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A hallmark of personalized learning is individual learning plans and pathways. The first step in guiding every student on a pathway that maximizes their success in demonstrating proficiency over competencies is knowing every student well. A key lens through which we learn about our students is cultural competency, or understanding and embracing one’s own and others’ diverse cultures, languages, beliefs, and values.

Findings from two studies that the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) conducted on Black & Latino Male students in the Boston Public Schools underscore the primacy of cultural competence:

  • Boston’s students are becoming increasingly diverse, reflecting a national trend. We can no longer talk about Black and Latino students without acknowledging that Black and Latino students represent
    ever-diversifying groups. The fastest growing Black subgroups were African and Afro-Caribbean, and the fastest growing Latino subgroups were Latino Caribbean and Central and South Americans. With each subgroup comes diversity in language, culture, values, and assets.
  • The opportunity gap greatly contributed to the achievement gap. Black and Latino male students have disproportionate lack of access from advanced learning opportunities beginning in the fourth grade – Advanced Work Classes, examination secondary schools, and college preparatory course sequences. If you don’t know your students well and lack a lens of cultural competency, societal biases in the selection process can often determine student pathways, leading to disparities in engagement and achievement.
  • Four Boston schools were highlighted in which Black and Latino students were faring somewhat better than their peers in other district schools. These schools had many hallmarks of good schools – high student expectations, professional collaborative communities, and differentiated instruction. However, no case study school had schoolwide efforts to “know and value students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and develop and implement a comprehensive approach to culturally responsive curriculum and instruction.” Teacher and administrator talk of being “color-blind” and “we view and treat all students the same” was prevalent, rather that recognizing each student’s cultural assets and language. Researchers hypothesized that this systemic absence of cultural competency prevented the schools from having even greater success with their Black and Latino male students.

Even in personalized learning schools, if you don’t know and embrace the increasingly wide diversity of cultures and languages before you, stuDifferent colored crayonsdents of color, and English language learners (ELLs) will be left behind in disproportionate numbers, replicating the inequitable education system in place in most districts.

Biases may influence the design of personal pathways that unintentionally provide differentiated learning opportunities based on the color of a student’s skin, culture, or language.

A dearth of learning opportunities in which students can see and experience their own culture and language, even if the learning is experiential and personalized, can lead students of color and ELLs to be less engaged than their white peers.

The key to reversing these patterns rests in these steps:

  • Start with knowing who your students are, using a lens of cultural competency.
  • Examine your own beliefs and values, as well as understand those of others – adults and students – that may be different than your own, and engage in honest, respectful talk focused on understanding and embracing the diversity amongst you.
  • Ensure that individual learning plans capitalize on students’ cultural assets and place them on a pathway that maximizes their opportunities to attain proficiency.
  • Regularly examine disaggregated data to assess your success in eliminating historical patterns of opportunity gaps that lead to age-old achievement gaps.
  • Keep equity and excellence at the forefront of your personalized learning work.

This piece was initially published on the Center for Collaborative Education blog on April 7, 2016.

Written By:


Executive Director, Center for Collaborative Education (CCE)

Dan leads CCE’s program development, staff hiring and supervision, advocacy and communications with superintendents and district leaders, and educational policy initiatives. He works with the board of directors to lead the strategic development of the organization and has secured grants from over 30 foundations and the U.S. Department of Education. He assisted the Boston Public Schools to expand the Pilot model, launched the New England Small Schools Network, and created the National Turning Points Network. Dan is a member of the Massachusetts Citizens for Public Schools Board of Directors and has authored numerous publications, including Boston’s Pilot Schools: An Alternative to Charter Schools. He is the former Director of Instruction and Curriculum for the Massachusetts Department of Education and special educator at the Charles River Academy. Dan earned an M.Ed. in Urban Education from Antioch University and an Ed.D. in Urban Education from University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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