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Our greatest thinkers knew it long ago: there’s a better approach to teaching than ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’

Frederick Douglass wrote that it was a parliamentary speech by white, Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan that equipped and inspired him to launch his anti-slavery crusade.

It should be great news: Graduation rates for our state’s black and Hispanic students — which have long lagged white students’ rate — are on the rise.

But how much do these new graduates actually know? What skills have they mastered? In other words, what is their high school diploma really worth?

Katherine Kersten

MinnPost recently profiled a new Spanish Heritage program at Roosevelt High School that Principal Michael Bradley credits with helping to boost the school’s Hispanic graduation rate by about 15 percentage points in 2015. The program features “culturally relevant pedagogy” and focuses on developing Hispanic students’ sense of “cultural identity.”

What precisely do students learn in the Spanish Heritage program? The article explained that students “see themselves in the curriculum,” “find their voice,” and “become their own advocates.” But it says little about whether they acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to become well-informed, productive citizens.

Why is this important? In searching the Minnesota Department of Education’s website, I discovered a disconcerting fact: Though Roosevelt’s Hispanic graduation rate increased to almost 75 percent in 2015, only 6 percent of the school’s Hispanic students were proficient in reading and only 10 percent in math, as measured by state tests.

MinnPost’s profile concluded with a student poem whose tone struck me as profoundly alienated. What is the “culturally relevant pedagogy” that contributed to such a negative cultural identity?

‘A pedagogy of opposition’

Culturally relevant pedagogy is the brainchild of Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She coined the term in 1992, and says it describes “a pedagogy of opposition.” A primary goal of her approach, she says, is that “students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order.”

Ladson-Billings singles out Paulo Freire as an author whose vision of education undergirds culturally relevant pedagogy. Significantly, the Roosevelt student’s poem names or quotes Freire no less than five times.

Freire was a Brazilian activist and educator who worked with disenfranchised Latin American peasants in the 1950s and ‘60s. In his 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he taught that all societies are divided between “oppressors” and “oppressed,” and called for revolutionary overthrow of capitalist hegemony. Freire dismissed academic learning as mere “official knowledge” that oppressors use to rationalize inequality in capitalist societies. How does a pedagogical approach grounded in such a perspective prepare American students for success in 2016?

Today, many educators assume that black and Hispanic students cannot succeed in school unless they “see themselves in the curriculum.” But great thinkers of the past had a very different view.

Douglass, Du Bois, and Addams

Take Frederick Douglass, America’s great anti-slavery orator and crusader. Douglass, a former slave, wrote that it was a parliamentary speech by white, Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan that equipped and inspired him to launch his anti-slavery crusade. Sheridan’s mighty speech “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance,” wrote Douglass. The reading of Sheridan’s “powerful vindication of human rights” enabled him “to utter my thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery,” he said.

W.E.B. Du Bois, another great black social reformer, voiced a similar conviction in “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903. “Can there be any possible solution” to the problem of black social advance “other than by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past?” he asked. Du Bois drew inspiration from thinkers ranging from Shakespeare and Aristotle to the French novelist Balzac. “So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil,” he wrote. “Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?”

The social reformer Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, employed Douglass’ and Du Bois’ vision of education as “the best that has been thought and said” to lift destitute immigrant children into the American mainstream in the early 20th century. 

Addams would have disdainfully rejected the notion that the key to keeping her poverty-stricken Sicilian and Bohemian pupils engaged in school was to immerse them in a study of their ancestors’ cultures. Hull House, she wrote, was “a protest against [this] restricted view of education.” Instead, Addams expanded her students’ minds by teaching world history, botany and “the great inspirations and solaces” of history’s “literary masterpieces.” Thus equipped, those young people went on to fulfill the promises of a better life that had drawn their parents to America.

A worthy successor

Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis is a worthy successor to Addams’ Hull House. The school is one of 30 Jesuit high schools throughout the nation that serve low-income students, primarily Hispanics.

Cristo Rey is a “college and career preparatory school” whose students must pass challenging standards-based tests in reading/literature, math, history and science to advance from one grade to another. The school does not seek to develop in its students a “cultural identity” that sets them apart from other Americans. On the contrary, students attend class four days a week and work one day a week at a company — including General Mills, Allianz Life and Cargill — to earn money to pay their tuition and develop valuable, marketable skills. Every member of Cristo Rey’s Class of 2015 has been accepted to college.”

“Culturally relevant pedagogy” may be well-intentioned. But its multicultural vision prevents minority students “from utilizing the existing culture of the larger society around them for their own advancement,” in the words of black economist Thomas Sowell. “Multiculturalism, like the caste system,” he points out, “tends to freeze people where the accident of birth has placed them.”

