Transforming Schools and Outcomes by Using a Culturally Responsive Curriculum
By Robert Low
Can a new type of curriculum actually turn failing schools into successful ones, and result in greater success for students as well?
This question was answered affirmatively and with confirming evidence during a recent edWebinar, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, with educator and author Jay McTighe, and the superintendent and deputy superintendent of Mount Vernon City School District (NY), Dr. Kenneth Hamilton and Dr. Jeff Gorman.
Dr. Hamilton pointed out when he took over as Superintendent seven years ago, all but two of the district’s schools were designated as schools in need of improvement. Now, every school in the district is in good standing, with some having reached blue ribbon status and a high school now offering an International Baccalaureate program.
Theory and Practice
McTighe defined a culturally responsive curriculum as one that is intellectually respectful of students, honoring them as thinkers who are capable of comprehending important ideas and processes. This type of curriculum teaches the basics in an authentic context of culturally relevant tasks and avoids excessive test prep and “multiple-choice learning.”
For students, a culturally responsive curriculum provides opportunities to acquire important knowledge and skills, understand larger concepts, and transfer learning to new situations. There is less emphasis on memorizing disconnected facts and details, with the basics viewed as a floor rather than a ceiling, and an increased focus on transferable ideas that are worth understanding deeply and can be applied in today’s complex, interconnected world.
Explaining how this approach can be implemented in today’s classrooms, McTighe suggested framing topics in terms of key concepts and creating “concept word walls” that showcase vocabulary related to the big ideas underlying the topic. He also recommended framing content through essential questions that engage students in making meaning and posting those questions in the classroom to make them visible and keep them that way.
Other important teaching techniques include engaging learners with authentic tasks, which can incorporate real-world applications and the students’ interests and life experiences. Based on his own experience as a swim coach, McTighe also recommended “teaching like a coach,” which requires “thinking backward” from an upcoming event and then having the students practice appropriate skills and strategies they can apply in the future.
Responsiveness and Outcomes
Discussing how the switch to a culturally responsive curriculum helped turn around the Mount Vernon City School District, Dr. Hamilton explained the district is racially diverse with a high percentage of the students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Located just to the north of New York City’s Bronx borough, Mount Vernon has one of the highest population densities on the East Coast.
To support the transformation of the district’s schools, a bond referendum was proposed and passed despite the widespread financial challenges of families in the district. The funding equipped teachers with a curriculum that met student needs and provided more tech devices and internet access.
The district also reorganized its schools, creating PK-8 schools and eliminating the middle schools that were failing so many students. The three high schools in the district were reorganized to provide a focus either on STEAM, the arts, or career and technical education.
Rather than seeing the arts and music as expendable subjects that can be cut from school budgets when times are tough, as they had been in Mount Vernon City School District, Dr. Hamilton sees them as crucial ways to make the curriculum relevant and engaging and to develop the talents of diverse students. He also believes the arts are especially important in a district like Mount Vernon because many of the students turned out to be “twice gifted,” despite having received standardized assessment scores that did not reflect their proficiencies. He explained that once a culturally responsive, arts-based curriculum and related authentic assessments were being used, a far greater number of students could demonstrate mastery of the curriculum as well as overall academic proficiency.
A similar perspective helped shape Mount Vernon City School District’s STEAM high school, which has a project-based curriculum linked to a United Nations sustainability initiative. One project engages students in looking at their city’s infrastructure and identifying problems and solutions with roads, vacant homes, and other aspects of their urban environment.
In addition to changing the content and focus of the subject matter, Dr. Hamilton also emphasized the importance of changing school cultures to include conversations about race, trauma, and other aspects of students’ lived experiences that can directly impact academic performance and classroom behavior. And, this sort of culturally relevant approach extends beyond the students themselves.
Mt. Vernon has achieved widespread involvement in interactive parent workshops, which have been online since last spring, by focusing on relevant topics such as understanding teenage language and behavior, and how to support virtual learning. There are also topics that support the full range of family members, such as “mindfulness techniques to stress less.”
