Thinking Beyond the Deficit Model: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and the Achievement Gap

Executive Summary

Despite the passage of numerous federal education reforms, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the racial achievement gap has narrowed at an extremely slow rate since 2001. In fact, federal accountability schema have exacerbated persistent racial inequalities, as manifested through punitive discipline and high dropout rates. This is because policymakers have failed to move beyond a deficit model of student achievement, where difference is considered a hindrance to educational equality. In this policy brief, we advocate for the opposite approach: policies that promote culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP), which elevates cultural difference as a source of academic excellence. After explaining the theoretical foundations of CRP, we present policy proposals for the integration of CRP in two major domains, (1) professional development (including curriculum construction) and (2) pre-service/new teacher training and induction. Finally, we address challenges of implementation and make a case for the urgency of culturally responsive pedagogy.

Introduction: The Need for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Although the racial “achievement gap,” or disparity in academic performance between students of color and their white counterparts, is a well-documented area of concern, nationalized policy efforts to close the gap have been largely unsuccessful. With the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), federal education policy invested significant resources in closing the achievement gap. In a pivotal address on improving the education system, former President George W. Bush said: “Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less — the soft bigotry of low expectations” (New York Times, 1999). With Bush came a new rhetoric of high expectations, no excuses, and increased accountability. Rather than critically engage with and account for racial and socioeconomic disparities through the creation of locally and culturally responsive policies, Bush’s reforms sought to bring every student to the same level of educational achievement by standardizing curricula irrespective of background, race, and class.

To this end, NCLB required schools and districts to disaggregate student achievement data by race and class to facilitate increased accountability and effective comparisons between student groups (Ansell, 2011). This disaggregated data revealed a wide gap in student achievement across lines of race and class. As of 2011, black and Hispanic students scored over 20 points lower on NAEP math and reading assessments at 4th and 8th grade levels, putting them almost two grade levels behind their white peers (Ansell, 2011). Though recent NAEP data shows that the achievement gap has narrowed slightly in recent years (see Figure 1), neither NCLB nor Obama’s more recent Race to the Top initiative have made a sizable impact on the gap. Despite reform efforts, the rate of improvement remains unacceptably slow.

Figure 1: NAEP reading scores for black and white students from 1992 -2013 showing a slight but inconsistent narrowing of the racial achievement gap. Source: Chen 2014, Public School Review

While the color-blind logic of Bush’s high expectations rhetoric ostensibly levels the playing field, in reality the policy’s disregard for legacies of institutionalized inequality has done precisely the reverse. Au (2009) argues that, despite the “high-minded rhetoric” around high-stakes testing as means to ensure equity, achievement data suggests that systems of high-stakes, standardized testing are exacerbating rather than alleviating the inequalities they purportedly measure (p. 5). The Advancement Project (2010) echoes Au’s assessment: not only has high-stakes testing failed to close the achievement gap, this “test and punish approach” has had devastating effects on communities of color and low-income students. Since the passage of NCLB, racial disparities in school discipline have become more extreme, with more students of color being suspended or expelled relative to their white peers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of black students expelled nationwide rose thirty-three percent from 2002-2003 school-year (the year following the passage of NCLB) to the 2006-2007 school year (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Nationwide Change in Expulsions per student broken down by race, showing a dramatic uptick in the expulsion of students of color since the passage of NCLB (Data from U.S. Department of Education, Graph from Advancement Project 2010)

The no-excuses logic of high expectations has translated into zero-tolerance policies and stricter—often racially coded—discipline practices. According to the Civil Rights Project survey of national discipline practices in 2012, one in every six black students enrolled in a K-12 public school was suspended at least once compared to one out of every twenty white students. For black students with disabilities, the numbers are even more sobering, with one of every four black students with disabilities experiencing suspension at least once in the 2009-2010 school year (Losen and Gillespie, 2012). With this increase in high-stakes, punitive testing and racially disproportionate discipline has come an increase in high school dropout rates as more students of color are failing to graduate (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Changes in graduation rates from 1996-2002 broken down by number of districts. (Data from U.S. Department of Education, Graph from Advancement Project 2010)
Figures 4: Changes in graduation rates from 2002-2006 broken down by number of districts. (Data from U.S. Department of Education, Graph from Advancement Project 2010)