I wish the students of Roosevelt’s Spanish Heritage program well. But I can’t help wishing they had the opportunity to attend a school that — instead of locking them in the box of “culturally relevant pedagogy” — equipped them with the knowledge and skills they need to seize the opportunities that wait at their doorstep in America.

Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. 

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/25/2016 - 09:39 pm.

    Both, please

    Usually, Ms. Kersten is as wrong as a 3-dollar bill, but I think she’s at least partially correct on this.

    Seeing one’s self in the history being taught is a powerful motivator, and beyond that, especially for students of color, it’s vital that the history being taught is as complete as it can be made, by which I mean that it tells the stories of groups beyond those from northern Europe. American history that does not include slavery and the moral quagmire it presented to 19th century (and current) American society is not history, it’s public relations propaganda, just as Russian history is propaganda without mention of Stalin’s pogroms, or German history without the Holocaust. You need to tell the whole story, and I think there’s more to that than the sort of ephemeral, second-order pandering that Ms. Kersten implies.

    That said, and regardless of its plentiful warts and failures, this is a society based on European cultural norms, especially those of the English, and including, by way of the Greeks, the Romans and the Enlightenment, a faith in democratic government that’s unrivaled in the world, even if we don’t always practice what we preach. “Culturally relevant” education – up to a point – is essential. Beyond that point, and I have some experience with both parts of this spectrum, it does its students and the larger society a disservice by emphasizing their particular ethnic customs and heritage to the exclusion of the more typically dominant English/European bias. Past that point, I think an education that focuses too heavily on a particular ethnic or cultural background (where that point might be would be the subject of a lively and long-running debate) does so at the expense of the broader, mainstream culture, and doing so, in my view, does, indeed, trap a student in something close to the role of permanent victim.

    If one of the primary goals of education is to produce productive citizens of the society, and I believe it is, then that sort of narrow cultural focus seems counterproductive.

    • Submitted by Alan Muller on 03/26/2016 - 06:57 am.

      Can’t agree….

      I wanted to agree, to a degree, with both Ms. Kersten and Mr. Schoch. But I can’t. What makes the “mainstream culture” “broader”?

      Where is the evidence for “… faith in democratic government that’s unrivaled in the world ….”

      Agree that one-sided history shades off into propaganda….

  2. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 03/26/2016 - 08:43 am.

    I Disagree

    I really disagree with her position and the points she attempts to make. I realize you can hand-pick quotes from select people of color from the 1900s and the 50s and 60s who appear to agree with you. I also find it true to form that the only positive school she cites comes from the private sector.

    I think any public school educator worth their salt will tell you the curriculum for all the students that come through their doors needs to be relevant to the students and families it serves. We need to honor the various cultures that have always been here, like Native Americans, and respect those who now come here from all over the world for a better life.

    There is some history here which includes the beating of Native Americans for speaking their own language and a recent beating here in the Twin Cities at an Applebees of a Somalian woman who spoke in her native language. If we don’t honor these cultures in our public schools where do we?

    The honest debate we have had for some time is to find a balance between honoring those cultures and emphasizing the core subjects needed to graduate. Forced immersion into the white European view of the universe is hardly debatable in 2016.

    Frankly, Ms. Kersten gets enough coverage in the Star Tribune. I would prefer that MinnPost highlight recent academic research on this topic and that we hear from well respected voices in the public education sector. This is old news and old rhetoric from Ms. Kersten.

  3. Submitted by John Egekrout on 03/26/2016 - 08:44 am.

    either/or thinking

    I am usually on the opposing side to Ms. Kersten, but in this case I am not, at least not completely. Cultural relevant pedagogy is important, but so is knowing how to read, perform basic math functions, being able to communicate, Why does this have to be pitched as an either/or proposition? Can’t students have a culturally relevant curriculum AND know how to function in the world with basic academic skills?

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/26/2016 - 09:11 am.

    “W.E.B. Du Bois, another great black social reformer, voiced a similar conviction in “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903. “Can there be any possible solution” to the problem of black social advance “other than by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past?” he asked. Du Bois drew inspiration from thinkers ranging from Shakespeare and Aristotle to the French novelist Balzac.”

    As, it would seem, Ms. Kersten draws inspiration from Mr. DuBois. Why should the inspiration she draws from black authors be denied to the rest of us?

