Promoting Culturally Responsive Leadership Practices
Shining a light on marginalized children with humanistic practices and data scrutiny
/School Administrator, February 2020

University of Minnesota professor Muhammad Khalifa studies inclusionary practice around student identity and conducts equity audits in school districts.
As a younger man, I worked as a teacher in Detroit, Mich., in a school with mostly black and brown children, some refugees and some white students who were too poor to leave the city.

Despite being a black man from a socially conscious family, I was guilty of holding a deficit view of black students (and others who are marginalized). When colleagues attributed students’ acting out in class or spoke of apathetic and angry parents, I began to espouse those views.

Although I knew something about the challenges my students faced in their lives, I did not know about the historical practices and policies that schools perpetuated, where curriculum, pedagogy, programs and activities were not created with them in mind.

That realization came later after I worked as a central-office administrator and became a parent and a professor who conducted research on school leadership and trained educators on culturally responsive leadership and equity. I became familiar with how Detroiters became minoritized. I saw that effective leadership was a systemic approach to inclusion that went beyond culturally responsive pedagogy and instruction, and touched all aspects of schooling. I examined effective leaders who dealt with racism and bias by reallocating resources and interrupting harmful practices.

A Life-Changing Leader
Over the years I have been able to observe many culturally responsive leaders. One extraordinary leader was Joe Dulin. At age 73 the African-American principal led a 400-student urban alternative high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. As a professor and an ethnographer, I studied his leadership for two years, and Joe included me in meetings with communities and intimate conversations with family, candid rap sessions and student conversations. Joe has passed on and the school is now closed, but his memory lives on in many leaders who honor his story.

I was awed by his ability to connect with and encourage students about their college plans while allowing them to retain their community-based identities. Whenever he spoke to teachers, parents and students, he asked for feedback.

“Tell me the truth” was Joe’s frequent request.

To this day, I consider Joe to be the most culturally responsive leader I have known. My latest book, Culturally Responsive School Leadership, reveals insights into his practice and philosophy.

This excerpt from my book captures how he fostered an academic identity with his school’s students: “On the first day I met Joe, I stayed with him all afternoon and into the evening. On that day, he had kept two students at the school until 7 p.m. because they had not completed their homework. He and other staff rotated in staying after school hours to ‘help’ students who could not (or chose not to) finish this homework the night before. Usually, they were newer students because the other students learned quickly. However, because of the close relationship Joe had with the community, it was not viewed as a hostile administrative act, but rather as an act of love Joe had for their children. He was doing this because he cared.”

Incidents like this made clear that culturally responsive school leaders establish trust, credibility and rapport with students and community, and a powerful way of doing that is by listening and engaging their voices.

Accepting Students
Many schools marginalize students by policing their identity — the way they speak, their mannerisms, their dress and so forth. Unfortunately, teachers and other staff shame or criminalize students for these identities.

Joe and other culturally responsive school leaders recognized that students must be accepted for who they are. He took this a step further when he encouraged teachers to make lessons relevant, and some incorporated hip-hop into lessons. He also allowed hip-hop dress, language and mannerisms to be part of school culture because it made students feel comfortable. He also focused on their learning.

At his high school in Ann Arbor, known as the Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, Joe helped students see themselves as good students. They were made to feel comfortable in their academic identity. During rap sessions I observed, he often would ask, “Who plans to go to college?” The hand of every student would shoot up, including the students who did not appear to have college plans at all.

This positive reception reflected Joe’s decision to be a school leader who:

» chose to find cultural assets in how students showed up differently in school. He did not permit himself or others to voice deficit expectations of students;

» was a warm demander. He developed meaningful relationships with students (and families) but always maintained high academic and positive behavioral expectations;

» nurtured a critiquing voice. He gave language to students when they felt frustrated over racism, discrimination and other injustices they encountered; and

» confronted any teacher-student “deal-making.” He stopped practices that allowed for lower expectations or student disengagement — for example, allowing more vocal students to leave class regularly for other, nonacademic spaces in school.

