Culturally responsive education under ESSA: A state-by-state snapshot 

A growing number of states are promoting culturally responsive practices through the accountability systems codified in their ESSA plans.  


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has given states new opportunities to establish their own goals for teaching and learning in the public schools, and to create accountability systems that are broader and more meaningful than standardized test scores alone. For example, many states have taken steps to measure and assess factors such as school climate and culture, discipline practices, and student access to the most challenging curriculum.  

Critical to these broader approaches to thinking about accountability is the role of culture within schools and classrooms. The push for more culturally responsive education acknowledges that in a racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse society, teachers can best educate students when they appreciate the culturally defined experiences and understandings students bring with them to school. At the heart of such culturally responsive teaching are educator-to-student relationships that honor the uniqueness of each student and build both trust and a sense of care. Decades of interdisciplinary scholarship in education, most notably the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, find that the most powerful and equitable learning begins in these efforts to make schools more culturally responsive, relevant, and sustaining. To do this work well, educators must be culturally competent. 

Thus, we examined all 50 state ESSA plans submitted to the Department of Education (available at, looking for references to culturally responsive practices and programs, as well as the importance of recruiting and developing culturally responsive or relevant — or at least culturally “competent” — educators. We completed this work as part of Reimagining Education: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Schools, a summer institute  held at Teachers College, Columbia University, in July 2019, which draws hundreds of educators from across the country to New York every summer to learn how to be more culturally responsive in their practice ( 

The map on p. 28 shows which states have included some aspect of cultural responsiveness or competence in their plans. In most cases, these requirements are found in the state plans under Title II Part A, “Supporting Effective Instruction,” or Part B, “National Activities.” We have also included quotes from some of those plans to show how states are addressing the need for this type of teaching. 

Under ESSA, most state accountability systems continue to emphasize standardized testing, which tends not to be culturally responsive. The good news, however, is that ESSA has created the flexibility to allow states to reimagine education by broadening their understanding of good schools and good teaching, which is critical in an increasingly racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse nation. 


“Districts’ practices that use culturally relevant instructional practices and resources, especially in meeting the needs of minority students who are also English learners, will be shared” (p. 76). 



“Increase district WSI [Workforce Stability Index] through the use of effective strategies such as improved recruiting and placement practices, and cultural responsiveness” (p. 99). 



“The statewide system of support will incorporate an equity planning process that brings LEA [local education agency] stakeholder teams together to build expertise and capacity in the areas of access, equity, and cultural competence” (p. 109). 



Colorado Department of Education “will continue to offer professional learning opportunities for teachers and district administrators that enable them to meet the needs of English learners (ELs) through culturally responsive practices” (p. 98). 



“Mandatory training module in fidelity of implementation, progress monitoring, culturally responsive pedagogy” (p. 30) 



“Development and/or acquisition and dissemination of culturally relevant and sensitive curriculum and informational materials” (p. 144). 



“Provide math programming that focuses on rigor and cultural relevance” (p. 37). 



“The core values of the system of care philosophy specify that services should be community-based, child-centered and family-focused, and culturally and linguistically competent” (p. 56). 



“The aim of the professional development is to raise cultural awareness, identify available resources and share culturally-responsive instructional strategies, interventions and inclusive practices to reach all students” (p. 92). 



Illinois State Board of Education “is committed to using Title II dollars in order to: . . . Continue to build upon the resources for family/caretaker and community engagement; social and emotional learning; cultural, racial, and socio-economic competence; conflict management; trauma and behavioral health issues; restorative practices; cultural competence; anti-racism; recognizing implicit bias; and actualizing anti-bias approaches” (p. 97). 



“Indiana will purposefully meet the unique needs of the whole student through effective partnerships in order to provide a flexible, equitable, and culturally responsive learning environment” (p. 92). 



“In an effort to assist schools and districts focus on equity, KDE [Kentucky Department of Education] is committed to providing training, support and assistance aimed at bringing an awareness of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) for all students” (p. 109). 



“The competencies specifically include expectations relative to: . . . The need for new teachers to be culturally responsive in their teaching practice” (p. 75). 



Maryland State Department of Education “and stakeholder groups are also revising and/or refining requirements for. . . pedagogy with intentional focus on cultural competency and relationship-based classroom management” (p. 67). 



