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Cultural Responsiveness and Closing the Achievement Gap In Portland's Public Schools
Cultural Responsiveness and Closing the Achievement Gap In Portland's Public Schools


With an enrollment of 48,098 students, Portland Public Schools (PPS) is the largest school district in the Pacific Northwest. Statistics indicate that by October 1st, 2013, the student populations of PPS was 55.8 percent white. Individuals of other races and ethnicities accounted for 44.2 percent of the student population. These Asian, Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander students, and multi-racial students have contributed to PPS’s distinction of being the largest and most diverse district in the statei.

Diversity is as much an asset in the classroom as an effective teacher. Experiencing diversity, students learn to be better citizens of the world, to respond to the humanity of other races, ethnicities, and cultures, and to view 21st century challenges with a broader perspective. But here in Portland and in cities nationwide, the students contributing to diversity in classrooms are facing a social injustice, what PPS calls a “historic” gap in achievement compared to white students.

A 2011 policy adopted by PPS called the achievement gap “unacceptable” and stated that it was “the responsibility of our school district to give each student the opportunity and support to meet his or her highest potentialii.” Portland State University professors Drs. Moti Hara and Esperanza De La Vega have formed an Equity Research Partnership with researchers in PPS’s Department of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment (REA) and Office of Equity & Partnerships to study the efficacy of the implementation of culturally responsive strategies intended to raise the achievement level and attain educational equity amongst students of all races and ethnicities.

Drs. De La Vega and Hara are experts in qualitative and quantitative research methods respectively. They bring to the partnership the tools and skillsets to identify the connections between equitable and culturally responsive practices and student outcomes at the school-wide level. They use their talents to inform individual schools, districts, and the state of the contextual elements that contribute to improved student performance. As each school has its own unique circumstances and there is no single solution to closing the achievement gap, Hara and De La Vega are a valuable resource to state and local organizations committed to serving all of Oregon’s students.

In a previous collaboration, the PSU Funded ‘Closing the Achievement Gap’ (CTAG) study, De La Vega and Hara provided the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) with valuable contextual data on 13 schools across the state credited with successfully improving student assessment resultsiii. That work was the foundation of what is now the ODE Office of Education Equity-funded PSU-PPS Equity Research Partnership.

Using longitudinal data collected by PPS in annual Equity and Safe and Civil Schools surveys, Hara and De La Vega and their collaborators from REA will begin to study the role of culturally responsive pedagogy and practices in closing the achievement gap at selected PPS schools. The two will also work with PPS to revise and update the annual Equity Survey distributed to PPS school staff and administrators. According to a June 2012 summary report of results of the Equity Survey, the survey’s purpose is “to better understand the extent to which schools employ equitable and inclusive practices” in order to reach the stated goal of achieving and maintaining “racial equity in educationiv.”

“I was really excited when we first began talking about starting a partnership with PPS,” Dr. De La Vega said. “We had learned a lot from the Closing the Achievement Gap project—elements related to school climate and culturally responsive practices that seemed to surface across the board in principals, teachers, staff, and even the parents at the 13 schools we looked at. Now we have an opportunity to gather data that would target those specific elements we observed.”

“In that study,” noted Dr. Hara, “it became very clear that contextual factors needed to be taken into account to inform the quantitative data. Now, on the smaller scale of Portland Public Schools, we’ll be looking at and collecting data on equitable and culturally responsive practices, taking the temperature of equity in the schools and seeing if it’s linked to student outcomes.”

According to both Hara and De La Vega, one of the most exciting aspects of the study is having the opportunity to combine theory and practice.

“We bring our ideas and methodologies to the table,” said Dr. De La Vega, “and there is a lot we can do. But the teachers, administrators, and staff in the schools, they are the ones out there living the practice every day. They take the lessons we learn in our investigations and turn them into action. It’s one of the things I find most powerful about working with schools.”

“This project isn’t a one way street,” Dr. Hara added. “We have just as much to learn from working with PPS as they do with us. It’s a reciprocal process.”

Funding from the ODE will support the analysis of student data on assessment, enrollment/attendance, and discipline/suspensions in conjunction with data on equity and safety at schools throughout PPS to provide a baseline from which to build methods to recognize schools making gains in closing the achievement gap and to develop culturally responsive professional development programs. Funding will also support two doctoral students, whom Drs. Hara and De La Vega look forward to mentoring as they work to identify the culturally responsive practices that help students reach their full potential.

In their ODE-funded proposal for the PSU-PPS partnership, the researchers envision the establishment of a district-wide annual recognition process that combines qualitative and quantitative measurements at the individual school level when acknowledging schools successfully closing the achievement gap. They imagine a district wide professional development process to help teachers and schools implement culturally responsive and equitable pedagogy and practices. It’s a future in which social justice is a cornerstone for PPS, with a narrower gap between student performances, and the elimination of the racial predictability of which students excel and which do not.

“I feel like we’re on the precipice of something really big,” Dr. Hara said of the soon to begin study.

“This work we have undertaken,” Dr. De La Vega added, “has so much potential to improve education at Portland Public Schools in the future, but we’re on a long trajectory. I’m reminded of a dicho that my mother use to say: lo que se comienza bien - termina bien. What you start well ends well.”

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted April 23, 2014


i. The source of statistics in this paragraph is:
iii.  Learn more about that project here: