CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As first period gets underway at Cambridge Street Upper School, veteran math teacher Stephen Abreu leads a small-group discussion. But the conversation isn’t about middle school algebra, and Abreu isn’t talking to students. Seven of his fellow teachers, nearly all of them white women, are sitting across from each other talking about race, white privilege and how their own biases affect their relationships with students.
“Am I just always going to be wrong?” one teacher wonders about her interactions with students of color.
“Black kids need to know they’re not being singled out,” says another, during a conversation about making sure that her students see she isn’t playing favorites when it comes to classroom discipline.
Another colleague confesses her surprise at how often teachers of color have reported experiencing racial bias in their own interactions in the building.
Each of Cambridge Street’s staff members participate in meetings just like this one every week. They’re known as cultural proficiency seminars and attendance is mandatory. Teachers describe these 45-minute sessions as candid and, more often than not, uncomfortable. But they say the discussions are helping them to become better educators within a system in which predominantly white staff teach in schools with significant numbers of black and Latino students.
The move toward cultural proficiency, also known as culturally relevant education or culturally responsive teaching, has been gaining momentum in urban school districts throughout the country. The goal is to better serve low-income students of color by acknowledging and addressing inequities built into aspects of curriculum design, classroom discipline and even student-teacher relationships. Many educators cite these as contributing factors in the long-standing academic achievement gap between low-income students of color and their more affluent white peers. The first step, cultural proficiency proponents say, is for white teachers simply to acknowledge the role that racial and cultural bias plays inside the building and classrooms. It’s a step that doesn’t come easily.
In New York City, the nation’s largest public school system, a $23 million initiative is underway to combat implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes formed about racial and cultural groups different from one’s own. The centerpiece of the effort, as it has been outlined by the department to date, is a mandatory daylong implicit bias training for every teacher and administrator. But even advocates for such trainings caution that all they can really do is raise awareness of educators’ personal biases. Mitigating the effects of implicit bias on student behavior and performance requires teachers working closely with their peers, and school leaders making those efforts a priority. This isn’t a quick fix. The effort must be ongoing.
“There’s no evidence to show that a one-day training for teachers and staff will foster change,” says Circe Stumbo, president of West Wind Education Policy, an Iowa-based group that provides analysis of school equity policies. What’s needed, she says, is a schoolwide commitment to making cultural proficiency a priority, with systems in place for continual personal reflection and accountability.
That’s precisely what’s taking place at Cambridge Street, a diverse neighborhood school in which nearly 60 percent of its roughly 250 students identify as black, Latino or multiracial and more than half of all students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a national measure of poverty. Attendance is nearly 95 percent, the number of students meeting or exceeding academic standards in English is on par with statewide levels and the school reported zero suspensions in 2018.
These successes are happening largely due, teachers say, to the persistent efforts of school principal Manuel Fernandez, who draws from his own experiences as a student of color in all-white schools.
“Being the only black kid in school … nobody saw my intellectual potential,” says Fernandez of his childhood in Brockton, a Boston suburb. “Everything I had ever been told about myself was that I was intellectually inferior to white folk.”
In a career that spanned both community organizing and stints in the corporate world before becoming a school administrator, Fernandez always looked to make racial and social equity a priority. And when the chance presented itself to lead Cambridge Street in 2012, he made his intentions clear.
“I told the superintendent we’re going to deal with issues of race and culture. We’re going to deal with it every day. We’re going to deal with it in every way possible,” he says.
From the start of his tenure, Cambridge Street’s professional development sessions were peppered with cultural proficiency topics and activities. Teachers were reading books on race and education, listening to guest speakers and meeting regularly in sessions led by Fernandez. While some teachers embraced the approach, results at the school were limited, Fernandez says. He came to realize that his role in facilitating those meetings, not just as the principal but as a black man addressing a largely white staff about a topic as fraught as race, was inhibiting the type of honest and fruitful discussion necessary for meaningful change. The solution, he realized, was for teachers to be guided by their peers. Today, Fernandez says that 14 members of the school’s staff serve as facilitators in the weekly cultural proficiency meetings.
That has made the discussions more productive, teachers say, and often more difficult. Voices crack, faces flush with emotion and tears are not uncommon.
“Acknowledging as a white person that you have caused harm at some point and that you also remind a lot of our scholars of everyone who has caused harm to them up until this point, it’s hard,” says Karolyn Maws, a 20-year teaching veteran who took a job at Cambridge Street precisely because of its work around cultural proficiency.
“What we’re trying to have teachers see here,” says school counselor and cultural proficiency facilitator Kini Udovicki, “is that white people have benefited their whole lives from white supremacy and now they’re in a position of power in a classroom setting and so you have to recognize what that dynamic looks like.”
While these conversations can be awkward, teachers say they play an essential role in helping them become better at their jobs.
“In our meetings we talk about real stuff that happens around race because it happens all the time in the classroom,” says math teacher Kendal Schwarz. “Teachers want and need a space to talk about this. It feels useful. You feel the practicality of it.” This kind of dialogue, she said, was largely absent from her graduate school teacher-training program, where issues of race and bias were rarely mentioned.
The discussions have prompted teachers to change the way they plan classes and how they interact with students. Autism specialist Rebecca Flanagan says she makes sure that the images and photographs she uses as teaching aids reflect the diversity of her students. School librarian Norah Connolly recalls learning from a group of students about their interest in Japanese manga. Recognizing the dearth of literature written from a nonwhite perspective, Connolly was quick to add dozens of titles to the library.