  5. Submitted by kay kessel on 03/26/2016 - 09:53 am.

    Katherine Kersen’s beliefs

    I looked at the faculty at the Center for American Experiment and there are too few people of color right in their think tank. Kersten has always critiqued the Mpls Public Schools. She should go and spend a day and see that the classes developed for the Hispanic students are just part of a very full curriculum taught by teachers who like all the different cultures and students! Those students are part of athletics, music, magnets, and Roosevelt has always had teachers and Administrators that are so caring and hold them to the highest standards. I helped initiate the Medical Magnet at Roosevelt in the early 1990’s and it was specifically designed to help our students of color imagine a medical career. They have to take the higher math and science classes. This is most successful and when my husband had to go to HCMC Emergency room, we were served by my former Medical Magnet students.

    After retirement in 2002, I have gone to the Mn legislature to lobby for education finance and policy with the League of Women Voters. This Center for American Experiment staff have never been friendly to the Mpls Public Schools.
    I wish Mn Post didn’t have Kersten featured here for she wants to destroy public education and doesn’t care about our racial diversity in Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 03/26/2016 - 09:56 am.

    How about teaching history as it happened good, bad and indifferent? How individuals see themselves inside that history is up to them and each will feel a bit different about it. The group think that has come out of our school system where everyone must feel great about everything is just not how the real world views any issue.

    Having 10-12 grade youngsters go to work places and learn one day a week would completely change our school system. The kids from Cristo Rey will learn more real world work ethic and what it takes to be a good employee or good employer in that one day than 4 in school.

    Teachers jobs are to teach the children HOW to read, write, do math and cognitive thinking- WHAT they learn should be up to their parents. This current system of deciding what other folks children should think or feel has led to America falling from top of educational countries to bottom. Note to teachers- not everyone thinks or feels like you.

  7. Submitted by Jim Smola on 03/26/2016 - 10:55 am.

    Problematic

    What I find troubling with Ms Kersten’s article is that she never went to the school and talked to the school officials or students about the program. In my opinion she is simply making uneducated speculation about the program.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/26/2016 - 11:39 am.

    There is only one history

    Mr. Schoch didn’t go far enough to acknowledge that “culturally relevant” education is in fact distortion of history rather than enrichment of it even though he did say that western civilization is “unrivaled in the world.” Of course, his bringing slavery and Stalin (by the way, Stalin’s pogroms is a weird combination of two irrelevant words), that has nothing to do with cultural relevancy – those are just historical facts that should be taught in normal history. But “cultural relevance” approach leads to the AP US History book to include some obscure feminists and omit Chaplin and Gershwin. It leads to spending a lion’s share of Social Studies in elementary and middle school on Indians rather than the world but without ever mentioning a practice of scalping. In other words, “culturally relevant” education is not education but indoctrination.

    Mr. Muller, do you not believe in democracy which was brought to us by Western Civilization?

    Mr. Carlson, we have no obligations to honor all cultures even though we should have to respect all people, at least initially. Cultures are not equal, the same as people are not the same, and some contributed more to civilization than others. Why is it so difficult to admit this?

    Mr. Foster, inspiration should come from people regardless of their color and based only on their character (isn’t it what Dr. King wanted?) Why can’t students of other cultures find inspiration in white people?

    Ms. Kessel, how come you don’t want to know what Ms. Kersten thinks?

  9. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 03/26/2016 - 12:06 pm.

    And now for some actual research…

    There is a large body of research that shows that when schools take affirmative steps to help students of color see how people from their backgrounds have made important contributions to society and especially that they have valued school and succeeded academically, it significantly improves their academic outcomes. Those objectives are central to the culturally relevant pedagogy to which Ms. Kersten refers but which she does not describe at all accurately. To cite just one very recent example of the benefits of that approach when it is well implemented, a recent study by respected economist Thomas Dee and a colleague at Stanford University found that participation of high school students in ethnic studies courses in San Francisco “increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students” (Dee & Penner, 2016, abstract). Dee and Penner go on to conclude that ”Overall, our findings indicate that a culturally relevant curriculum implemented in a strongly supportive context can be highly effective at improving outcomes among a diverse group of academically at-risk students” (Dee & Penner, 2016, p. 3).

    These two authors, unlike Kersten, are not ideologues broadcasting their opinions without support from data or research.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/27/2016 - 10:40 am.