The Deficit Model

Many critics and policymakers blame the persistence of the achievement gap not on these harsh discipline practices or grueling testing regimes, but rather on the continued low expectations of educators—that “soft bigotry” that President Bush condemned back in 1999. The suggestion that teachers’ implicit racial biases results in them making excuses for students of color and holding them to lower expectations than their white counterparts has been the subject of considerable debate and scholarship. Educational scholar and author Lisa Delpit opens her book, Other People’s Children, with a series of anecdotes capturing this phenomenon. Delpit recounts one African American mother’s frustrations advocating on behalf of her son. Though she had checked in with her son’s teachers repeatedly over the course of the semester to ensure that he was keeping up in school, his end of term grades were shockingly low—something none of the teachers had brought to her attention. Delpit writes that when the mother asked teachers “how they could have said he was doing fine when his grades were so low, each of them gave her some version of the same answer: ‘Why are you so upset? For him, Cs are great. You shouldn’t try to push him so much’” (Delpit 1995, p. xiii). These low-expectations are grounded in the belief that communities of color are deficient in some way and that students, being the product of these deficient communities, cannot be held to the same standards as their white peers because of how much they have to overcome. Case studies and anecdotal evidence of this “deficit model” in practice are abundant in educational literature, but there is considerable disagreement about what policy initiatives most effectively counteract these low-expectations.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: The Case Against Standardization

While advocates of high-stakes testing and increased standardization often point to accountability measures as an effective response to the deficit model, we suggest precisely the reverse. Rather than pursue standardization, educators should recognize that histories of racial and socioeconomic exclusion continue to shape opportunities for access in today’s society, and they should structure curricula and accountability practices to reflect that reality. As Au notes, standardized testing regimes ignore the realities of local conditions and historical contexts that critically impact student performance. In this way, “systems of high-stakes testing effectively mask the existence of social relations and structural inequalities… that persist in [students’] lives, resulting in what some have called the ‘new eugenics’” (Au, 2009, p. 43). Delpit echoes Au’s critique, arguing that the proliferation of new reforms and accountability standards can only do so much. Delpit believes that national reforms that seek to erase differences between students will never close the achievement gap. Instead, she argues that schools should facilitate “basic understandings of who we are and how we are connected to and disconnected from one another” (Delpit, 1995, p. xv). To this end, we advocate for the incorporation of culturally-responsive pedagogical practices in professional development, curriculum construction, and new teacher induction and training.

Theoretical Background of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Ladson-Billings (1995) achieved a major breakthrough in teacher education when she proposed a theory of “culturally relevant pedagogy” with three major goals.

  • CRP should support students in attaining higher levels of academic achievement, as measured by standardized testing. Although the value of standardized tests is controversial, Ladson-Billings affirms that because students and teachers are evaluated by those standards, any pedagogical technique must allow students to do well on them.
  • CRP should develop students’ cultural competence. Noting research that academically successful African-American students tended to be socially isolated from their peers of all races, Ladson-Billings argued that CRP should allow students to “maintain their cultural integrity” and social connections to their community.
  • CRP should equip students with sociopolitical consciousness to critique injustice; as a teacher educator, Ladson-Billings had noticed prospective teachers’ unwillingness to bring social inequities into the classroom and sought to reverse that trend.

In a close observation of eight highly successful teachers of African-American students, Ladson-Billings found that three distinct attitudes marked a successful culturally responsive pedagogy. First, teachers conceived of themselves and their students as highly valuable. They saw their profession as both an art and a way to serve the community, where they chose to live and/or spend leisure time. These teachers never used the “language of lacking” (or an emphasis on the student’s disadvantages) to describe their students. Second, teachers structured collaborative social relations between students and presented themselves as learners in partnership with students rather than figures of authority. Finally, although these teachers’ students did well on standardized tests, teachers focused on higher-level conceptions of knowledge. Teachers encouraged their students to adopt a “critical stance” toward the school’s curriculum, asking why they were exploring each new topic and collectively choosing to reject district-approved textbooks for higher quality sources.

