Cultural Competency

Cultural Competency: Finding Ways to Bring Equity Through Personalized Learning

As more schools, districts, and states implement personalized learning strategies, the focus has shifted from plug and play technology solutions to rethinking the structure of the classroom as we know it. So how are states moving forward with personalized learning initiatives?

In this podcast series, Student-Centered Pathways to Student Success, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges that come with this movement towards personalized learning.

A key factor of personalized learning is equity. How can educators make sure that all students feel seen, are understanding the information and are successful in the classroom? Cultural competency is a crucial skill for teachers to have and implement in their lesson planning and classroom environment.

To learn more about equity in the classroom, we spoke with Nick Donahue, CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. His foundation is focused on community leadership and engagement, and has developed a student-centered learning frame over the last couple of years with several main components: meet learners where they’re at, embrace competency-based learning, expand learning to outside the classroom, and student agency and responsibility.

“We’re saying, I want to teach young people to be responsible adults. Then help them practice by being responsible for something as important in their lives, which is their own learning,” says Nick.

“The summary piece for us is, today, learning is a great variable in terms of outcomes. And where, when, and with whom, learning happens are more constant and uniform. And we’re just thinking if you really want to have high levels of learning be the constant, then you need to vary where, with, and with whom, and what the kids are doing.”

To create meaningful change in the classroom, Nick says educators have to rethink what the “traditional classroom” looks like, and challenge legacy structures that keep classrooms stagnant.

“To really advance higher renditions of what we’re talking about, it means challenging some of the traditional structures and approaches and mindsets that have ruled education for more than 100 years,” he says.

“Schools were organized to really build shared understanding, common levels of learning, and they were also about assimilation, sorting and calling kids to see which few would have a chance for higher education. And that was an old idea way back that might have had a place in our in our history, but we don’t think it has a place in our future as a country or a society.”

How can teachers begin to challenge norms that have been in place for over 100 years? Nick advises district leaders to approach this issue by offering more flexibility to teachers.

“So it’s really about just having more flexible constructs, more open space and open time, and really supporting teachers and understanding their learners in customizing to a limited degree,” he says.

“But it’s just being a little smarter about if you want to have, like I said, a large group instruction: let’s group young people together who are struggling with a common concept. So that one educator in a group of so many can support and engage these young people. Flipped learning is headed in the right direction, that would mean when the kids are together with you, let’s do the things that really access the killer app that great teachers are.”

O’Sha Williams, a Providence-based high school English teacher and a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow, says it’s important for students to have teachers that look like them and share their experiences.

“I went to predominantly white institution. I graduated from Brown University, and I’m originally from Queens, New York. And from a predominantly immigrant and low-income neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. And having grown up there I was surrounded by black women being in leadership roles in every capacity: in classrooms, in governance,” she shares.

“I didn’t really notice that that was unusual until I left that space, where it wasn’t a predominantly immigrant or predominantly black area. And that learning of other people’s educational experiences, they had educators that were not from their communities.”

How are demographics in the classroom changing in Providence? And how does that impact personalized learning initiatives? O’Sha says Providence has seen a great change in the demographics of its public schools as of 2017.

“As of the 2016-2017 school year, we had more than 90 percent students of color in our public schools. So with a teaching force that is predominantly white, and the student population is predominantly of color, there is no way to say culturally relevant teaching is having teachers that look like you because that clearly cannot be possible at this time,” she says.

O’Sha says it’s important to consider the many factors of a students’ life outside of the classroom when building lesson plans and implementing personalized learning, so that students are more likely to succeed.

“I think personalized learning is a mix of the goals and potential growth of a students’ academic career. So keeping in mind their academic, cultural, emotional, economic factors. That is the lens that we use to inform the decisions that we make with students about their academic experience, so that it’s true to not only what they, their families envision or desire coming from their education rather than will be prescribe to students. Since there’s so much variation among those experiences in an increasingly diverse school system.”

O’Sha implements personalized learning and equity in her classroom by meeting her students where they’re at, based on the language they speak. She teaches students who speak a variety of languages including Spanish, French, Arabic and more.

“For me, blunt and personalized learning overlap. Since that is the context within which I’ve seen it. The way that it works in my classroom, is that students have tasks lists that are based on their language, their demonstrated level of writing complexity, and their demonstrated reading levels. So the things that they are assigned, and the tasks that they are required to do by the end of the week, are accommodated for. So students have lists that reflect the language that they speak.”

O’Sha says this student-centered approach affirms students’ passions, and allows them to have more agency and choice in their education in what topics they want to research and focus on within the realm of organized lesson plans.

