CRSP Framework

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The Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) Framework provides the foundation for all of our work at Highlander Institute.

The framework is grounded in research, neuroscience, and the rationale of Geneva Gay, Zaretta Hammond, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Sami Alim, Django Paris, and others. Through its four domains, it highlights the importance of sociocultural awareness, relationships, developing student ownership, and cultivating higher-order thinking skills within an anti-racist approach that builds the capacity of teachers and students to disrupt inequitable systems and create more relevant and self-directed learning environments.

 Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy Framework


We know systemic inequity breeds disengagement and under-develops students’ natural cognitive skills, which undermines their confidence and potential.

When we bring the most powerful teaching to students who have been marginalized by systemic inequity, we restore their natural confidence and competence and empower them to become self-directed learners who can transform their lives, their communities, & society.

To do this we must first:

  • Examine our own biases and commit to disrupting inequities in our classrooms and schools
  • Learn about and affirm the identities, interests, and priorities of students and families
  • Use this knowledge to create a trusting and intellectually inspiring classroom
  • Incorporate student backgrounds, interests, and priorities into learning experiences

We believe that only when building upon this essential foundation, can we develop student's information processing skills, improve their competence and mastery, and help them become self-directed learners.

Explore the Framework Below






The Awareness domain recognizes that we must start with ourselves as actors within a racist, inequitable system. We must be conscious of the ways we perpetuate dominant norms and narratives and we must be aware of how systemic racism results in compliance-oriented teaching that produces dependent learners. The awareness that our worldview is not generalized -- but profoundly influenced by life experiences and that we all bring a significant amount of personal bias into our interpersonal classroom relationships -- opens the door to new levels of empathy and higher expectations for student success.


Teacher Practices

Teacher perceptions of students always include some level of bias, which impacts everything from who is more likely to be called on in class to who is seen as capable of solving rigorous problems to who is subject to disciplinary action. The effects of bias are especially visible across lines of difference (i.e., race, economic status, gender, language, special education status). A 2008 study examining the impact of White teachers, Douglas et al found that the dominant framework of most White teachers “predisposes them to have lower expectations of Black students and a lack of respect for students’ families and primary culture” (pg. 49). Disrupting this mindset is crucial as high expectations held by teachers is one of the strongest predictors of future student achievement (de Boer, et. al, 2018; Gregory & Huang, 2013). 

 When teachers learn about their students - their identities, cultures, interests, and aspirations - they are better positioned to deepen learning experiences, engage students whose perspectives are missing in traditional curriculum, and incorporate assessment practices that provide a more nuanced understanding of students’ strengths and potential (Villegas & Lucas, 2012; Koretz, 2008). Teacher affirmation of students from culturally diverse backgrounds significantly impacts student learning, student self-value, and overall academic performance (Krasnoff, 2016).

 It is particularly important to build the awareness of teachers and leaders around educational trends and policies based on race:

  • A 2021 study of K - 12 enrollment in Virginia found that Black and Latinx students are “heavily underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses” compared to their White and Asian peers (Siegel-Hawley et al). Further, scholars have argued that the underrepresentation of Black students in gifted education programs -- and overrepresentation in special education -- strongly related to efforts to perpetuate school segregation (Ford & Grantham, 2003). 
  • Colorblind notions of SEL (socio-emotional learning) do not focus enough on teacher perceptions, particularly in instances of school discipline. A 2014 report showed that preschool teachers increased the severity of disciplinary actions when their race didn’t match that of the child (Gilliam, et al. 2014). A 2017 study found that adults believe Black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age. This adultification bias is linked to harsher punishment, with Black girls receiving treatment that is not developmentally appropriate for their age as well as less empathy than their white peers (Epstein, et. al., 2017). 
  • What a teacher decides to teach is also important to understand. The decision to omit socially challenging topics is often influenced by a teacher’s upbringing, socio-cultural environment, and mindset. ““When certain subjects or topics are left out of the overt curriculum, teachers are sending messages to students that certain content and processes are not important enough to study.” (Chowdhury & Siddique, 2017)
  • Deficit thinking stems from a history of white supremacist thinking that prizes dominant traditions of learning. When students of color do not adhere to these dominant styles, many teachers misrepresent them as having deficits. As a result, teachers expect less of them, and students often internalize these low expectations. (Ford et al, 2002)
  • Students placed in lower tracks or groups are generally given fewer opportunities to move up -- either to experience grade level work, or more rigorous tasks. These practices tend to segregate students by race, widen academic disparities, and magnify inequality (Reichelt et al. 2019

There is a solid evidence base supporting the connection between increased teacher socio-cultural awareness and improved student outcomes. According to “Reading as Liberation - An Examination of the evidence base” (Student Achievement Partners, 2021), when teachers:

  • Make learning meaningful, personal, and culturally congruent; students prosper (Gay, 2000).
  • Know and affirm students’ identities -- respecting students in all their wholeness; students respond positively (Milner & Howard, 2004).
  • Hold high expectations and seek to develop strong relationships with students, especially those whose backgrounds differ from their own; students respond accordingly (Douglas et al. 2008).
  • Respect English language variations and bring such variations into the classroom; students feel valued and perform better (Devereaux & Palmer, 2019)

The Awareness domain shares strategies that support educators in uncovering their own biases, learning about the harm those biases can cause, and understanding how to better know and value students through the multifaceted identities they bring to the classroom.