“The Department strongly recommends sustained professional development and collaborative learning around issues of cultural competency and SEL” (p. 76). 



“As MDE [Michigan Department of Education] develops, acquires, and disseminates curriculum and instructional materials we consider cultural relevance and abilities of the intended audiences to meaningfully understand; reasonable efforts are taken to overcome any barriers” (p. 164). 



“Pedagogy — meets/exceeds professional teaching standards, standards-based and culturally relevant instructional and assessment practices, etc.” (p. 1). 



“In addition, it is also important that all teachers in the state become culturally responsive in their practice” (p. 69). 



“Supporting culturally responsive practices, particularly for American Indian communities” (p. 31). 



“Develop outcome-oriented performance metrics that will be utilized to measure the impact of professional learning in areas such as standards-based, data-driven, and differentiated instruction, equitable access to high quality instruction, cultural competence, and the effective leveraging of resources to address equity and excellence” (p. 164). 



“Nevada will strive to provide equitable access to a well rounded education to all students including rigorous academic and other program options . . . music and arts programs to include culturally relevant experiences, athletics and physical education programs, and educational technology options” (p. 85). 


New Mexico 

“EPICS is contracted to: work with RDA [Results-Driven Accountability] schools’ principals and leadership teams to develop and implement culturally meaningful family engagement activities, hold summer programs, and translate NMPED [New Mexico Public Education Department] documents into Navajo” (p. 48). 


New York 

“The team of reviewers will examine curricula to ensure that they are culturally responsive, in addition to meeting with students and their families to learn how the school is delivering culturally responsive educational offerings” (p. 87). 


North Carolina 

“Steps taken at the local level to ensure equitable access may include, but are not limited to: . . . promoting responsiveness to cultural differences” (p. 174). 



“State support team members are trained in evidence-based, culturally relevant strategies for reaching diverse learners and provide targeted regional professional development to administrators and educators starting in prekindergarten” (p. 90). 



“Representatives from tribal associations and LEA Indian education directors shared successes within their communities that have lifted outcomes for Native students as well as provided suggestions on culturally relevant teacher training” (p. 35). 



All programs must be based on emerging research related to culturally-responsive program adaptation to ensure relevancy across the spectrum of diverse youth the Council serves” (p. 92). 



“Educator preparation, induction, and professional development programs should emphasize ongoing, continuous improvement as well as cultural competency and promoting equity to ensure that all students are able to learn in a safe and supportive environment” (p. 5). 


Rhode Island 

“One of the Educator Preparation Standards, 1.6, addresses the need for educators to demonstrate cultural competence and culturally responsive skills that assure they can be effective with a diverse student population, parents, and the community” (p. 73). 


South Dakota 

“Access to a well-rounded education could include access to cultural competency — including discussions of cultural heritage” (p. 31). 



“Priority 8: Implement ESL and cultural awareness training for all teachers and staff working with migrant students” (p. 54). 



“Develop outcome-oriented performance metrics that will be utilized to measure the impact of the professional learning in areas such as standards-based, data-driven, and differentiated instruction, equitable access to high quality instruction, cultural competence, subject and content-specific issues, and the effective leveraging of resources to address equity and excellence” (p. 118). 



“Provide opportunities for professional learning for educators around areas such as diversity, trauma, cultural competence, equity, positive discipline and restorative justice” (p. 188). 



“A key program objective for Title I, Part D is to provide educational support to facilities and LEAs to help reduce racial achievement gaps with at least 50% of facility teachers and decision makers in attendance for at least one equity or culturally responsive practices training by 2020” (p. 73). 



“It is the WDE’s [Washington Department of Education’s] goal to promote systems and strategies that foster safe, positive, healthy, culturally competent, and inclusive learning environments and address students’ varied needs in order to improve educational outcomes for all students” (p. 52). 


Citation: Schettino, I., Radvany, K., & Wells, M.S. (2019, Sept. 23). Culturally responsive education under ESSA: A state-by-state snapshot. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (2), 27-30.

ISABELA SCHETTINO is a student at Barnard College, New York, N.Y,
KATHERINE RADVANY ( is a student at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
AMY STUART WELLS (; @ReimagineEdTC) is a professor of sociology and education and director of the Reimaging Education Summer Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY.

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