      A few points

      Unfortunately the research you are citing is not available for free viewing but quite a few of similar ones are ideologically driven because college professors may, and quite often are, ideologues and one does not need to go far to prove it: Just read the textbooks they write as mentioned in my previous post. Since I can’t talk about this research in particular, I can only provide some generic points I suspect are correct. First, it is quite possible that all the grades and other numbers were inflated as it often happens when a program is introduced and the initiators want to make sure it looks good. And second, there is no doubt that when kids hear about racism, oppression, and bad influence of the white culture all the time, they may be doing a little better in the environment that is described in the research. However, that is created artificially and the end result is worse than it could have been if everyone were learning the actual history without diminishing some aspects and overstating the others. To certain degree that may be compared to a placebo effect. Plus, of course, when we are talking about “ethnic studies,” it is always African American and Latino ones; how come Asian Americans are doing so well without them?

      • Submitted by Kent Pekel on 03/28/2016 - 11:25 am.

        Here is a link to the paper, which you’d have to spend $5 to read at present but which will soon be published in a journal: http://www.nber.org/papers/w21865. Asian kids actually figured prominently in the improvements. I will try to remember to post a note here when the full study is published. If you email me at Search Institute I’d be glad to share the paper. They tried very hard to control for the biases you mention in your note. Thanks for the response.

  10. Submitted by Keith Kowalsky on 03/26/2016 - 12:43 pm.

    Douglass and De Bois did it! What is wrong with you?

    Of course Douglass and De Bois learned from the scholars of European culture. What other choices were available at the time? They were trying to succeed in a society that only valued European thought (and only some European thought, at that). Ms. Kersten is (unknowingly?) highlighting that a very limited number of extraordinary people were able to learn from culturally foreign sources and apply that way of thinking to their own very different situation. Because a very gifted few were able to do it – it works for everyone!

    What Douglass and De Bois learned from these cited poets and philosophers wasn’t how to be doctors and lawyers, or even janitors. They were able to make very large crosscultural leaps to learn the most important lesson our schools can teach – self worth. Wouldn’t it be much easier to teach that lesson using a model that is immediately relatable. A school that tries to teach students math before self worth is dooming most of those students to failure. Dooming all but an extraordinary and gifted few that are able to attain self worth from a well wired brain. Dooming all but an extraordinary and gifted few that we like to hold up as examples of how our society is so wonderfully inclusive. Douglass and De Bois did it – what is wrong with you?

  11. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 03/27/2016 - 01:14 am.

    The Hidden Point

    Kersten’s underlying point, though not quite stated, is worth teasing out.

    What she terms “the larger society” represents history’s WINNERS, and developing a “multicultural vision” is code for celebrating the LOSERS. Exploring cultural history, in her view, merely teaches students what “sets them apart from other Americans.” That is, it only shows them why their cultural heritage dooms them to permanent outsider status. The obvious goal to Kersten is to leave all aspects of the losing, non-dominant culture behind, in order to be subsumed into the mainstream — which she sees as obviously better in every way.

    In her euro-centric myopia, she simply can see no value in bringing forward elements of cultures which did not become dominant. There is no way in which “losing” cultures could usefully inform the “winning” culture. She thinks that such an education would be worse than irrelevant, and actually damaging. To her mind, such an education merely “tends to freeze people where the accident of birth has placed them,” and could never do, or contribute to, anything positive.

    I’m always a little bit shocked at how thinly she veils such terribly backward (and poorly-reasoned) thinking — and that she apparently gets paid for it, too.

    Frankly, any pedagogy which is not culturally relevant is doomed to failure. This is why standards-based teaching/testing, written by and for history’s “winners,” and thus highly culturally relevant to them and them alone, continually places minorities at a demonstrable disadvantage. Cristo Rey is to be commended if they have found a way to compensate, but they would be a very rare exception.

    Likewise, any pedagogy which does not instill critical thinking along with fundamental life skills is also doomed to failure. Unfortunately, standards-based teaching/testing does not measure, or even pretend to measure, critical thinking ability. Its all-consuming focus on rote learning and high-stakes testing is the very antithesis of reason. (Reading comprehension and critical thinking are very different animals.)

    The ideal pedagogy blends all of these elements and is tailored to the needs — cultural and otherwise — of the student. Standards-based teaching/testing represents the worst of a one-size-fits-all education, treating it as an assembly line process which, if tuned and efficient, will supposedly realize the same results in every student who passes through the line. Obviously, Kersten thinks that the line, if properly run, can result in productive workers, but is that the goal of education? I sincerely hope not.

    Even setting that question aside, the notion that we should limit or dismiss cultural exploration in education in the name of assimilation is offensive to the core.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/27/2016 - 10:41 am.

