Considering ‘cultural competence’

Amid a national debate and competing local pressures, what does the future hold?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Waiting for ‘Superman’" has reignited a national conversation about what makes for effective teaching.

But in the back-and-forth debate about hot-button issues like teacher unions and performance pay, the importance of the "cultural competence" of school staff has been largely overlooked.

What is "cultural competence?" And moving forward, what role is it likely to play in how Philadelphia schools think about good teaching?

A question of trust

According to New York University education professor Pedro Noguera, who works as a consultant for the School District, the term "refers to the ability of school personnel to work effectively with students and parents from different backgrounds."

For teachers, it encompasses a sometimes-murky collection of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that allow them to understand and address both their own biases and the uniqueness of each student.

Likewise, schools and school districts can be said to be culturally competent when they have in place "policies, procedures, and systems … that allow them to harness the talents of people across their organization," said Howie Schaffer, the vice president of Cook Ross, a consulting firm specializing in the topic.

The whole notion matters, said Schaffer, because in order to achieve, students have to trust that schools understand them and have their best interests at heart.

Locally, the debate about how to improve teaching and learning – and, by extension, the extent to which "cultural competence" will be emphasized by a District with over 85 percent of students of color – is being played out on a few key fronts.

At 13 low-performing "Renaissance Schools," the District has put in place a "turnaround" plan aimed at reversing long histories of failure. The lessons learned at seven new Renaissance charters and six new District-run Renaissance Promise Academies are likely to be applied at other struggling schools.

At the District’s central office, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her staff are wrestling with the findings from a series of commissions and reports on vexing issues like "racial and cultural harmony," the high dropout rate of African-American and Latino boys, and the system’s persistently dangerous schools. Also at issue is the makeup of the teacher workforce itself. The number of educators of color continues to decline and now represents less than a third of the District’s teachers.

How each front unfolds may shape the ways in which cultural competence is prioritized in Philadelphia in years to come.

Renaissance models

The District’s 13 new Renaissance Schools are a closely watched proving ground.

Early on, there are clear signs of the "policies, procedures, and systems" described by Schaffer as essential to culturally competent organizations.

At Mastery Charter Schools, which is managing three of the turnarounds, prospective teachers’ beliefs about whether all children can learn – and whether teachers should be held responsible for their students’ outcomes – are more important than traditional indicators like certification status.

Mastery’s hiring strategy embodies one central tenet of cultural competence: that all teachers should have high expectations for all students.

At the District’s Promise Academies, staff did community walks before the start of the school year, laying the groundwork for dialogue and partnerships with neighboring churches, businesses, and residents.

"Getting to know who is in [students’] families, who is in [their] neighborhoods – that’s our approach," explained Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran.

Such efforts reflect another dimension of organizational cultural competence – developing strong, collaborative relationships with parents and community members.

And at Stetson Middle School, ASPIRA of PA brings to its new management role a commitment to using education to build leadership within the surrounding community. This approach includes the goal of creating a school staff that mirrors the demographics of Stetson’s student body.

"The only way to improve a community is by building from within," stressed ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon. Having a staff that is reflective of students’ backgrounds "shows the kids that people just like you can be successful," he explained.

In the classroom

But at the level of individual Renaissance classrooms, an emphasis on culturally competent teaching is less evident.

The instructional models of the Renaissance providers as a whole largely reflect a move away from "student-centered" teaching, driven by students’ experiences and interests, and towards more remediation of basic skills and standards-based direct instruction.

The Promise Academies, for example, use heavy doses of Corrective Reading and Math, scripted curricula that allow for little teacher autonomy.

And Mastery explicitly rejects the arguments of some scholars of cultural competence that effective educators see teaching "as an art rather than a technical skill." Instead, Mastery’s instructional model is based on techniques that it maintains will work in any classroom, in any subject, with students from any cultural background.

The Renaissance initiative will expand this year, with more schools set to be matched with "turnaround teams" next spring.

But what, if any, lessons about "cultural competence" will the District draw from its current turnarounds, and how will cultural competence fit on the agenda for school improvement for the roughly 250 schools that are so far not part of the Renaissance process?

Judging by the flurry of reports and recommendations that followed last year’s brutal attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School – and the negative publicity that resulted – District leadership is at least paying attention to the issue.

Last year, for example, the District added "Diversity Awareness, Inclusion and Cultural Competency" to the list of core standards it uses to evaluate most educators.

And the District’s professional development includes a focus on cultural competence. It is a "major component" of a new teacher induction program which all new District educators are required to complete.

"We talk about diverse students and how to work with them," said Rosalind Jones-Johnson, director of education for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund. "Not just cultural groups, but really focusing in on individual students, because you can have two Latino students and two African-American students in the same classroom that could have very different issues. So we encourage our teachers to get to know the students one-on-one."

District leadership has taken initiative in other areas. School Reform Commissioners Robert Archie and Johnny Irizarry, for example, spearheaded the District’s Black and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce, which has flagged the lack of engagement of young men of color as a critical academic issue and proposed a variety of responses, including establishing some single-sex classrooms.

Given the raging national debate about effective teaching and the high-stakes, data-driven environment in which all schools and teachers now operate, however, it’s unclear how long a hard-to-quantify concept like cultural competence will remain on the District’s radar.

"In a heightened accountability environment," said Schaffer, "it can be difficult to see the whole person, not just a test score."