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Virginia teachers are going to be assessed on ‘cultural competency.’ What does that mean?

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Makya Little was helping her fourth-grade daughter review for the Virginia Studies SOL, a standardized test on state history, when she found herself taken aback by one of the questions on the study guide.

Prince William schools social studies study guide

A study guide from Prince William County Public Schools states that it’s “unknown” whether early Africans in Virginia were enslaved or servants 

“She gets to this one question that says ‘What’s the status of the early African?’” said Little, who lives in Prince William County. The correct answer, according to the class materials, was “unknown. They were either servants or enslaved.”

“I got really, really upset,” Little said. While historians widely agree that the first Africans to arrive at the Jamestown settlement were enslaved, there’s been contentious discussion on the topic — some of the state’s own study materials also state that it’s “unknown” whether they arrived as slaves or indentured servants. The school division didn’t provide any of that context, and Little said multiple thoughts flashed through her head. The information was “misleading,” she added, and seemed designed to “soften how early Americans treated Black and Indigenous people” (another prompt on the study guide stated that native people and English settlers had a “trade relationship”).

Little had never thought of herself as an education advocate — before that day, she had never regularly attended PTA or school board meetings. But seeing her ancestors “relegated to slaves or servants,” as she put it, made her realize that something had to change.

Her efforts to change the way Black history is taught in Virginia schools ultimately got her appointed to the state’s Commission on African American History Education, where Little served as an advocate for parents and historically black colleges and universities (she graduated from Florida A&M University, a highly ranked HBCU).

As a result of that commission, and years of concern over the state’s standards of learning,  Virginia legislators passed a bill this year that mandates African American history training for many teachers and sets new inclusivity standards for educators.

The state has long grappled with outdated and omissive curricula that — in many cases — mischaracterize important moments in African American history, experts say. But a nearly year-long review by the commission found that many teachers also struggle to incorporate Black history in the classroom.

“In Virginia, teachers have been criticized for questionable activities meant to teach African American history and engage around difficult topics,” the commission’s final report reads.

In some cases, those have included a mock slave auction or asking Black students to pretend to pick cotton. Experts say many educators lack the training and cultural knowledge to sensitively approach difficult topics or tie diverse perspectives and learning materials into their classroom curriculum.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation from Sen. Mamie Locke, D-2nd, of Hampton, and Del. Clinton Jenkins, D-76th, of Suffolk, that requires teachers, principals and superintendents in Virginia to be evaluated on “cultural competency.”

The measure was supported by the Virginia Education Association, one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions. Last week, the state’s Board of Education also added “culturally responsive teaching” to its list of performance standards for teachers.

“Cultural competency and equitable practices are essential for teachers to achieve success in the commonwealth’s increasingly diverse schools,” BOE president Dan Gecker said in a statement. The board framed the addition as a “new expectation” that will change how the state evaluates teachers — and how students across Virginia are taught.

First of all, what is cultural competency?

The state’s new performance standards call on teachers to demonstrate “a commitment to equity” and classroom strategies that result in “culturally inclusive” learning environments. In a March 18 meeting, Virginia school board members said culturally responsive teaching should also focus on academic performance — with a goal of eliminating achievement gaps between students. In 2019, the latest year for which statewide data is available, the Washington Post reported that 89% of Asian students and 85% of white students passed state reading exams versus 66% of Latino students and 65% of Black students. Gaps among elementary students had widened over the last several years.

“It’s an area that can get lost when we think about creating a positive environment where people feel welcome,” said Francisco Durán, a board member and superintendent of Arlington County Public Schools. “Including that language really solidifies and strengthens what we’re expecting in regards to culturally responsive teaching and equitable outcomes for students.”

In the real world, it means educators should be aware of how their own cultural upbringing affects their perspective and learn to develop lesson plans that resonate with their students.

Maria Burgos, the equity and inclusion officer for Prince William County, gave the example of a science class learning about the life cycle.

“Let’s say I’m including a living animal like a deer,” she said. “I’m letting my students know in advance what’s coming up. And I’m asking, ‘What are your experiences around this?’” 

The hope is that a better understanding of other cultures, and their own potential blind spots, will help educators expand what they’re teaching and how they’re teaching it. That, in turn, will help students relate to and absorb the material. 

The legislation from Locke and Jenkins already requires history and social science teachers to complete some instruction in African American history before they can obtain or renew their license (though the Board of Education still has to develop specific requirements). In October, the board also approved recommendations from the AAHEC, including substantial edits to the state’s social studies curriculum.

