How Cultural Intelligence and Inclusive Practices in PK-16 Influences Teacher Preparation and Student Outcome

by Dr. Hawani Negussie

Photo by Alexander Hipp on Unsplash

In the months following the killing of George Floyd, discussions related to reform sprouted up everywhere, from news outlets to advertisement agencies, to social media by employees fuming about deep-rooted exclusionary practices in the workplace. Higher education was also having a moment in reflection, holding up the mirror over academic institutions asking, “Are we inclusive enough?” “Are we more culturally aware than-the school in x county?,” while shying away from the real question, “Do instructors fully recognize the world students come from? Diverse, inequitable, culturally influential, and with more civic engagement aptitude than ever before.

I remember hearing the term “inclusivity” feathered in conversations about what needs to happen moving forward. BIPOC faculty are constantly assaulted with questions such as, “How can the institution become more relevant to entice and support minoritized groups?” and “how to recognize the wide range of contributions BIPOC faculty and staff bring to higher education?”

The burden to elevate non- BIPOC faculty on such matters is often placed on minoritized groups, where such conversation is often met with awkward silence, bewilderment, and exhaustion. Inclusivity, in its namesake, strives for the embrace of all cultures and creeds. Despite this, the current discourse for implementing diversity and inclusion encumbers BIPOC educators to coddle and cultivate the gaps in cultural empathy in their respective institutions.

But before higher education can dive into praxis, it must be fortified with the knowledge and intention that comes from critical engagement and self-interrogation of systemic inequities, cultural exclusion, and more pointedly, racism. We must consider how some are implicated in and benefit from the outcomes of far-reaching institutional oppression. Privilege paves a faultless achievement pathway for one race over all others. Goodwill, allyship, and sporadic policy makeovers with little to no hindsight to history, racial injustice, cultural intelligence, and socio-political awareness further exacerbate the burdens we face in education.

Exploring the genesis of cultural exclusion, institutional racism, and persistent inequities leads us to the early childhood years, the “birth to eight” population, where children of color endure negative self-image due to incessant reduction of their identity in the society they live in. Mamie and Kenneth Clark, two African American psychologists, examined the effects of such societal-based marginalizing practices in their seminal study, widely recognized as, the doll test. They defined what Black children feel towards their own identity as racial dissonance, a subtractive self-perception based on what Black children consistently receive from the wider ecological system that surrounds them. In the classroom setting, the demographic mismatch between the student population, which has become more diverse, and instructors who remain racially unchanged widens this discord because often, who is in front of the classroom teaching doesn’t share the lived experience, cultural identity, and more importantly, the value system of the learner. This mismatch is further amplified by the use of a dominant worldview that informs culture curriculum — an approach that strengthens privilege while systematically expunging minority children from educational institutions. The absence of diversity, including the erasure of Black teaching staff at all levels of the learning environment — but especially during the early childhood education years, from pre-kindergarten to third grade — directly affects the long-term educational outcome of students of color.

Black students are disproportionately suspended or expelled from school at a higher rate beginning in preschool. While Black students make 16% of public school enrollment, they account for 42% of suspensions and are three times more likely than white students to be dismissed for the same disciplinary matter. Continuous exclusion from the learning environment creates a gap in academic instruction and criminalizing labels which are additives to the preschool to prison pipeline. Black children’s age-appropriate behaviors are socially misconstrued and misinterpreted and the adultification of young minoritized children has led to detrimental outcomes. Research continues to highlight the positive and long-term impact of having even one Black teacher in the life of a Black child. The documented effect of representation in the teaching staff has been shown to reduce expulsion rates, increase participation, and mitigate hyper-diagnosis of Black children as emotionally disturbed or exhibiting learning delays. Further, when students see someone with who they can connect emotionally, socio-culturally, it supports their self-esteem and improves academic achievement, decreasing their chances of dropping out. Also, increasing the number of Black and Brown instructors addresses the lack of diversity in the PK-12 teaching profession, which is sparsely populated with Black and Brown teachers.

A longstanding barrier that we fail to explore when discussing the role of higher education, as related to culturally relevant practices or inclusivity: how does one teach inclusive practices when such knowledge is not only gained from theory but widely from practice, specifically one’s own lived experiences? Where does cultural intelligence on the part of faculty members come in? Higher education instructors must keep in mind the challenges Black and Brown children face while preparing teachers in courses they teach or guide. After all, the aim as an instructor is to transcend and reach the child in the preschool program or a second-grade classroom.

In order to move towards making higher education curriculum and instruction more culturally relevant, institutions must constructively look at their practice. This includes taking inventory of how instructors deliver lessons, examining considered perspectives, and instruments used, including the infusion of diverse language, self-expression, and delivery. Additionally, courses need to reflect the current world children come from — diverse, inequitable, in conflict, and made up of students more culturally aware of their place in society. Activity planning should be a communal practice with more eyes on course outlines and reading materials proposed. It should be saturated with input from individuals of diverse lived experiences, educational backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, and much more. While diversity in thought is critical, representation matters.

Numbers matter too. According to the 2018 National Center for Education Statistics, 79% of all elementary and secondary school teachers were White, as compared to only 7% of African American teachers, 9% of Hispanic instructors, and 2% of Asians. Black children can attend school without having a Black person in the role of a teacher from preschool to highschool. If we look at the landscape of teacher demographics by age group from pre-primary to college, the number of Black and Brown faculty decreases by grade level. By the time we reach universities, there is a staggering disparity in the representation of minority faculty members in every rank. These numbers matter if we are aiming to provide a culturally relevant curriculum and instruction to teachers who enter progressively diverse early learning classrooms. Increasing the diversity pool shouldn’t be limited to faculty only. Higher education should make action plans with measurable goals to move BIPOC in directional positions such as deans, chairs, chancellors, and presidents of schools. It matters to have a Black or Brown administrator lead; our experiences are varied and we bring leadership approaches that are both family-oriented and equitably driven. Our lived experiences — influenced by the cultural capital found in communities of color — are profoundly beneficial to the growth and development of others.

Currently, there is a clear struggle and stagnation in successfully making higher education culturally responsive for all students, specifically to minoritized groups in both undergraduate and graduate studies. Similar to Institutional Review Board (IRB), a staple department planted at every research institution that is responsible for upholding and protecting individuals recruited for research, higher education will benefit from adopting a comparative internal agency that consistently reviews the continuous hiring of BIPOC faculty members, and assesses implementation, application, and relevance of inclusive and culturally relevant instruction at institutions.

Hawani Negussie is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Brandman University. Her research interest include, examination of indigenous knowledge in early learning environments, implications of aid imposed global education policies, curriculum injustice in preschool education, and using culture as a central strategy in pre-primary education. Her research has been published with international journals focused on leadership and policy. She has presented on a wide range of topics focused on the effects of racial dissonance on Black and Brown children during the early years, culturally relevant pedagogy, and using early childhood education as a primary catalyst to secure sustainable changes in her native country, Ethiopia. Currently, she is the Chair of Committee on Diversity, AAUW Branch at Brandman University.

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