Eliminating Achievement Disparities by Using Cultural Proficiency Tools

By Robert Low

Leading for Equity: Using the Tools of Cultural Proficiency to Lift up Equity in Chaotic Times edWebinar recording link


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As school districts have become more diverse and focused on the importance of providing an equitable education for students from different cultures, the need has grown for a consistent and effective approach to improving the achievement of all learners and engaging their families in the process.

The use of Cultural Proficiency tools has been combined successfully with a continuous school improvement plan in the Eden Prairie Schools in Minnesota. During a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, the framework and implementation of this approach were discussed by Dr. Stacie Stanley, Associate Superintendent, Tim Beekmann, Principal of Eden Lake Elementary School, and Valora Unowsky, Associate Principal of Eden Lake Elementary School.

Dr. Stanley explained during the past 20 years, her district has gone from being 91% White to 73% White, with Black, Asian, and Hispanic students now comprising more than a quarter of the student population. She also noted the rich diversity of students within each subgroup, pointing out students from immigrant Somali families are considered Black, even though their language and cultural background are far different from those of African American students whose families have been in the United States for many generations.

Understanding Cultural Proficiency Tools

Dr. Stanley defined the Cultural Proficiency approach as a framework that provides intellectual tools that become hands-on means of improving students’ education. Developed by Terry Cross, a member of the Seneca Nation whose focus has been on child welfare, this approach is now being used by numerous school districts to develop and implement culturally proficient educational practices.

One key element of this approach is the continuum of Cultural Proficiency, a tool that helps organizations diagnose their current activities, organize improvements, and assess their progress. The states of proficiency range from unhealthy ones, including cultural destructiveness, incapacity, and blindness, to healthy ones such as pre-competence, competence, and proficiency.

The continuum enables districts and schools to evaluate the extent to which they are serving students from diverse cultures and helping them thrive, as well as creating an inclusive school climate. The continuum also supports another key aspect of Cultural Proficiency, which is overcoming barriers that prevent schools from adapting to their students and families, by adopting essential practices based on guiding principles and foundational beliefs.

This work results in actions, protocols, and policies that help educators “manage the dynamics of difference,” and also provides a basis for conversations with leadership teams about healthy and unhealthy educational practices. These practices can include the use of home languages and understanding of cultural norms in order to foster achievement, and consideration of multiple perspectives and “missing voices” that may lead to a better appreciation of each student’s unique gifts and talents.

Working with the Tools of Cultural Proficiency

Principal Tim Beekmann emphasized the importance of being strategic and explicitly clear about how to make school work for each student so the students are not left on their own to navigate around barriers that prevent them from achieving school success. This includes creating and maintaining a school climate that is safe, responsible, and kind, with educators modeling positive values and upper-grade students serving as “buddies” to younger students.

The Cultural Proficiency approach also includes designing pathways for individual students that set them up for success, based on their interests and talents, as well as the acknowledgment of “we all have differences in how we learn best.” The goal is to have students become proficient in the 4 Cs—creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—and to get input from them and their families so they can see themselves and their values in their school.

Assistant Principal Valora Unowsky discussed how the Cultural Proficiency approach has been combined with her school’s continuous improvement plan and the rollout of a new literacy program in the midst of a pandemic. Discussions with team leaders led to a focus on four key words describing their work—equitable, intentional, streamlined, and focused—and two key strategies—building strong relationships with their students and each other, and providing deeply personal learning opportunities for all students.

The curricular rollout was accompanied by professional development that provided an opportunity to ensure reading and equity were integrated rather than kept in separate silos, and to make sure culturally relevant texts were taught and used in the best possible ways. The school’s teacher-leaders also took a data-assessment course that would improve their own understanding and use of evidence-based indicators of progress, and then help the teacher-leaders work more effectively with their fellow educators.

Ongoing conversations about the Cultural Proficiency process include PK-6 specialists, and classroom teachers also participate in class visits and learning rounds to different grades so they have a better understanding of the subjects and practices that students have previously experienced and will be exposed to in the future. All of this work is integrated with the Cultural Proficiency framework, so there is a shared basis for discussing what they are observing and how it can be improved.

Overall, Dr. Stanley sees the Tools of Cultural Proficiency as a way for districts and schools to educate and serve all their students, especially marginalized ones, using an asset-based approach to overcome educational barriers. She believes it is also an effective approach to educator learning and growth that builds capacity within the staff, so educators can continue increasing achievement and eliminating educational disparities.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

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About the Presenters

Dr. Stacie Stanley serves as the associate superintendent of Eden Prairie Schools, which is located in Minnesota just outside of Minneapolis. She has served in a variety of education roles including paraprofessional, math teacher, school principal, and director of curriculum, assessment and instruction. Dr. Stanley’s entire career has been dedicated to eliminating barriers that prevent marginalized students from thriving in school. Dr. Stanley is the co-author of Leading While Female: A Culturally Proficient Response for Gender Equity. She is a fierce advocate for ensuring women (especially women of color) are able to move into executive leadership roles. She earned a doctorate degree from Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she researched the impact of intercultural development on K-6 administrative leadership practice. Dr. Stanley is a senior training associate at the Center for Culturally Proficient Educational Practice, and graduate school adjunct faculty at Bethel University in Minnesota. She and her husband enjoy being empty nesters, power walking, and spending time with their grandchildren.

This year marks Tim Beekmann’s 29th year with Eden Prairie Schools. He began his professional career as a first-grade teacher and over the next 15 years taught second, third, and fourth grades as well. The next six years were spent as the educational coordinator responsible for scheduling, student placement, assessment, curriculum resources, and co-facilitating professional development. In 2013 Tim became the associate principal at Eden Lake Elementary and the lead principal the following year which is the position he currently holds today. Tim believes everyone within the school community is responsible for creating and promoting an inclusive, positive climate and culture. He states, “We must be intentional, focused, and aligned in our instructional practices to have equitable outcomes for all.” Tim also serves as a board member for the local non-profit food shelf and resource center for residents of Eden Prairie and the surrounding communities.

Valora Unowsky has dedicated her career to eliminating achievement disparities. She is passionate about literacy education, serving as a reading specialist, literacy coach, professor, and consultant. Her dedication to urban schools led her to Saint Paul Public Schools, where she served as the elementary literacy lead for the second-largest public school district in Minnesota. Recently, Ms. Unowsky accepted the position as Associate Principal at Eden Lake Elementary in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where she works closely with teachers to improve outcomes for all students through equitable and culturally relevant curricula and instruction.

About the Host 

Dr. Valerie Truesdale joined AASA early in 2019 as the assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

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Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation, and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships, and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.


Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with edWeb.net to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.