Learning Connection
The results at Roberto Clemente were remarkable. Nearly all students graduated and were college-bound. Suspensions were virtually nonexistent. And students reported they liked their teachers. They also became advocates for equity, raising questions about racism and biased policies that had been unfairly impacting black and other minoritized students in the district. This awakening of students’ critical voices helped them develop language to interpret their worlds.

While many teachers hold high expectations for students, unfortunately many others carry lowered expectations for minority or lower-income students. This is a type of bigotry. Recent research is clear on this: Teachers always must maintain high expectations of students. Leaders must speak pointedly, as Joe did, when teachers fall short.

Real-world models demonstrate that culturally responsive schooling has a positive impact on student learning, self-esteem, academic success and sense of belonging in school. In addition to student success, teachers feel better and perform better too, according to my research and many others. In fact, community engagement and culturally responsive schooling can have a resounding impact on student learning, especially for underserved and marginalized students.

Community Knowledge
Because Joe deeply understood the perspective and knowledge within the communities he served, he applied both to shift leader-ship practices within Roberto Clemente Student Development Center. Culturally responsive leadership practices emerged in multiple ways.

Some of the more common practices that follow come from my book, as well as ongoing research conducted by researchers at the Culturally Responsive School Leadership Institute. For free advice on equity audits or complimentary superintendent copies of the book, visit the institute website.

» Promote a vision of a culturally responsive, equitable and inclusive school.
Culturally responsive school and district leaders rely on community knowledge to shape and promote a schoolwide vision of equity and excellence, inclusivity and cultural responsiveness. This vision should not be developed by educators alone, who then will have the difficult task of trying to persuade students, parents and community members to buy into their vision.

Consider the history of how some underrepresented members of the community always have felt excluded. Such an approach would be more of the same. Rather, include community-based and student perspectives and histories at the time that you are crafting the vision.

» Use equity teams as learning groups of practice.
I have visited hundreds of schools and districts over the course of my career. For those using equity teams, there is no consistency in how they function. At a minimum, members of equity teams should (1) read and learn about cultural responsiveness; (2) lead professional development to promote equity and cultural responsiveness; (3) collect, align and interpret equity data for colleagues; and (4) contribute to building an inclusive culture based on the school’s vision.

Professional learning communities should work closely with school equity teams to ensure instruction is culturally responsive.

Equity teams ought to be structured by (1) including a representative from each subject area to collect and research cultural knowledge; (2) incorporating a research component to find experiential curriculum to be used to build culturally responsive content; and (3) operating rotationally, such that various staff members have opportunities to contribute. These measures outwardly grow culturally responsive education.

Integrating Behaviors
Other leadership practices are central to fostering culturally responsive schools. One leadership behavior is to use the community wealth of historical and experiential knowledge to influence the school’s teaching and curriculum. This can be done by learning community-based knowledge from elders and other local experts. But it must be linked to curriculum development.

Another behavior comes through leaders’ mentorship and modeling of culturally responsive behaviors. Many teachers will be ready for this work, but others will need to see their leader model this work in practice.

Yet another behavior involves offering regular professional development on cultural responsiveness that allows for critical self-reflection and professional learning.

Culturally responsive school leadership requires ongoing examination and discussion of equity data, which can reveal gaps in achievement or discipline, resource allocations, equity in classes such as advanced placement, STEM, English as a second language, special education, clubs or student government. Equity audits can be difficult because staff are afraid to reveal where they are falling short, but it helps leaders see what they are already doing well, where they are struggling, and how to prioritize the work.

Districts may need to work with an outside expert specializing in equity audits and then begin to incorporate practices into regular school routines.

MUHAMMAD KHALIFA is the Robert Beck endowed professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Twitter: @SchoolEquityPro

Additional Resources
The author suggests these resources related to his article:

» Culturally Responsive School Leadership by Muhammad Khalifa, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2018.

» “Culturally Responsive School Leadership: A Synthesis of the Literature” by Muhammad Khalifa, M.A. Gooden and J.E. Davis in Review of Educational Research, December 2016.

» Culturally Responsive School Leadership Academy at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Intensive equity training.

» “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa D. Delpit, New Press, New York, N.Y., 2012.