Rooted in a stronger sociocultural awareness, we build a strong classroom community and nurture academic mindsets.  A trusting, affirming, nurturing classroom culture lays the foundation for interpersonal and academic success through the school year. Together, the classroom community offers support when a learner is under the load of a cognitive task. 


Teacher Practices

There are several critical components to building an effective classroom community. Relationship-building is a core driver of human development and students crave positive connections; the research base connecting positive teacher-student relationships with improved school outcomes is supported by several meta-analyses (Hattie 2012, Roorda 2011, Kincade et al 2020). However, more nuanced studies indicate the important additional layer that race adds to student-teacher relationships. A study centered on the school experience of Black males found that they felt a lack of trust towards authority figures at school and felt profiled and stereotyped by teachers (Jeffries, 2019). Black male students in the study shared that negative relationships are felt deeply and positive, caring relationships are the “key to their success.” In a study of behaviorally at-risk Black students, increasingly positive student-teacher relationships -- as reported by both teachers and students -- resulted in increased social, behavioral, engagement, and academic outcomes for students (Decker et al, 2006). A study focusing on an urban high school in the midwest found that students of color showed a significant decrease in the perception of care from White teachers (Mabin, 2016). This body of work suggests that teachers -- particularly White teachers -- must attend to building relationships with students of color with increased levels of intention. 

There are several goals behind an intentional relationship-building focus. The first is the development of a “sense of belonging.”  Studies spanning elementary to junior high to college-level settings all show that a student’s sense of belonging is highly correlated to motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy, contributing to greater academic success (McMahon et al. 2009; Goodenow & Grady 1993; Freeman et al, 2007). In a 2017 Education Week survey, 41% of teachers reported that it was challenging or very challenging to make their students feel like they belong in the classroom when it comes to sexual orientation, gender, race, etc. The Stanford Integrated Schools Project found that students in higher “identity-safe” classrooms had higher scores on standardized tests, wanted more challenging work, felt a greater sense of belonging, and felt more positive about school compared to students from less identity-safe classrooms. (Steele, 2015). In addition, interventions designed to foster a sense of belonging have been linked to improvements in long-term discipline outcomes for boys from negatively stereotyped groups (Goyer et al. 2019).

A strong sense of belonging increases student agency. Teachers who view student perspectives, identities, and choices as a learning asset can improve self-efficacy, which has been linked to improved academic outcomes (Zeiser, Scholz, & Cirks 2018, Andersen et al 2019). Further, when students are asked to make meaning of new knowledge by connecting it to something that is personal and relevant to them, they develop new schema more quickly. This description of student agency overlaps well with Hattie’s definitions of integrating prior knowledge; scaffolding & situated learning; and student-centered teaching, all influences shown to have significant effect sizes related to student achievement (Visible Learning MetaX Influence Glossary). 

Finally, a strong classroom community supports strong academic mindsets and a culture of thinking. There is a strong evidence base supporting the notion that students’ attitudes about learning, beliefs about their intelligence, persistence, self-control, and quality of their relationships has an impact on student performance (Ames & Archer, 1988; Bandura, 1997; Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Keith, Keith, Troutman, Bickley, Trivette, & Singh, 1993; Pintrich, 2000; Schunk & Hanson, 1985; Wentzel, 1991; Zimmerman, 1990) cited here.  Multiple studies also show that students who believe that their intelligence can grow based on effort and persistence score higher than their peers (Paunesku et al. 2015; Wilson & Linville 1982, 1985; Blackwell et al. 2007). These results hold true for students across the socioeconomic spectrum, highlighting the power academic mindsets have to help combat the effects of poverty (Claro et al. 2016). Finally, students in classrooms with a strong culture of thinking have been shown to be more engaged, have more positive perceptions of learning, be more ready to explore new content, and be better positioned for higher-order problem solving (Salmon 2008; Gardner 1991; Ritchhart 2015). 

The Community Building domain works to ensure that teachers develop connections and a feeling of care with all students while understanding and navigating the role that racial differences play in relationship dynamics. A strong classroom community is an important precursor to an emphasis on cognitive development. 



By leveraging relationships, a mindset around equity, and learning science, we disrupt a culture of low expectations and shift the cognitive load to students by developing their information processing skills. A constructivist approach to knowledge makes students’ thinking visible, builds on their personal and cultural strengths, and empowers them to examine the curriculum from multiple perspectives.



When teachers are able to tap into the background knowledge, interests, and identities of their learners, students increase their ownership of learning and improve their academic outcomes (Ladson-Billings, 1995); additionally, students display higher levels of independence and responsibility, more positive student attitudes toward learning, stronger collaboration skills, and more confidence and pride in their own identities as learners, a key component of academic mindset (Volman & 't Gilde 2020; Brozo et al. 1996).