When science teacher Donna Peruzzi has the opportunity to bring in guest speakers, she makes a conscious choice to seek out people from a range of different backgrounds, “so the kids can see that science is not just a white male thing.”
The payoffs are perhaps most evident in how students feel and talk about their school.
“Just walking around the halls, the energy you feel here is that no matter your background, religion, skin tone, sexuality, it doesn’t matter because we’ll love and accept you anyways,” says eighth-grader Clio Bildman. She recalls a much different experience at a previous middle school she attended that was nearly all white. “One of the boys I was friends with, he was African-American. I would see him walk into school and his facial expression would change. That’s how toxic the environment was.”
Students also say they’ve been able to build strong relationships with teachers based on trust, not simply whether they share the same background or culture.
“Kids at other schools talk about how their teachers are a little bit racist, or they don’t get help from their teachers,” says eighth-grader Mariam Ziro, who is originally from Kenya. “We get the same amount of help as a white student.”
That isn’t to say that the school has magically bridged what can be significant gaps in cultural and life experiences. Teachers recall recent incidents when their comments or actions made students feel they were being singled out, often because of race. But now when these incidents occur, teachers say they feel better equipped to respond.
“Before we really focused on this, I think when students would say ‘That’s racist’ or ‘You’re saying that because I’m black,’ I would have jumped to defensive mode,” says Peruzzi. “These [cultural proficiency] conversations have helped us really reflect on what our biases are.”
Viewing education through a racial and cultural lens is not new. Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” was an early critique of the education system’s exclusive reliance on dominant white culture to design curriculum and set standards. Afrocentric schools that began to form in the decades that followed were built on the idea that black children are best served by black educators.
Yet, urban districts serving primarily black and Latino children still face a lack of diversity in their teacher force. A growing number of schools are looking for ways to build stronger student-teacher relationships, a prerequisite, they assert, to narrowing achievement gaps in academic performance. A push is underway that draws on growing, if contested, research around implicit bias. Studies have examined the role of racial bias in everything from higher incidents of lethal force by police officers, to disparities in health care spending, to home valuations in black neighborhoods.
Across the Charles River from Cambridge Street, Boston Public Schools is now at the forefront of efforts to take a districtwide approach to fighting cultural insensitivity and bias. Three years ago, the school system’s Office of Opportunity Gaps — created to boost the academic performance of low-income students of color — began to ramp up its work around cultural proficiency. Today, with a nine-person staff and a budget of more than $4 million, it offers cultural proficiency training to every school principal and a small but growing share of the city’s teachers. Beginning in 2017, the office’s leader, Colin Rose, made cultural proficiency a component of every school’s annual accountability reports — essentially forcing schools to address bias and inequity.
Maureen Costello, director at Teaching Tolerance, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides anti-bias training for schools, says the district’s approach to equity is “one of the most systematic” in the country. She says by making cultural proficiency mandatory, “leadership is signaling that this work is important. You can’t have it only be voluntary or else you’re only preaching to the choir.”
But the district leaves it up to individual schools to figure out how they’ll achieve cultural proficiency. School leaders say they appreciate that flexibility, but it can also translate into extra work.
“I was really unhappy with Colin when he did not give us the ‘how,’ ” says Patricia Lampron, principal of Boston Public Schools’ Henderson K-12 Inclusion School. “But what it forced us as a school to do is to think. It’s the process that’s the real important part of this work as opposed to just checking off boxes. It’s the thinking, it’s the ownership of cultural proficiency work that really forced the change.”
There are teachers who just aren’t ready to challenge their assumptions about race, privilege and culture, Lampron says. But she doesn’t let that stop the work: “I didn’t ask anyone if they were on board. I said you’re either on the bus or you’re under the bus.”
As at Cambridge Street, Henderson K-12 began its cultural proficiency work with teacher discussions on race and privilege. One immediate result was that teachers began going through titles in their classroom libraries, adding books they felt were more reflective of their students’ experiences and interests. A mentoring program for young men of color, spearheaded by history teacher Samuel Texeira, has become a source of pride for school leaders. The school has adopted a curriculum framework designed by author and educator Zaretta Hammond, a pioneer of culturally responsive teaching practices.
“Cultural proficiency is no longer a separate thing we do once a month. It’s at the center of what we do,” Lampron says.
With the emphasis on creating awareness of racial bias and privilege among white teachers, a big challenge for Cambridge Street and Henderson K-12 is not to neglect the needs of their nonwhite teachers.
“I’m a woman of color so I feel like intuitively, culturally I already understood a lot of those things,” says Stephanie Okwudi, who teaches math at Henderson.
It’s a sentiment shared by other teachers of color.
“Do I think that diversity discussions are geared and targeted towards white people? Absolutely,” says Ariel Carmichael, a music teacher at Cambridge Street. “Do they help black people? For me they have not because I already know what it’s like,” she says of a childhood often spent as the only black kid in all-white classrooms.
But teachers at both schools say that the focus on implicit bias has made it easier for them to speak candidly with colleagues when they witness or experience racist incidents in their buildings. And at Cambridge Street, in addition to their weekly cultural proficiency meetings, teachers also meet monthly in affinity groups, organized by race. While that may seem antithetical to the whole idea of cultural proficiency, teachers of color say this gives them the opportunity to focus on their needs and concerns, which are less about building awareness of privilege and more about navigating a system that is still overwhelmingly white.
“It is an uphill battle,” says Carmichael. “Sometimes you move back five steps to move forward one. But there’s been tremendous growth. I love this school.”
This story about culturally responsive teaching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.