Culture is an all-encompassing phenomenon that impacts every aspect of daily life (Banks & Banks, 2007). The origins of culture 5derive from the activities of human beings (Banks & Banks, 2007). The interface between culture and beliefs manifests in a variety of ways (Corwin & Tierney, 2007). In an organization for example, culture is reflected in decorations, attitudes, practices, and patterns of interactions (Corwin & Tierney, 2007). Cultural norms can influence achievement outcomes in a school because students’ beliefs about themselves and what they perceive others believe about them reflect the impact of cultural norms (Banks & Banks, 2007; Corwin & Tierney, 2007; Grant & Sleeter, 2007; Murrell, 2007). Teachers who know little or nothing about the cultures of their students cannot provide an educational environment that meets students’ needs (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Howard, 2006). Strategies used to impart lessons which do not include cultural references are often perceived as irrelevant by students of color (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Howard, 2006).
The lack of respect for culture and diversity began in the early days of the American nation with the arrival of the first slaves from Africa(Darling-Hammond, 2006). Darling-Hammond (2006) wrote that Thomas Jefferson affirmed the importance of education and the connection to self-reliance. American history is replete with examples of the denial of educational opportunities for African slaves, and then freed Blacks (Fraser, 2007; Ogren, 2005; Woodson, 1945). The importance of cultural awareness in light of the cultural and linguistic diversity inAmerica’s classrooms has been written about extensively. Current immigrants focus more on retaining language and cultural traditions than previous immigrants who tended to assimilate into mainstream American culture (Banks & Banks, 2007). Clewell, Puma and McKay (2005) supported the notion that students of color benefitted from the cultural and linguistic commonalities shared between teacher and student.
Insufficient numbers of teachers of color are in classrooms or in teacher preparation programs to provide students with the commonalities noted in Clewell et al.’s (2005) study. Changes in demographics have created a situation that renders the perception of White as majority all but meaningless (Olsen, Bhattacharya, & Scharf, 2006). The student population in American classrooms has changed since the 1970s when minority students comprised twenty-two percent of the school population (Banks, Cochran-Smith, Moll, Richert et al., 2005). In less than thirty years minority will be a misnomer when applied to students of color; such students will be the majority in public schools in the United States(Banks, et al., 2005; USDOE, 2008).
Educators, unfamiliar with the cultures and languages of many of their students, may find themselves ill prepared to teach such diverse populations (Banks & Banks, 2007; Howard, 2006). Darling-Hammond and Branford (2005) provided a focus on what knowledge and competencies teachers need to successfully reach and teach diverse student populations in 21st century classrooms. The unique history of Blacks in the United States, the increase of immigration to the United States of Hispanics, Haitians, and Asians, the ever-increasing diversity among students, and the need for greater cultural competency among educators need to be at the forefront of any education reform effort.
The Teaching Commission (2004) reported that teacher education programs have not been successful in providing teachers with the requisite skills for 21st century learning environments: an increasingly diversified student body, a demand for greater academic rigor, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and technological advances in teaching practices and equipment. The focus cannot be just on diversity but also must be on the skill sets of cultural competency (Cross, Bazran, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989; Olsen et al., 2006). Cultural competency is not simply an awareness of differences, but rather an ability to think, behave, and value differences responsively, inclusively, and respectfully (Elam, Robinson & McCloud, 2007).
A 2008 report indicates that in the past thirty years American students have not significantly improved on academic achievement outcomes compared to students in other countries. Students in the United Statesare in 10th place behind international students in high school completion rates (USDOE, 2008). American students lag in other areas of academic achievement. Flawn (2008) noted thatU. S. students score in the mediocre range in math achievement. Stine et al., (2005) stated that the American scientific community had concerns because American students had fallen below the rankings of twenty-one other countries in math and science. America’s educators must not only do a better job of educating students but must educate even greater numbers to more proficient and advanced levels (USDOE, 2008).
In a policy information report for the Educational Testing Service, Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto, and Sum (2007) asserted that the changes in demographics would be significant, noting that the percentage of Latino students in the education system would increase from just fewer than 15% to more than 20% within the next 23 years or less. The reality of the increasing numbers of students of color, the import of better educating all students and preparing them for the workforce, and a 21st century world has become an even more important goal for educators (USDOE, 2008).
Achievement outcomes for Black students were also lagging, with fewer than 15% of Black fourth graders reading at proficient levels (USDOE, 2008). Common themes in other research reports included population increases due to immigration, increasing numbers of minority students entering American schools, and the ongoing and pervasive lack of preparation of students of color and underrepresented students at each transition point (Adelman, 2006; Kirsch et al., 2007; USDOE, 2008). Cultural competency in all teachers will benefit students in general, but particularly students of color and underrepresented students (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Grant & Sleeter, 2007; Howard, 2006). The viability of our nation demands it.