Gay (2000) defines CRP as a pedagogy that uses students’ experiences, cultural knowledge, and performance styles to affirm students’ strengths. For Gay, CRP is politically emancipatory because it “releases the intellect of students of color from the constraining manacles of mainstream canons of knowledge and ways of knowing” (p. 35). While Ladson-Billings initially focused on the way teachers delivered content, one of Gay’s major interventions was to assert that all students should learn about the contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx people, and Asian Americans in all subjects. Gay documents the severe absence of curricular materials that appropriately recognize the achievements of people of color. As a solution, she suggests that teachers and students should consider themselves researchers who expose the flaws of existing curricular materials and generate their own materials through archival research, oral histories, cultural exchanges, and visits to multicultural communities and institutions.

Finally,  a recent novel approach to CRP is Christopher Emdin’s “reality pedagogy” (Emdin, 2016). “Reality pedagogy” is focused on understanding how each student, as an individual, is influenced by their cultural heritage. Moreover, Emdin proposes several ways of giving students large amounts of control in the classroom. He urges teachers to have cogenerative dialogues, or discussions with a small group of students about how the classroom environment can be improved (p. 65). He takes Ladson-Billings’s idea of “teacher as learner” even further: he urges teachers to invite students to teach the class, offering them resources but allowing students to create and execute their own lesson plan related to classroom content (Emdin, p.  95). In Emdin’s view, such radical restructurings of power in the classroom are necessary if teachers are to create a school environment that meets students’ needs and validates their identities.

Policy Initiatives

Although there is a rich theoretical literature about culturally responsive pedagogy, there are few tools that equip pre-service and in-service teachers how to implement CRP in their day-to-day teaching activities (Young, 2010). Even more importantly, there is little research on how teacher professional development can successfully empower teachers to use CRP (Sleeter, 2011).  This policy memo suggests district and state level reforms specifically focusing on bringing CRP to professional development and pre-service training.

Professional Development

Morrison et. al. (2008) point out that even though most teacher education programs include readings on CRP, teachers are still unprepared to implement it and consider successful, culturally relevant teaching a “herculean” feat. This is in part because, as described by Ladson-Billings, Gay, and Emdin, CRP calls for a fairly radical and counterintuitive reimagination of the relationship between students and teachers. Young (2010) led a culturally relevant lesson-planning seminar with elementary school teachers, finding that teachers were especially resistant to the “sociopolitical consciousness” element of CRP that Ladson-Billings identifies as crucial. This was in part because teachers deemed their students too young to understand political inequities, but also because teachers themselves did not want to embrace a “critical stance” toward the material they taught. They prioritized getting through the material — especially material that would be on standardized tests — and frequently pointed to limited class time as a barrier to bringing culturally relevant knowledge into their lessons.

Los Angeles implemented the Culturally Relevant and Responsive Education (CRRE) program, one of the largest district-wide initiatives to implement culturally responsive professional development, in the 2005-2006 school year. The program focused on helping teachers move past the deficit model: by the end of the trainings, teachers were expected to hold all students to high standards, provide equitable access to learning resources, embrace social-emotional learning, and center students’ knowledge in lessons (Patton, 2011). However, Los Angeles’s program omitted sociopolitical consciousness: teachers did not, for example, discuss the history of racism and segregation in Los Angeles.

Given this research, professional development for teachers should focus on two significant obstacles to culturally relevant teaching.

  • Teachers must develop their own sociopolitical consciousness before they can impart it to their students. This might take place through anti-racist/anti-bias training, guided conversations where teachers explore their own cultural identity, study of the history of racial politics in their city or neighborhood, or critical investigation of textbooks and other standard class materials.
  • Teachers should receive concrete strategies for balancing CRP with the demands of standardized testing. Ladson-Billings (1995) observed that excellent, culturally relevant teachers and their students “viewed the tests as necessary irritations, took them, scored better than their age-grade mates at their school, and quickly returned to the rhythm of learning” (p. 482). A successful professional development program should codify and articulate successful teachers’ strategies for centering multicultural material while also equipping students to do well on standardized tests; this would provide a concrete model for other teachers to emulate.