      Winners and losers

      The “loosing” cultures, as you refer to them, did and do influence the “winning” cultures because the history is a constant interaction of cultures (obviously, Ancient Greek and Roman cultures influenced the European cultures a great deal even though they were the “loosing” cultures at that time. What you and all “ethnic studies” and “cultural relevance” fans are trying to do is pretend that the “loosing” cultures are actually the “winning” ones thus distorting history and doing a great disservice to everyone. Did Indians influenced American (read: Western) civilization? Of course they did – half of American geographical names are derived from Indians and there are plenty of other ways as well. But pretending (and teaching) that their culture was superior to the Western civilization is ridiculous.

      I would also like you to explain to me why Asian students are doing so well (better than whites) on all those SAT’s and ACT’s which are supposedly not “culturally relevant” for them? You are correct that critical thinking is the most important thing the schools should teach. But a critical thinker should ask the question: why some cultures are winners and some are losers?

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/27/2016 - 07:15 am.

    Teachers

    “vision of education as “the best that has been thought and said” to lift destitute immigrant children into the American mainstream in the early 20th century”

    Do we think this is true? Is this what a principal would tell a teacher in the morning before starting a work day? Is this what we would want a teacher to learn in a continuing education center? Does it give insight to handling the kid in the back row who doesn’t want to turn off his phone?

    Katherine Kersten columns are noble, and always full of the most eloquent posturing but they rarely have anything to do with the substantive problem at hand.

  13. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/27/2016 - 08:44 am.

    KK and the standard manifesto?

    …then again, should be pleased to see KK exposing herself again with the same old attitudes, such as the Minn Blue Print once promoted so zealously?

    But please note..Center of the American Experiment’s blueprint has faded to grey? Once again a most weak position trying to control or deny the history of all Americans, not just the few she recognizes?

    Native Americans were ‘schooled’: contained; programmed to deny their roots. Is such a practice to be reviewed, accepted again so subtly…, and one could even say there exists the droppings of the theory of a master race shadings here, again? Take an idea to its zenith and that’s it folks?

    I suggest the idea proposed, the elimination process Kersten defines, has the possibility of ancient roots coming back to haunt us?

    Sometimes it’s better to sit in the park and feed the pigeons KK…even then they may not eat your crumbs…god bless, whomever…

  14. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/27/2016 - 04:53 pm.

    Cristo Rey

    I’ve heard nothing but good about Cristo Rey, and by all accounts it is a success. (I say this without first hand experience with the institution.)

    Conservatives love to tout Cristo Rey’s success, especially in relation to MPLS public schools. One facet that seems to be a key to the success of Cristo Rey and it’s students is the very intense involvement of the business community. It’s great the business community has stepped up to aid students from academically challenging back grounds, but if that success is to replicated in the dozens of schools in MN that teach similar students, I have serious doubts that the business community is able or willing to increase their participation to that degree.

    Keep that in mind when anyone like Kathy Kersten holds up Cristo Rey as an example to emulate.

  15. Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/28/2016 - 09:19 am.

    Leaving aside the purported topic of culture and pedagogy,

    Which everyone above is capably considering, I wanted to note the glaring and, of course, tendentious non sequitur in the middle of Ms Kersten’s piece of which only Mr. Prescott, in his thoughtful comment, appears to take some note.

    She writes: “Freire dismissed academic learning as mere “official knowledge” that oppressors use to rationalize inequality in capitalist societies. How does a pedagogical approach grounded in such a perspective prepare American students for success in 2016?”

    This doesn’t have anything to do with the topic of “culturally relevant pedagogy,” but is simply saying that the educational system should stay far away from teaching students to question what constitutes “knowledge” as dispensed by those who hold economic and political power, and hence power over the discourse, in our society. At least Ms. Kersten is willing to be explicit as to what appears to be her central aim: to keep students from learning to think critically about why wealth and power are distributed as they are, and whether it might possibly be otherwise.

  16. Submitted by Elisa Wright on 03/28/2016 - 04:54 pm.

    No tiene sentido…

    There is so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where to start.

    I don’t think the above are very good examples of classical vs multicultural education. Cristo Rey is a private Catholic high school. That means they can choose their students. All of their students have to apply to the school. They accept (according to their website) 70-75% of them. That makes a huge difference right there. It is also easier to discipline, suspend, or expel students.

    IMO the religious instruction helps. Catholicism is big in Latin America. We could even say it is culturally appropriate. Public schools can’t do that.

    The school itself is smaller. Roosevelt has 794 students. Cristo Rey has 358 students.

    Also, there are a few inaccuracies in the above assessment. Cristo Rey says that 100% of their graduates are accepted to college OR the military.

    I’d keep going, but I’m out of time.

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