Django Paris is Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy in the in the College of Education and Core Faculty in African American and African Studies at Michigan State University. He received his PhD in Education from Stanford University. His teaching and research focus on languages, literacies, and literatures among youth of color in changing urban schools and communities. He is particularly concerned with educational and cultural justice as outcomes of inquiry and pedagogy. He is author of Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools (2011) and has published in many academic forums, including the Harvard Educational Review and Educational Researcher. Paris is also the Associate Director of the Bread Loaf School of English, a summer graduate program of Middlebury College.

Many of us were not surprised this year when the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection released statistics from a national survey of 72,000 public schools that showed, among other things, African American and Latina/o students were disproportionately negatively impacted by zero-tolerance policies.  A short article in the New York Times distilled some of the most painful findings.  Among them: Black students were three and half times as likely to be suspended as White students.  Districts that expelled students under zero-tolerance policies reported Black and Hispanic Students as 45% of the student body, but 56% of those expelled. In Chicago, 45% of students were Black and yet they made up 76% of suspensions. 70% of students referred to law enforcement across the 72,000 schools were Black or Hispanic. There were brutal numbers, too, in disproportional representation in and the harsher punishments of Black students designated by schools as having disabilities (for more check Alfredo Artiles’s work on the racialization of ability).  The Times article quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (not always known to be out in front on equity issues): “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.” Indeed.

Unless we want to argue that these data prove the racial inferiority and subsequent penchant for misbehavior of Black and Brown young people, we are left with the reality that many of our schools do not value or do not know how to value African American and Latina/o students in the process of school learning.  And although these data focused on Black and Latina/o students, we know that other newcomer and longstanding communities of color in the U.S., like Indigenous Americans (shout out to Lomawaima and McCarty for their book) and Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders have also been subject to such educational injustices.

In effect zero-tolerance discipline and punish policies and their devastating effects are a disturbing window into what is a larger, longer story in U.S. public schooling—zero tolerance for the heritage and community languages, literacies, histories and cultures of longstanding and newcomer students and communities of color. That is, American public schools have long had zero tolerance (or, in the best of times, a 5%-10% tolerance) for the ways African American, Latina/o, Indigenous American, and other students and communities of color speak and act as members of their cultural communities.  In this assimilate or fail model of education, students are asked to lose their heritage and community ways with language and culture and to speak and act in ways aligned with White middle class norms and values.  If they don’t, students are deemed unsuccessful, deviant, or even dangerous.

But all is far from lost in the struggle for equity.  We have a strong tradition of educational justice work that foregrounds pluralism rather than punishment.  Here is a very brief synopsis:

Building on court rulings and subsequent policies throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s that required schools to attend to the languages (e.g., Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, African American Language) and (less so) cultures of communities of color, collaborations between researchers and teachers proved untenable and unjust the deficit approaches to teaching and learning that echoed across the decades (dang, centuries really), which viewed the languages, literacies, and cultural ways of being of many students and communities of color as deficiencies to be overcome in learning the demanded and legitimized dominant language, literacy, and cultural ways of schooling.  Resource or asset pedagogies, implemented by teachers and researchers throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, repositioned the linguistic, cultural, and literate practices of working poor communities—particularly poor communities of color—as resources and assets to honor, explore, and extend in accessing Dominant American English language and literacy skills and other White middle class dominant cultural norms of acting and being that are demanded in schools.

On the heels of the Civil Rights Data it is once again time for us to ask ourselves that age-old question: What is the purpose of schooling in a pluralistic society? Surveying policies and practices across the nation today, our current answers to this question are fairly clear.  Joining the spirit of a broader zero tolerance stance are policies like English-Only instruction (debunked here) and, in a seemingly extreme case, a state ban on Ethnic Studies in k-12 schools aimed at dismantling the successful Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, Arizona.  These are examples of the return of ever-more explicit deficit perspectives, policies, and pedagogies. Such a climate demands of us equally explicit resistances that embrace cultural pluralism and cultural equality.

I offer the term, stance, and practice of culturally sustaining education as such an explicit resistance that I believe many of us are already committed to in our schools and that I believe we need more teachers, administrators, and schools to join. The term culturally sustaining requires that our schools and classrooms be more than responsive of or relevant to the cultural experiences and practices of young people—it requires that they support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence. A culturally sustaining education begins with the premise that perpetuating and fostering—sustaining—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism is a fundamental mission of the democratic project of schooling.  It has as its explicit goal supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism in practice and perspective for students and teachers.

Culturally sustaining education takes its lead from teachers across the nation whose pedagogy supports our multilingual and multiethnic present and future.  And it takes its lead from countless researchers across the decades that have proven the value of resource and asset approaches.   If we don’t (re)commit to fashioning our schools as places that sustain multilingualism and multiculturalism, we are giving into monolingualism and monoculturalism as the desired outcome for students, and to continuing to punish students who do not, or will not, fit that mold.  We are in essence signaling that the findings of the Civil Rights Data are acceptable in our nation’s schools.  Since accepting the current mistreatment of so many students of color is not an option, it is imperative that we share with each other across classrooms, schools, and districts the ways we are joining with students to sustain all of our languages, literacies, histories, literatures, and cultures in the process of classroom learning. So I humbly ask, how are you involved in a culturally sustaining education in your classroom or school? How will you be?

*The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about educational equity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.

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2 Responses to “Joining a Culturally Sustaining Education by Django Paris”

  1. Tim San Pedro on 12/12/12 12:25 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your thoughtful questions, Django. An important wake up call to many. I find it interesting how truth can be lost in numbers. Take, for example, New Mexico’s statistics on Zero Tolerance policies. According to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, expulsion and suspension rates have dropped since Zero Tolerance policies went into effect. However, in that time, rates of expulsion for Native American students increased disproportionately: “While Native American students comprise only 11% of the student population, in 2006 they were 17% of the students suspended from school, and 32% of those expelled.” Lost in the numbers of what is deemed as “success” of such policies and programs, are marginalized students like Native Americans who are ignored under the auspices of headlines wrongfully claiming that Zero Tolerance Policies are decreasing school expulsions and dropout rates. If, as you suggest, we move toward a Culturally Sustaining Education, students may see the value in their education. They may see the worth of a system that has historically ignored, suppressed, and invalidated their community’s truths. They may welcome an education that you and I and many other people of color have resisted in small or large ways. (

  2. Django Paris on 12/12/12 1:10 PM US/Eastern

    Many thanks for the solidarity, Tim. Great link and crucial insights into the effects of these policies and stances on Indigenous young people in NM.

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