Although the Los Angeles CRRE program was far from perfect, it provides a precedent for large-scale, district-wide CRP professional development. Our primary recommendation is that more districts invest in district-wide CRP professional development. Based on their particular educational needs, districts may choose to allow individual schools more flexibility, or they may choose to implement the same approach in all public schools. Different ways of implementing this program might include:

  • Mandating a specific CRP program or activity in each school’s professional development
  • Creating a bank of resources and activities related to CRP and encouraging/requiring principals to use some of these materials during professional development
  • Incentivizing principals and other school leaders to develop their own CRP professional development programs that respond to their particular school environment through competitive grants.  State education agencies could help fund these grant programs.

Curriculum Development

A key challenge for professional development programs to address is the lack of culturally relevant curricular materials. Teachers may simply not know very much about the contributions people of color have made to their field, or they may lack the books, activities, and resources to make those contributions a central part of the curriculum. Gay (2010) notes that many textbooks recount material in the most bland, safe way possible, omitting controversial topics and usually describing the material from only one perspective, which is usually white and male. Similarly, Patton (2011) found that in Los Angeles’s CRRE initiative, the pedagogical component of the program (twenty-nine percent of overall time), which dealt with subject-matter content, could not be considered culturally responsive. Instead, culturally relevant techniques (fifty-nine percent of overall time) included topics like “relating to students’ experiences” and “social-emotional learning,” but was wholly separate from curricular material.

Instead, Gay recommends that teachers bring multiple perspectives to bear on each issue, and center disagreement. She suggests that teachers use materials from mass media (like news materials or pop culture images) to supplement textbooks. For example, Young (2010) documented an elementary science lesson that focused on the chemical composition and properties of water; while the original lesson stopped there, the teacher encouraged students to apply what they had learned to news articles about water shortages and inequitable water access. Another exemplary model is the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP), which leads social studies classes geared toward Latinx students in three public high schools in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to covering the state history curriculum, these classes included advanced readings in Chicano/a studies, critical theory, and critical race theory. Although the students in these classes were historically underperforming, the program encouraged students’ to write their own histories as a bridge into such advanced academic material (Romero et. al., 2009).

State and district education agencies can play a key role in supporting culturally relevant teachers by researching, making accessible, and/or mandating culturally relevant materials in schools. For example, state agencies can research and develop free online resource banks of culturally relevant reading materials, data, posters, and ideas for activities in English, math, social studies, science, and the arts. States may either mandate or encourage the use of textbooks that center the contributions of people of color. Even if states do not cooperate, districts may create supplemental curricula and/or resource banks modeled after the successes of SJEP. If districts choose to do so, we recommend that they invite parents and community leaders to be on the committee that selects culturally relevant supplemental material. This is to ensure that local expertise and history is reflected in students’ classrooms.

Pre-service and New-teacher Training

Sutcher et. al. (2016) underscores the importance of mentoring and induction support for new and student teachers as critical to teacher retention and efficacy. We suggest that this induction support specifically target ways of implementing CRP in the classroom.