Those standards of learning were already scheduled for review, and the revisions are expected to be completed and presented to the state board by November 2022. But there are many other areas that have historically failed to acknowledge non-white contributions, said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor and dean at Norfolk State University who also served on the state’s commission. She pointed to history and language arts curriculum, which often fails to include Native Americans outside the context of early American settlers or westward expansion. 

By recognizing their own lack of knowledge on certain topics, Newby-Alexander said teachers could actively work to improve it — and incorporate source materials from figures and perspectives that haven’t historically been included.

“To have cultural competency means you’re aware there’s a lot that you don’t know,” Newby-Alexander said. “And that you need to seek other sources to find out that the information you’ve been given is incomplete.”

What does the new standard mean for teachers?

Teachers in Virginia are formally evaluated once a year during their first three years on the job. That switches to at least once every three years after they’re contracted with a local school division. Informal reviews can occur more frequently — particularly if an educator is struggling in certain areas, said James Stronge, a William & Mary education professor who helped the state develop its uniform performance standards for teachers as an independent consultant.   

Under the updated standards adopted by the board last week, “culturally responsive teaching” will become a new metric for teacher success. The revised document includes seven different sample indicators that a teacher is meeting the standard, from “inclusive” communication strategies that reflect the needs of all students — from English language learners to those with disabilities — to learning materials that “represent and validate diversity from all rings of culture.” 

Another example is paying special attention to students in gap groups — the state’s term for learners who fall behind in test scores and other performance metrics.

There are several ways teachers are assessed, from student surveys and self-evaluations to documentation from the classroom. Samples of diverse learning materials are one way educators can demonstrate culturally responsive teaching, according to the revised guidelines. 

The board is also planning another round of revisions before the standard goes into effect — including the development of a model evaluation system. Stronge said there will be an additional round of workgroups with teachers to determine if other sample indicators or documentation should be added to the list. 

Ken Blackstone, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the proposed implementation date for the guidelines is May 13. Once they go into effect, culturally responsive teaching will become a weighted part of teacher evaluations — along with eight other performance measures like professionalism and student academic progress.

According to Stronge, the goal of formal evaluations is to support teachers and provide professional development if they need help in certain areas. Teachers who don’t meet expectations — which factor in all eight standards — can be put on a performance improvement plan, which “is designed to support a teacher in addressing areas of concern through targeted supervision and additional resources,” Blackstone said.

But if teachers can’t or won’t make improvements, there are repercussions for consistently low evaluation scores.

“If there is a teacher who is ineffective and cannot or will not improve, that teacher is not helping children,” Stronge said. “So if that doesn’t occur, there could be consequences related to holding the position.”

What comes next?

Blackstone said VDOE would provide four regional trainings this summer on the new performance standards and evaluation criteria for teachers. The state’s two-year budget, which will be finalized in early April, also includes $365,000 for a new cultural proficiency coordinator at VDOE and statewide professional development on cultural competency.

The legislation from Locke and Jenkins requires competency training at least once every two years for teachers and administratorsAnd while the state Board of Education is responsible for establishing standards for that training by the end of 2021, Blackstone said local school boards are required to adopt their own policies for ensuring that staff meet the the new requirement by the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Burgos said many advocacy groups are also calling on school divisions to create their own training programs. That’s likely to produce some geographic differences depending on how widely local school boards embrace the concept of cultural competency beyond what’s mandated by the state.

“Yes, this makes people feel uncomfortable because they’re not sure what it means for them,” Burgos said.

Several Republican lawmakers raised objections to the bill in committee, worried it would create an unfunded mandate for school districts — or require teachers to espouse viewpoints they don’t agree with.

“I get concerned that I have a Department of Education that’s gonna try to push down — I’ll call it indoctrination,” said Del. Glenn Davis, R-84th, of Virginia Beach, during a January committee meeting. “The biggest problem I have in our nation right now with education is the conversations we should be having are not being had. Our children need to be taught everything and what all cultures have provided.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-72nd, of Henrico, responded that the state had already created another commission focused on broader cultural representation in Virginia’s standards of learning — from anti-Semitism and the underpinnings of the Holocaust to indigenous history. Supporters of the bill have also pushed back on the idea that requiring more inclusion in classrooms would threaten the rights of educators. Burgos said the legislation simply called for more diversity in instruction. If that “goes against your espoused beliefs,” she added, it’s likely that students are also being negatively impacted. 

“It’s already showing up through your actions,” she said. “It’s already showing up in the number of deficits we see throughout education.”

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