No Child Left Behind: Now What Do We Need to Do to be Culturally Responsive?

by Norma L. Day-Vines, Ph.D., and James M. Patton, Ph.D.

Below are some evidence-based strategies for making NCLB culturally responsive in a manner that helps to truly close the achievement gap.

Consider Own Attitudes, Biases and Assumptions. Recognize biases and attitudes about culturally different children that may impede the ability to deliver culturally responsive teaching and related services. Well-constructed cultural competency training can help accomplish this goal (Patton & Day-Vines, 2002; Sue & Sue, 2003).

Value Children's Language. Much has been written about the fact that educators frequently do not value the language children bring to school, particularly when students' language of origin represents a marked departure from Standard English (i.e., Ebonics, Spanglish). For best results, educators should use the language students bring to school as a spring board to teach Standard English in a manner that doesn't disparage their mother tongue. Mothers are the people with whom children usually have the closest ties. Therefore, any action that disparages the mother tongue may in reality be demonstrating a disparagement of the children's cultural experience and identity (Hilliard, 2002; Nieto, 1996).

Recognize that the Culture of the School and the Culture of the Child's Family May Not Be Well Synchronized. School cultures often approximate "white middle class norms." These norms tend to consist of a preference for nuclear versus extended families, an emphasis on the individual as opposed to the collective, competition versus interdependence, scientific versus intuitive ways of knowing, and communication patterns are verbally rather than nonverbally oriented. These cultural differences are often competing and contradictory and may create distress for some students. Teachers must recognize that differences do not necessarily constitute deficiencies (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999).

Recognize the Cultural Values Children Bring to School and incorporate them into pedagogical styles. For instance, relationships are highly prized among many African American children and other marginalized culturally diverse groups. Therefore, many of these children are not receptive to the learning experience unless they have a viable relationship with the teacher and opportunities to work cooperatively with other children. Cultivating classroom climates that engender a sense of kinship and affiliation is important to ensure success for culturally diverse students (Ladson-Billings, 1994b).

Consider the Importance of Code Switching Among African American Children. Code switching is a practice in which individuals alter their behavioral patterns to conform to the current environment. For example, African American youngsters may speak and behave in the Black English vernacular when interacting with African American peers, yet modify speech and behavioral patterns to coincide with the norms and expectations valued in more integrated settings. This behavior is not unusual. It demonstrates efforts to successfully navigate multiple and simultaneous cultural markers, norms, and values such that they engage in communication and behavioral patterns that are situationally appropriate (Celious & Oyserman, 2001).

Incorporate African American Children's Need for Multisensory Stimulation into Pedagogical Styles. Develop lesson plans that are interactive and stimulate students' visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses simultaneously in an effort to increase interest and motivation in learning (Ladson-Billings, 1994a).

Provide Culturally Relevant Instructional Materials. NCLB mandates improved performance in reading, and later, mathematics and science. In an effort to make the curriculum more culturally relevant, it is imperative to provide, among instructional materials, core content texts, literature, and arts, materials that are by and about African Americans. This includes historical descriptions of African Americans who have made significant contributions to this country and the world (Ladson-Billings, 1994a).

Affirm Students' Cultural Identity with Power-Enhancing Confidence Builders to Enable Their Successful Development. Often because of prior negative experiences in schools and in society, African American students equate academic success with "acting white." Consequently, they feel compelled to choose between social acceptance by peer group members or academic success. Teachers can help students recognize that they can maintain a positive Black identity and work towards academic success simultaneously. The two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive (Nieto, 1996; Patton & Day-Vines, 2002).

Promote Family Involvement and Community Partnerships. Foster culturally reciprocal relationships in which parents, families, and communities are brought into full and authentic partnership with schools and enlist families' knowledge and understanding of their children and communities as resources for improving educational outcomes. For instance, during parent-teacher conferences invite parents to share their concerns, expectations, and recommendations for how to work more effectively with their children. As educators, we may have curriculum expertise, but parents, family members, and community leaders often have other detailed and important information about children from which teachers can benefit (Billingsley & Caldwell, 1991; Day-Vines, 2000; Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999).

Maintain High Expectations for All Children. Harboring low expectations for children is debilitating because it conveys to children a sense that they are inadequate. Furthermore, once children internalize this belief, feelings of inferiority abound, and children are more likely to view themselves as self-fulfilling prophecies (Delpit, 1995; Nieto, 1996).

Avoid Filtering All Behavior Through the Singular Lens of Race, Ethnicity, Culture or Class. Frequently, it is convenient and tempting to attribute a child's behavior solely to her or his racial or cultural background. While it is important to recognize and respond appropriately to cultural cues, it is more important to recognize the child as an individual first and foremost, and then consider cultural contexts that may influence behavior (Sue & Sue, 2003).

Seek out New Information from Cultural Informants, who are members of an indigenous culture who can provide considerable insight into aspects of the culture that may be unfamiliar to outsiders. Usually, cultural informants are bicultural, that is, they can maneuver fluently both in mainstream American culture and in their own indigenous culture, while respecting the central properties of both. Often their ability to commute between two very disparate cultures permits them to understand the expectations of both their own and the culture of the "other." These individuals serve as guides and have an abundance of resources upon which classroom teachers can capitalize (Patton & Day-Vines, 2002).


Billingsley, A., & Caldwell, C. H. (1991). The church, the family, and the school in the African American community. Journal of Negro Education, 60(3), 427-440.

Celious, A., & Oyserman, D. (2001). Race from the inside: An emerging heterogeneous race model. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 149-165.

Day-Vines, N. (2000). Ethics, power, and privilege: Salient issues in the development of multicultural competencies for teachers serving African American children with disabilities. Teacher Education and Special Education, 23(1), 3-18.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflicts in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Hilliard, A. (2002). Language, culture, and the assessment of African American children. In L. Delpit & J. Dowdy (Eds.). The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 87-105). New York: New Press.

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: P. H. Brookes.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994a). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994b). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 465-491.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

No Child Left Behind (n.d.). Reaching out...Raising African American Achievement. Retrieved December 4, 2002, from

Patton, J., & Day-Vines, N. (2002). A curriculum and pedagogy for cultural competence: Knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to guide the training of special and general education teachers. Unpublished manuscript, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley.

Date: February/March 2003