Why Culturally Specific Education?

SandYouth Enrichment student smiles after finishing his sand painted art project.

By Randi Ilyse Roth and Annie Roth Blumfield

Interfaith Action’s core programs include two culturally specific education programs for children in grades K-5: Project SPIRIT, which works in the African American community, and DIW Youth Enrichment, which works in the Native American community. These are both longstanding, core programs for Interfaith Action, and we believe in them deeply.

Why do we focus on culturally specific education?

Our staff’s experience and our community’s experience tell us that culturally specific education is profoundly effective. Young scholars emerge from our programs knowing who they are, confident students rooted in and proud of their own traditions. They know and embrace their communities’ cherished values.

But what does research show about the value of culturally specific education?

Research shows that culturally specific education is an incredibly important model because it provides both short-term and long-term benefits. Short-term refers to how a student feels in her classroom, and long-term refers to the opportunities that her education gives her.

Scholar James C. Eslinger writes: “For many students from…minority groups, what often ensues is a process of assimilation in which they are expected to conform to White, middle-class worldviews and ideologies… [they] experience a cultural conflict between their home and school contexts and feel that their home and cultural backgrounds are minimized and devalued in schools.” We know that social and emotional learning plays into academic learning; we can see that experiencing these cultural conflicts in the classroom every day can be really hard on our students.

And how do these hard experiences in the classroom play out in the long-term?

Eslinger writes: “Schools, then, become oppressive agents…as a result, many poor, immigrant, and…minority students become disengaged and unsuccessful academically in school.” We instead engage our students, acknowledge and appreciate their cultures, and provide role models from their cultures. We create a solution that makes a student feel good and comfortable in her classroom, and engages her in a way that inspires her to be academically successful. For example, a school in Arizona created a Navajo culture immersion program that only some of their Native American students participated in.They found that by fourth grade, the Navajo immersion students were out-performing the students who weren’t part of the culturally specific education program. Furthermore, they found that the students who weren’t part of the Navajo immersion program showed worse performance on their fourth grade assessments than on their kindergarten assessments.

At Interfaith Action we began investing deeply in culturally specific education decades ago because our community told us, from the ground up, that it was the right thing to do. We have more than a 20-year history of watching strong scholars emerge from our culturally rooted curricula and teaching methods. We’re about to begin an in-depth evaluation of our two culturally specific education programs. As we learn from our students’ experiences, we will share our lessons learned about what is now becoming known as a very promising set of educational practices.

Warm Regards,

Randi Ilyse Roth
Executive Director


“Using Culturally Based Education to Increase Academic Achievement and Graduation Rates,” National Indian Education Association