategies help students confront their own limiting beliefs, and learning about the experiences of different people (Garcia, Arias, Murri, and Serma, 2010).

In short, culturally responsive pedagogy can be divided into two broad categories: beliefs and values of teachers, and characteristics of culturally responsive teaching practices (Garcia et al., 2010). Culturally responsive teacher preparation programs are intended to develop teachers’ beliefs, and skills to meet the needs of the diverse student population (Garcia et al., 2010). Herra, Holmes, and Kavimandan (2012) agree.

Research proves that preparing teachers to support diverse students is difficult. As stated above, culturally responsive pedagogy arose to increase student achievement, however, instructional strategies are needed to support its application. Herrara, Holmes, and Kavimandan (2012) provide a framework for culturally responsive academic instruction: Biography-driven instruction (BDI). BDI, allows teachers to establish a safe learning environment, cultivating student engagement in a variety of ways.

Targeting the instructional core, BDI is composed of 3 lesson phases: activation, connection, and affirmation (Herrara, Holmes, and Kavimandan, 2012). The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol is an example of BDI. Evidence on the effectiveness of BDI was collected from field observations of 175 secondary teachers. Herrera et al. (2012) concluded that BDI positively impacted teacher practice, and student learning. Ultimately, BDI moves teachers from theory, to evidence-based practice.

Peck (2010) explores the move from theory to practice as well. The author conducted a longitudinal ethnographic and phenomenological inquiry at Quest elementary school, utilizing classroom observations, parents and community interactions, artifacts, and field notes (Peck, 2010). At Quest, educators moved from textbook-based instruction, to inquiry-based instruction, promoting culturally responsive teaching practices.

All curricula areas were integrated through culturally relevant themes, chosen by both teachers and students (Peck, 2010). Additionally, Peck (2010) emphasized the importance of assessments and data, for continual improvement. By implementing culturally responsive inquiry-based instruction, Quest increased student motivation, engagement, and achievement. Peck (2010) emphasizes the role of teacher professional learning in the pedagogical move. In addition to teacher learning, school leadership learning is important, in developing culturally responsive knowledge and practices.

Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon (2004) identify the need for culturally responsive leaders, particularly with students at risk for, or with, disabilities. They begin the article, “with a discussion of the political and ideological dimensions of cultural, cultural difference, and labeling” (Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon, 2004, p. 1)). Next, the authors argue that cultural mirroring is missing from principal professional learning research.

Cultural mirroring is defined as, “speaking and acting across difference, to reflect to the staff possible biases… while supporting school cohesion (Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon, 2004, p. 1). Finally, Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon (2004) claim culturally responsive leaders prioritize school community building, where student achievement is everyone’s responsibility. But how does a principal lead a school to become a culturally responsive community” (Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon, 2004). The solution requires a reeducation process; learning new ways of thinking and doing, and unlearning the old, ineffective ways.

As mentioned in previous articles, this includes self-reflection. School leader professional learning should also focus on cultural mirroring, focused dialogue, culturally responsive curricula, and family engagement. The latter, often a challenge for school leaders, in and of itself (Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon, 2004). Next, we briefly explore how this challenge proved especially difficult for one school.

Supported by research, family engagement is correlated with student achievement. Still schools struggle with effectively engaging diverse families. Bower and Griffin (2011) conducted a microethnographic case study, of a small urban elementary school, and its use of the Epstein Model of parental involvement, in response to that struggle. The Epstein Model includes weekly reports from school to home, personal calls, school events, and home learning activities.

However, the school continued to see minimal results. Bower and Griffin (2011) asked “Even when using an evidence-based model of parent involvement, why does parent involvement continue to remain a struggle at the school?” (Bower and Griffin, 2011, p. 80). 2 members of the administrative team and 5 teachers participated in interviews and observations. Observations on family involvement opportunities were also conducted.

Transcripts were then analyzed for emerging 7 themes/subthemes, relationships and ideas. The 3 primary themes identified are: strategies employed, frustrations, and engagement; subthemes are: communication, home learning activities, lack of reciprocity, and low attendance (Bower and Griffin, 2011). The results indirectly answer Bower and Griffin’s (2011) question, and they suggest ineffective relationship building practices on the part the school.

According to the findings, the Epstein Model does not incorporate how families are, or want to be, engaged in their children’s schooling. Based on recommendations provided in earlier articles, new ways of engaging diverse families are needed (Bower and Griffin, 2004; Murtadha-Watts and Stoughon, 2004); additional research is needed. The school’s implementation of the Epstein Model lacked cultural responsivity, and the school was unsuccessful in improving school-family relationships. Our last section explores the implications for cultural responsivity in school improvement efforts.

Cultural Responsiveness for School Improvement

According to the literature, good intention is not enough to improve schools, whether it is to engage families or increase reading scores. Nelson and Guerra (2014) examine educator beliefs related to diverse students and families, and their understanding of culture and its application in practice. 111 teachers and educational leaders, in two school districts in Texas and Michigan, participated in the study, by responding to scenarios depicting examples of school culture clashes (Nelson and Guerra, 2014). The authors analyzed the results using a constructivist grounded theory, and created a continuum of cultural responsiveness (Nelson and Guerra, 2014).

While the majority of participants demonstrated an awareness of culture, they simultaneously held deficit beliefs regarding diverse students and families. Moreover, when describing their application of cultural knowledge, participants typically indicated only explicit cultural features, neglecting cultural implications such as interpersonal relationships, identity.

Finally, most participants employed deficit thinking when explaining the cultural clashes, focusing only on topical solutions (Nelson and Guerra, 2004). Only one school leader was identified as culturally responsive. The results indicate the ineffectiveness of school reform efforts (i.e. Epstein Model, etc.), may stem from deficit thinking engrained in the school system, and cultural unresponsiveness. Cultural responsivity is a catalyst for authentic school inclusion and improvement (Nelson and Guerra, 2004). We need more inclusive schools!

When we think of inclusiveness, we may think only of students with special needs, having access to their general education peers. Ainscow (2005) argues that we need a broader definition of inclusivity; schools must support and welcome diversity of all learners. Inclusive schools eliminate exclusionary policies and practice that arise from deficit thinking and beliefs (Ainscow, 2005).

By asking, what levers can move schools towards inclusivity, Ainscow (2005) performed a research review on international studies the author, and colleagues conducted. Levers are defined as actions taken to change schools and educators (Ainscow, 2005). Studies evaluated utilized various data collection methods including surveys, observations, group discussions, and student interviews. 4 key elements emerged from the research: inclusion is a process, inclusion identifies and removes barriers, inclusion is about the presence, participation and achievement of all students, and inclusion emphasizes marginalized (Ainscow, 2005).

Therefore, schools must continue to challenge deficit thinking (Nelson and Guerra, 2014), or even the best pedagogically strategy might be unsuccessful (Ainscow, 2005), as demonstrated in Bower and Griffin’s (2011) article, on the failure of the Epstein Model for Parental Engagement. Research supports the effectiveness of cultural responsivity in the journey towards school improvement, so must also continue to inspire discussion, in ways to enable further progress (Ainscow, 2005).


As research suggests, a cultural disconnect between schools and students, often leads to limited achievement. Cultural responsivity is response to that disconnect. Throughout the literature review, buckets of research were identified pertaining to, culturally responsive school leadership roles and responsibilities, professional learning, implications for family engagement, and school improvement potential. In conclusion, culturally responsive practices can help create schools that truly uphold the idea that every student can succeed.

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