Cultural Competency: Responsibility, Research, and Results (plus Ron Edmonds still relevant after all these years)

Written by: MoCoEdBlog Editors

Today, the MCPS Board of Education will be discussing efforts MCPS is making to address cultural challenges (ex, race, language, home settings) the system faces with implications for reducing the stubborn achievement gap the system finds itself challenged by.  Some of the editorial team members of the MoCoEdBlog have looked at this issue and some of the briefing documents MCPS is using and have a few comments to add to the discussion.  This post is a synthesis of email conversations among some members of the MoCoEdBlog, specifically Joe Hawkins, Mike Petrilli, and Phil Piety who authors this post.

Responsibility

There is general agreement that this is an important issue for MCPS.  How well schools serve the needs of all students is a critical issue and the role of educators’ attitudes and school culture have long been known to be keys to addressing these issues.  One of the documents shared with BOE to prepare them for this discussion focused on helping educators to not blame children and their parents for school failures, but to look for what they can do to take responsibility. This reminds me of an educational equity scholar, Ron Edmonds, who in 1982 made a famous declaration about effective schools:

“It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements: (a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Edmonds was not saying poverty and home circumstances do not matter.  How could he or anyone suggest that?  What he was saying was that the solution lie not in focusing on those issues as determinants of results, but adults taking the responsibility for success in spite of those realities. Edmonds went on to provide six core recommendations for schools in achieving these ends.

  1. Strong administrative leadership.
  2. High expectations.
  3. An orderly atmosphere.
  4. Basic skills acquisition as the school’s primary purpose.
  5. Capacity to divert school energy and resources from other activities to advance the school’s basic purpose.
  6. Frequent monitoring of pupil progress.

In Edmonds framing, the culture is evidenced by actions, by deliberate things that include high expectations and strong instructionally focused school leaders.

Rhetoric

Several readers of the MCPS briefing document noted the powerful rhetoric including this statement:

“In building upon the cultural synchronicity, demographic parity, and humanistic commitment dispositions, OHRD increased its recruitment effort with an emphasis on colleges and universities as the major recruitment source for new teachers.”

This kind of statement is rich with intention and inference.  For the general public and for those intending to carry out this mission, what does it mean?  MoCoEdBlog is not sure.

These kinds of statements are a reminder that it is all too easy to use the language of equity, but that this may not be the same as the actions.  While a teacher or a school leadership team may profess commitments to universal success, this isn’t the same as actually doing it.  Despite the many problems with accountability and oversight, the unfortunate truth is it is needed in many cases as not all educators do the right things on their own.

Research

Part of the plan MCPS is previewing involves finding teachers (ex: African American males) who are more like the kinds of students that are traditionally harder for school systems to reach.  What does the research say about the selection of culturally connected teachers?  Mike Petrilli points to a piece in EducationNext from 2004 that suggests that this is an area that can make a difference. This important paper highlights the many challenges to studying these populations, including student mobility.  Incidentally, student mobility is much higher in higher needs populations and this complicates efforts to evaluate educators serving these students as well.  The paper also provides a caution by saying:

“[The] results clearly support the conventional assumption that recruiting minority teachers can generate important achievement gains among minority students. However, they also suggest that a typically overlooked cost of such efforts may be a meaningful reduction in the achievement of nonminority students.”

Results?

A challenge for MCPS going forward is how will it know whether these efforts are actually yielding results.  How will the system’s leadership know that workshops are leading to actual changes in schools or just more opportunities for school leaders to find a new set of jargon to use while still treating students the same?  As the MCPS Chief Community Engagement Officer has noted, communities with greater needs are also ones where family participation is difficult for many reasons.  If a privileged family believes there is an educational problem in their school they are more likely to advocate within the system and raise red flags for school system leadership. In disadvantaged communities there are both practical issues to parent advocacy as many parents are working hard at survival and even more cultural barriers that make family advocacy not assured.

In raising a few questions about these efforts, MoCoEdBlog recognizes this is not a trivial exercise.  It is not a trivial issue.  MCPS’ efforts are not trivial and deserve attention and discussion.  We invite additional commentary from MCPS and from others in the community to address these important challenges.

