Cultural and Academic Excellence Leaves No Child Behind

by Donni Stickney, M.Ed.

The No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) challenges educators to look deeply not only at their curriculum and how it is being taught, but also at who is being taught. The law specifically addresses the educational needs of several subgroups of students: those from racial or ethnic minorities, those who are economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities, and those who have limited English proficiency. Under the legislation, each subgroup will be expected to make adequate yearly progress toward meeting state standards (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Often, students from less dominant cultures are included in more than one of these subgroups. These students are considered to be at particular risk for school failure.

Research by Williams (1997) shows that test scores can be raised and students can be empowered in their learning when educators teach in a culturally responsive manner. Culturally responsive teaching uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective (Gay, 2000).

Understanding students' cultural heritages strengthens teachers' ability to design instruction geared to teach the whole child. Williams (1997) reviewed several projects that successfully used language to improve student achievement on standardized tests. For example, students showed an increase of 6.2 months in reading scores on the Iowa Test of Basic skills after four months of instruction using the Bridge reading program. Using a translated version of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test that did not show cultural bias produced higher IQ scores for African American students.

Foster (1989) examined teachers' use of cultural nuances in communication styles and the impact on student performance. Educators' integration of cultural nuances and acceptance of different cultural communication styles in classrooms positively correlated with improvements in time on task, attending behaviors, participation in classroom dialogue, concept mastery, recall of factual information with greater accuracy, and more student enthusiasm and confidence in learning.

In early childhood and elementary education, Piestrup (1973), Hall, Reder, and Cole (1979), and Howard (1998) found that using African American communication styles with students improved their literacy skills. Similarly, a Navajo Reservation school in Arizona, the Rough Rook Demonstration School, used cultural content in the curriculum to increase academic achievement. Navajo symbols, oral narratives, and journal writing in both English and Navajo were used during classroom instruction. Students who participated in the program made average gains of 60 percentage points on their Navajo and English listening comprehension scores over three years and 12 percentage points on the locally developed criterion-referenced measures of reading comprehension. On the Criterion Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), reading vocabulary test scores doubled (Gay, 2000).

Effective educators understand the verbal and nonverbal communication styles of cultures other than their own. Typically, teachers expect students to provide eye contact, take turns, speak one at a time, and use body language that shows they are being attentive. However, students may deviate from these expectations due to cultural norms. For example, African American cultures sometimes use call-and-response banter when communicating, Latino cultures at times talk along with speakers to show support for what is being said, and Hawaiian cultures often communicate more effectively by storytelling than by quick replies (Gay, 2000). Problems in the classroom can result if teachers do not understand these differences or fail to find ways to integrate them into the classroom. Providing all students with ways to communicate that honor their cultural affiliation is vital to their successful mastery of the curriculum. In that connection, family members who do not speak English may need translators at conferences and for daily communication from the school.

Teachers will benefit from researching a wide range of cultural norms relevant to their individual classrooms. For example, students may be more or less comfortable with asserting themselves in the classroom, sharing what they know, or asking for help depending upon cultural norms regarding what is polite or respectful in given cultures. Students may have been taught to behave in more dominant or subservient ways based on culturally accepted gender roles. Teachers must also recognize that students may be at different stages of acculturation. Lesson plans need to blend information on how students can become comfortable with American culture with ways that other students can become culturally responsive to members of diverse cultures. Discerning teachers will judiciously weed out stereotypical information and use information that is pertinent for developing and improving classrooms.

Teachers should also be sensitive to stereotypes and multicultural representation in curriculum materials by, for example, ensuring that posters, literature, and learning centers reflect diverse populations of learners. Educators can also encourage families and community members to participate in creating classrooms that teach about the customs, cultural celebrations, and histories of their own cultures. These kinds of learning experiences are often not only enriching to students and teachers, but to community members as well.

Jo Lynne DeMary, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Virginia (Superintendents Memo, No. 166, December 6, 2002), urged school divisions to evaluate their data to determine if significant disproportionate representation of minorities in special education existed in their schools. According to this memo, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is making cultural competency training available to Virginia teachers. For more information on the over-representation of minorities in special education, read the article by Dr. Mehaffey on page 6 of this issue of Link Lines.

Culturally responsive teaching increases students' academic achievement, but its importance extends much further. Historically, this country has been a melting pot of diverse cultures. The classroom provides a unique setting where students can come to appreciate the diversity within their own community and beyond. When teachers foster the strengths and accommodate the learning styles of all their students, they create cultural bridges that connect students' home lives with their lives at school and, in turn, their lives at school with the larger world. Exploring cultural norms creates opportunities to reflect on classroom expectations and practices. Classrooms that are student-centered enjoy high student achievement and rich educational experiences.


Foster, M. (1989). It's cooking now: A performance analysis of the speech events of a Black teacher in an urban community college. Language in Society, 18(1), 1-29.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hall, W. S., Reder, S., & Cole, M. (1979). Story recall in young Black and White children: Effects of racial group membership, race of experimenter, and dialect. In A. W. Boykin, A. J. Franklin, & J. F. Yates (Eds.), Research directions of Black psychologists (pp. 253-265). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Howard, T. C. (1998). Pedagogical practices and ideological constructions of effective teachers of African American students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

Piestrup, A. M. (1973). Black dialect interference and accommodation of reading instruction in first grade (Monograph of the Language Behavior Research Laboratory). Berkeley: University of California.

U.S. Department of Education. (2002). No Child Left Behind. Retrieved November 25, 2002, from facts/yearly.html

Williams, R. L. (1997). The Ebonics controversy. Journal of Black Psychology, 23(3), 208-214.

Date: February/March 2003