  • Establish strong mentoring and induction programs that specifically emphasize CRP. Federal or state matching grants could ensure that districts are able to provide all student-teachers and new teachers with the induction support they need. We suggest that districts tailor their induction programs to promote community engagement and facilitate the development of networks between teachers and community leaders. Emdin (2016) stresses the importance of spending time in students’ communities by attending church services, talking to community leaders and figureheads—including pastors and barbershop owners—and becoming conversant in local codes and styles of communication. Since mentorship between veteran teachers and new teachers is a key part of a successful induction program, we suggest that veteran teachers develop walking tours of the community and lead repeated visits to community institutions as part of their mentorship.
  • Include CRP in principal training programs. Sutcher et. al. (2016) demonstrates that the practices of new teachers are enhanced when their mentors also receive formal training and support. Maloney (2012) documents the enormous effect that a school’s principal can have on new teachers’ success in the classroom, because principals have an enormous impact on school-wide culture and values. It is essential that principals commit to enacting CRP through professional development, individual mentorship, and school culture. In order to ensure that pre-service and new-teacher CRP trainings function effectively, principal training programs should be strengthened to give principals greater support in the integration of CRP into school curriculum and culture.   
  • Districts should require teacher certification procedures and/or hiring portfolios to include a project relating to CRP. Some potential projects might include:
    • A unit that centers on the contributions of people of color to the field in question.
    • A self-reflective autobiography in which teachers interrogate their own racial and socioeconomic background and how that influences their teaching practice. Emdin (2016) stresses this kind of self-reflective work as particularly crucial, arguing: “The teacher must work to ensure that the institution does not absolve them of the responsibility to acknowledge the baggage they bring to the classroom and analyze how that might affect student achievement” (p. 43). Incorporating an autobiographical activity like this into pre-teacher and pre-service training and making it available to principals would also give principals greater insight into the backgrounds, potential biases, and strengths of their incoming teachers.
    • A community history project in which incoming teachers immerse themselves in the local community, developing relationships with key community leaders and institutions in the process.

Challenges of Implementation

Though we maintain that CRP is necessary for closing the achievement gap and facilitating educational parity among students of color and their white counterparts, we foresee several challenges to our proposed reforms.

  • The culture of high-stakes testing that currently drives educational policy would make implementing CRP nation-wide challenging. The fact that funding and government grants are tied to testing performance incentivizes schools to prioritize teaching to the test over incorporating CRP techniques into the classroom (Morrison et. al., 2008).
  • Teachers may resist CRP because it requires them to fundamentally alter the power dynamic between themselves and students. They may also be unwilling to confront their own biases or to acknowledge their prior reliance on the deficit model. Finally, teachers may be unwilling to adopt a critical sociopolitical consciousness because of their own personal political beliefs. (Sleeter, 2011; Young, 2010)
  • The dearth of data demonstrating the correlation between CRP and improved student outcomes will likely make securing federal and state funding for CRP difficult (Sleeter, 2011).

One means of overcoming these obstacles might be to pilot policies promoting CRP in a few schools before implementing them district-wide. Districts could select schools where principals and teachers are excited about  CRP; if the program were a success, that might generate enthusiasm among skeptical teachers and policymakers throughout the district. Moreover, teachers who participated in pilot programs could help develop lesson-planning and time-management strategies that minimize the conflict between CRP and standardized tests, which could then be incorporated into more far-reaching professional development programs.


Ultimately, our proposals seek to respond to the deficit model by better integrating teachers into the communities in which they teach, ensuring that teachers view the cultural diversity of their students as a strength rather than as something to be overcome. As Emdin notes, teachers should not go into communities of color with the presumption that those communities are a barrier to student success. The supposition “that students are in need of ‘cleaning up’ presumes that they are dirty” and the notion that a “school can give students ‘a life’ emanates from a problematic savior complex that results in making students, their varied experiences, their emotions, and the good in their communities invisible” (Emdin, 2016, p. 20). To eliminate the devastating effects of low-expectations and close the achievement gap, we must  create policies that combat the trivialization and dismissal of communities of color by counteracting teacher bias and valorizing the cultural and intellectual contributions of communities of color.

Many different kinds of professional development exist. Policymakers and principals may wonder why culturally responsive pedagogy is the most urgent, the most cost-effective, and the most impactful program for their time and resources. We contend that CRP strikes at the root cause of the achievement gap. Where two decades of massive federal reforms have failed, CRP can succeed. Accountability, with its emphasis on sameness in content and pedagogical approaches, fails to move beyond the deficit model, where difference is a problem to be overcome. CRP treats cultural difference as an asset which can propel students to academic success, and creates a school climate where students of color can succeed. If policymakers are determined to substantially narrow the achievement gap, they should invest in CRP.

Works Cited

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Young, E. (2010). Challenges to conceptualizing and actualizing culturally relevant pedagogy: How viable is the theory in classroom practice?. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 248-260.