4 Responses to Cultural Competency: Responsibility, Research, and Results (plus Ron Edmonds still relevant after all these years)

  1. Stephanie Halloran, MCPS Teacher, Editorial Team member of MoCoEdBlog says:

    This is one of those issues that I get agitated about, so I could write reams; for the moment though, I just have a quick comment about jargon. My objection to MCPS’ use of jargon is that it does exactly what jargon is intended to do: keep the general population out of any meaningful conversation. As a teacher, I don’t want to be “trained to adopt a humanistic disposition” or however they would phrase it. I AM interested in learning how to listen better, be more empathic, be more humane, and be more compassionate. Those are really the qualities we’re talking about, but the school system can’t say “We’re looking for more compassion and empathy in our teachers” without making it sound like the ones they have are heartless so-and-sos. So I guess my feedback on your post would be to refrain from calling their words “powerful rhetoric” when they are intended more to reflect the county’s commitment to the issue through the sheer weighted vocabulary.

  2. CrunchyMama says:

    “In building upon the cultural synchronicity, demographic parity, and humanistic commitment dispositions, OHRD increased its recruitment effort with an emphasis on colleges and universities as the major recruitment source for new teachers.”

    This kind of statement is rich with intention and inference.

    I have to agree with Stephanie above: this kind of statement is full of wordiness. That’s at least three choice entries for a game of Buzzword Bingo right there: “cultural synchronicity,” “demographic parity,” and “humanistic commitment dispositions.” Not belittling the sentiment, but ti’s very hard to read statements like this without feeling as though someone has invented “cultural competency” and that this whole thing is contrived, made up, for the sake of holding a meeting and using lofty words.

    I’d like to see more discussion about what this means where the rubber meets the road, in the classroom, at the individual school level; this article touches on that, but since it’s teachers who have the most interaction with students, since that’s the “primary interface” LOL, it needs to be less theoretical and more practical, less in-a-meeting and more on-the-ground.

    It’ll be interesting to see what is generated from this topic.

  3. Mark Simon says:

    As another one of the editors of this blog and as a longtime MCPS educator I have to take a slightly different position from my fellow editors on MCPS’ cultural competency efforts. I applaud the BOE and the Starr administration and the MCPS employee unions and their members for continuing, steadfast, to make cultural competency a priority. The research from Claude Steel, Ron Ferguson and others is clear. The effect of a respectful and culturally knowledgeable school and classroom climate on student success is huge. MCPS has realized since the 1970’s that part of the knowledge base teachers and other educators require is cultural competency. That’s why MCPS required, and the employee unions supported, the Howard University designed HR-18 course on the psychology and sociology of the black experience for all employees as early as 1978.

    On the one hand, MCPS is always at risk on race and class and increasingly language and immigration status. We were, after all, one of the school system cases that became Brown v Board, and MCPS didn’t integrate until 1964.

    A watershed moment for me was 1998 when the folks from Research for Better Teaching, the Office of Professional Development and the MCEA worked together to propagate the understanding among students that intelligence is effort-based and all students can learn. Studying Skillful Teaching and Observing and Analyzing Teaching deepened our understanding of the impact on learning and the repertoire of skills required of teachers to be effective with a wide range of kids. Cultural competency stems directly from that understanding.

    I was a tad disappointed that the Board statement didn’t acknowledge student ability grouping as a core conundrum as the county has attempted to de-track and then to re-track our schools over the years. So suffice it to say that these are a complicated set of issues. But I am proud of MCPS for making the effort, year after year, and of the employees and their unions for partnering in it.

  4. Elaine Weiss says:

    As a parent who has never worked within MCPS, my views on this issue come from personal experiences in my daughters’ two elementary schools. The first time I went to International Night at Oakland Terrace Elementary School, where hundreds of families from dozens of countries came together to watch our children perform songs and dances from every continent, showcase their national costumes, and share dinner reflecting a true melting pot, I felt that we, and Montgomery County, had come a long way in making us all feel not just welcome, but truly valued and at home.
    That feeling continued last year, when I helped put together our family’s table on Swiss culture, food, language, and history for Rolling Terrace Elementary School, where the PTA organizes a semi-annual full-day world tour for the students, who “visit” over a dozen countries from China to El Salvador to the Mariana Islands thru art, music, food, stories, and dance.
    Showing all our students that our county’s diversity is a treasure to be valued, and a core part of their school experience is, to me, cultural competence at its best.

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