The use of thinking routines helps scaffold student thinking and make it visible, and a growing evidence base supports this focus in the classroom. Thinking maps have been linked to increased comprehension and improved connections between topics (Long and Carson, 2011). Further, scaffolding student thinking and integrating thinking routines has been shown to deepen academic conversations, increase vocabulary, improve participation, increase critical thinking skills, improve engagement, raise test scores, and enable teachers to more easily recognize student misconceptions (Zwiers and Crawford 2009Dajani 2016, Ritchhart and Perkins 2008, Ritchhart et al 2011). Thinking routines have also resulted in positive shifts in school culture as well as increased student ownership and participation ( (Marshall 1988; Ritchhart, Palmer, Church, & Tishman 2006; Ritchhart, Hadar, & Turner, 2008) cited here


Within the CRSP framework, formative assessment structures, ongoing teacher feedback, and student reflection practices collectively support cognitive development and critical thinking skills. Formative assessment practices are supported by several meta-analyses (Fucks & Fuchs 1986, Black & Wiliam, 1998, Kingston & Nash 2011, Graham et al 2015) and have been shown to be “highly effective in raising the level of student attainment, increasing equity of student outcomes, and improving students’ ability to learn” (OECD, 2005). One of the most foundational elements of formative assessment is teacher feedback. Several meta-analyses place teacher feedback among the top 10 influences of any kind on achievement when feedback is timely, specific and focuses on cognitive processes versus overall proficiency (Hattie & Timperley 2007, Van der Kleij, Feskens, & Eggen, 2015). An important caveat is positive feedback bias; a 2012 study found that teachers give more positive, less constructive feedback to Black and Latinx students, contributing to the insufficient challenge that can undermine the academic achievement of students of color (Harber, 2012). 


Finally, there is a substantial evidence base in support of differentiated instruction in order to tailor teaching to the needs of different learners (Subban 2006, Tomlison 1999). While the use of targeted, small group instruction has gained traction in schools and districts, the lack of consistent intentions, frameworks, and definitions (Bondie, Dahnke & Zucho, 2019) -- and the challenge of effectively implementing differentiated groups in the classroom --  requires some important parameters. Guidance from the Institute of Education Sciences includes a focus on using data and progress monitoring tools and ensuring frequent regrouping (2009). Of importance to note is the impact that heterogeneous grouping can have on segregation practices in the classroom -- and how disproportionately low test scores of students of color can often separate them from their White peers in the classroom (Hawley). 



An important component of academic mindset is that school work “has value” for students. Students are more willing to engage in rigorous work when learning is relevant, interesting, and affirming of their identities and perspectives. Empowering students to leverage their growing cognitive skills to recognize and analyze systems of injustice -- and take action against these systems -- prepares students to use their education to improve their lives, their schools, and their communities.



“Research has suggested that critical consciousness — the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems — can be a gateway to academic motivation and achievement for marginalized students (El-Amin et al, 2017).”

The academic and social value of centering coursework on the cultural identities and backgrounds of students has been well established; positive effects include increased confidence, higher college attendance, a strong positive relationship between the racial identity of students of color and academic achievement, higher student engagement, significant skill growth, improved attitudes towards learning, and increased student agency (Altschul, Oysermanand Bybee 2006, 2008; Chavous and colleagues 2003; Carter 2008; O’Connor 1997; Brozo and Valerio 1996; Bean, Valerio, Senior, and White 1999; Copenhaver 2001; Krater, Zeni, and Cason 1994; Gay 2010; Rickford 2001; Lee 1995; Matthews and Smith 1994; Tyson 2002; Halagao 2004, 2010) reviewed and cited here

Many studies have also noted positive effects -- particularly for students of color -- when students analyze unjust systems and work to promote equality, including increased academic achievement and engagement, enrollment in higher education, and persistence in school (Escalanté and Dirmann 1990; Foster 1995; Krater, Zeni, and Cason, 1994; LadsonBillings 1994; Sheets 1995; and Tharp and Gallimore 1988) cited here; (Cabrera et al, 2014, Cammarota, 2007. Similarly, studies have shown that students who are empowered to take action against injustice are more likely to attend college, attend selective colleges, and be civically engaged (Cammarota 2007, Rogers & Terriquez 2013, Diemer et al., 2014; Ginwright, 2010 cited here). More specifically, analyzing examples of systemic racism results in higher levels of critical consciousness and higher levels of career development for BIPOC high school students (Diemer & Blustein 2005).

High levels of critical consciousness have also been associated with high school engagement, high extracurricular engagement, higher helping engagement, and plans for future university study (McWhirter & McWhirter 2016); as well as improved attendance and GPA gains. For example, in one study, 9th grade students exposed to critical consciousness in an Ethnic Studies course saw on average an increase in GPA by 1.4 points, attendance by 21%, and earned credits by 23. Students below a 2.0 GPA in this study also improved their academic outcomes, with GPA increasing by 0.39, attendance by 5.6%, and earned credits by 6.3.  (Dee & Penner 2016). ; Seider, Clark & Graves 2020).