Culturally Responsive Leadership – Part 2 of 3

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Schoolkids raising their hands in classroom

This is the second part of a three part series exploring Culturally Responsive School Leadership (CRSL): Why do our school sites need CRSL and how can it be implemented or practiced. Please note that CRSL is not just for administrators. It is meant for anyone who practices leadership on their school campus.

School reform is never ending and while intentions to ensure that all students succeed in school are set within all initiatives, it appears that many of our students continue to drop out of school, not proceed into the job market with needed skills and dispositions, and not attend two or four year colleges and universities. As shared in the previous blog post, there is a growing opportunity and academic gap for students of color. Additionally, there is a documented School to Prison Pipeline. Heitzag (2009) defines the school to prison pipeline as the growing pattern of tracking students out of the educational system and directly into the juvenile criminal system. Tracking within education is not new and presents many challenges (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006); however, the pattern of moving students from low tracks or basic skills courses into the juvenile criminal system is fairly recent and racially biased (Heitzag, 2009; NAACP, 2005; Advancement Project, 2006; Children’s Defense Fund, 2007). The school to prison pipeline is directly linked to school discipline policies (Heitzag, 2009; NAACP, 2005; Advancement Project, 2006; Children’s Defense Fund, 2007). Heitzag (2009) is quick to note the change to zero-tolerance discipline policies in the K-12 system is influenced by the growth of the prison industrial complex and policies created in order to fill or supply the 3,300 jails, 1,500 state prisons, and 100 Federal prisons.

Low achievement in school has been linked to discipline policies within schools as well. The disproportionality of Black students being two to three times overrepresented in school suspensions as compared to their White peers, has been documented since 1975 (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). A study of 74,000 10th graders across the US found that 50% of Black students reported being suspended or expelled in comparison to 20% of White students (Wallace et al., 2008). Wallace et al. (2008) also found Native American Indians to be suspended at higher rates than White students. When a student is expelled or suspended, he loses class time and becomes less invested within the process of learning (Gergory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). Lost class time leads to low achievement, and since more Black, Latino, and Native American Indian students are suspended or expelled there is a direct connection to the racial achievement gap. In a comparative study of suspended versus non-suspended students demographically matched cohorts of students, Arcia (2006) found that during year one after a suspension, students were two years behind their non-suspended peers in regards to literacy; and two years later, the suspended students were five years behind their peers.

The need for culturally responsive school leadership is key. How does a teacher, teacher leader, and school leader become culturally responsive? The transformation begins with critical self reflection. Here are a few key areas to support beginning the reflection process:

  • Know and acknowledge who you are as a teacher and leader.
  • Commit to continuing to learn about cultural knowledge and contexts different than your own. Who are the students, parents, guardians, and community members? How can you learn from them directly? How can they support measuring culturally responsive practices at your site?
  • Grow and practice critical consciousness (Virginia Lea has a book that can help: Constructing Critical Consciousness: Narratives that Unmasks Hegemony and Ideas for Creating Greater Equity in Education). Growing a critical consciousness will support challenge Whiteness and hegemonic epistemologies in school policies, practices, etc.
  • Learn about, create, and conduct equity audits to measure inclusiveness on campus, in classrooms, and in school activities.
  • Analyze and use school data to determine who is not receiving the needed supports to succeed, use the data to measure culturally responsive practices.
  • Lead with courage and from a transformative perspective.

Once you begin to dig into the systems which maintain the status quo, you may begin to ask yourself, “What do I do?” In part three of this series, we will look at actional steps school leaders can take at their sites.

If you are interested in any of the readings mentioned in this article, please see the following:

  • Advancement Project. 2005. Education on Lockdown: The School to Jailhouse Track, Washington, D.C.
  • Arcia, E. (2006). Achievement and enrollment status of suspended students: Outcomes in a large, multicultural school district. Education and Urban Society, 38, 359-369.
  • Children‘s Defense Fund. 2007. America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Washington DC: CDF
  • Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher,39(1), 59–68. doi:10.3102/0013189×09357621
  • Heitzeg, N. A. (2009). Forum on public policy ―Education or incarceration: Zero tolerance policies and the school to prison pipeline “. Retrieved from
  • NAACP. 2005. Interrupting the School to Prison Pipe-line. Washington DC.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Wallace, J. M., Jr., Goodkind, S., Wallace, C. M., & Bachman, J. G. (2008). Racial, ethnic, and gender differences in school discipline among U.S. high school students: 1991-2005. Negro EducationalReview, 59, 47-62

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