A culturally relevant curriculum can also be found in the district’s principal and leadership academy, where topics range from critical thinking and decision making to being a leader in this unprecedented time. And, there are group book reads designed to build a common vocabulary that will lead to common understandings about topics such as race and equity.
For the future, Mount Vernon City School District has developed a three-year plan to further rewrite its curriculum and bring it together through a combination of Understanding by Design and differentiated instruction. A phased approach starts with identifying desired results, then moves on to determining acceptable evidence (assessments), and finally to creating learning plans and activities, which will undoubtedly be culturally responsive.
This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.
About the Presenters
Jay McTighe brings a wealth of experience developed during a rich and varied career in education. He served as Director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium, a state collaboration of school districts working together to develop and share formative performance assessments. Prior to this position, Jay was involved with school improvement projects at the Maryland State Department of Education where he helped lead Maryland’s standards-based reforms, including the development of performance-based statewide assessments. He also directed the development of the Instructional Framework, a multimedia database on teaching. Well known for his work with thinking skills, Jay has coordinated statewide efforts to develop instructional strategies, curriculum models, and assessment procedures for improving the quality of student thinking. In addition to his work at the state level, Jay has experience at the district level in Prince George’s County, Maryland, as a classroom teacher, resource specialist, and program coordinator. He also directed a state residential enrichment program for gifted and talented students.
Jay is an accomplished author, having co-authored 17 books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design series with Grant Wiggins. His books have been translated into 12 languages. Jay has also written more than 50 articles and book chapters, and has been published in leading journals, including Educational Leadership (ASCD) and Education Week. See his books here. Jay has an extensive background in professional development and is a regular speaker at national, state, and district conferences and workshops. He has conducted workshops in 47 states within the United States, in seven Canadian provinces, and internationally to educators in 35 countries on six continents.
Jay received his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary, earned his master’s degree from the University of Maryland, and completed post-graduate studies at The Johns Hopkins University. He was selected to participate in the Educational Policy Fellowship Program through the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C., and served as a member of the National Assessment Forum, a coalition of education and civil rights organizations advocating reforms in national, state, and local assessment policies and practices. Since education is a “learning” profession, Jay set a learning goal when he was 57 years of age to be surfing by 60. He did it!
Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton
Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton completed his undergraduate degree at Seton Hall University where he majored in criminal justice and minored in education. He studied advanced level courses in fulfillment of his Master of Arts degree at Seton Hall University and Jersey City State University. He also completed leadership institutes at Harvard University and Princeton University, before completing doctoral studies at Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Hamilton was awarded a fellowship grant by the Geraldine Dodge Foundation at Princeton University to study the effects of Year-Round Schooling. In 2008, he was appointed as a U.S. Delegate to visit China to observe educational programs and most recently was the recipient of the NAACP Distinguished Educators Award and the Sybil Yastrow Superintendent’s Grant. He is an adjunct professor at William Paterson University and a state-approved mentor for the NJ State School Administrators’ Residency Program.
After being recognized for his ability to initiate change and spearhead improved student outcomes, he was promoted to principal of Clinton Elementary School where he implemented one of the first mandatory school uniforms policies in the State of NJ and increased student performance by 83% in four years. He was later hired as the assistant superintendent of Schools in Cherry Hill, New Jersey where his responsibilities included supervision for middle school programs, district-wide professional development, minority achievement initiative (closing the achievement gap) and diversity recruitment. He then became Superintendent of Schools in Westhampton Public Schools where he was recognized for implementation of several programs designed to improve student outcomes. Dr. Hamilton presented before the NJ State Senate to justify Senate Bill S2307, a bill requesting equitable state funding. In July of 2014, Dr. Hamilton was appointed Superintendent of the Mount Vernon City School District where his leadership is creating new synergy focused on community engagement and a quest for excellence.
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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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.