“Students have a variety of experiences and needs that can’t all be met in one fell swoop. So by having students work on task list that are catered to their experience, their linguistic ability, and their interests. Giving them choice and giving them flexibility in meeting those academic standards allows for students to be more interested in what they’re doing. Like an important historical figure that is in line with their own academic goals or pursuits, or whether they are studying a part of their own culture to present to others.”

When students are enabled to pick their topics of interest, they are happier and more engaged, says O’Sha.

“If I am putting before them the same narrow scope of information and saying, you are being evaluated on your ability to succeed with no consideration of their intelligences or what their demonstrated passions are. If we haven’t taken into account while we’re choosing those systems and while we’re choosing, like looking at the catalog of what these programs are. And if it’s not going to have the things that students are going to be passionate about, you’re going to see the students that are less passionate about it, probably not perform as well. Because it’s not something that’s relevant to what their goals are, and where their interests lie.”

Nick Donahue agrees that this approach can be helpful for both students and teachers, as it doesn’t try to squeeze students into a one size fits all teaching model that could leave students behind and not address issues they’re having in the classroom.

“I’d love to organize so that teachers time and energy and expertise can be used best. And that really is touching individual learners in specific places where they need specific help. I think the definition of putting students at the center is just keeping them close. Educators, trusting their thinking, tracking on outcomes. Not just seed time and endurance,” he says.

O’Sha maintains that this sort of targeted learning effectively creates equity in the classroom.

“Students aren’t worried about, ‘Oh, you have a different page than me.’ Because they recognize we’ve had conversations about equity versus equality. It’s not about what everyone gets, it’s about what everyone needs,” she says.

What are the consequences if educators just shrug off personalized learning and keep following classroom norms? Nick says not considering individual students’ needs can cause them harm in the long term.

“We’re still sacrificing too many great minds and hearts of new Americans, of young people of color, of young people of lower income and of middle income and all sorts of students. We just can’t get away with sacrificing so much. And I think people don’t understand that our performance, as it relates to really being ready and successful, that there is just too big a gap there. So trying to find ways to shine a light on that without turning it into blaming teachers or blaming administrators. This is a team sport and our society has benefited from great experiments from a history of solid public education. But I think we’re confused about how well the current system is really working for all of us.”

Nick argues that organizing a more targeted approach can help build students’ confidence, and meet the needs of young people who he says have been less well served and most harmed by the current education system.

“We’re well into an era of personalization and customization as a society. And so that’s the good news. I think though that in education, we have not quite really faced the distinctions that define racial inequities,” he says.

“If we build a universal model that attends to everybody, it will have hopes of attending to the needs of those whose futures we really depend on. Those who school has been serving the least well, those who are most influenced, and whose paths to success are most obstructed by issues of racism, and classism, and just the confusion we still have around difference.”

So what does a personalized model like this look like in practice? Keith Nalbach of the MET School, a network of public high schools in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island that focuses on personalized learning, says building a safe, community-oriented culture helps students feel comfortable asking for help and for accommodations they need to succeed.

“If we don’t identify it, their peers are going to identify it and let us know about it. And that’s happened time and time again. The culture is really critical part and I think the way in which we build up the culture here at the Met is very community based. And students don’t feel like they’re violating any trust or anything like that when they come to a teacher about an issue that a student’s having. And a lot of times the students can come up themselves. They’ll hang back and be like, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’ And address issues that are going on outside of school, or at home, and look for the help that they need.”

Keith says the students start by telling their peers and their teachers about their lives and backgrounds, so everyone can be aware of each others’ experiences, and embrace them.

“Students are expected to do a ‘Who am I?’ project, and it’s much easier to speak publicly the first time when you can’t really have a wrong answer, when you’re talking about yourself and your family background. But that also opens up students eyes to all the different backgrounds that are here and all different cultures that do exist. And we celebrate them, we don’t mock them, we don’t knock them. And I would say we, for the most part, don’t just tolerate different backgrounds.” 

Keith believes that personalized learning and support for students needs to extend further than just in the classroom. That support needs to be available for students who need more than just individualized education.

“There’s more factors and just the curriculum and just like the way in which teachers are teaching, or delivering information, or empowering students. There’s also that the nutrition factor. We have our own in-house kitchen, and students have up the opportunity to have a nutritious breakfast and lunch every single day, free of charge,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a student here, you get to eat lunch and you are not charged. There’s also we have the internship opportunities and transportation is not an issue. We have our own in-house fleet of small buses that bring kids all over the state and sometimes out of state.”

By offering these resources to students, the MET school shows they’re here to help, and bridge the gap to help students with issues that could follow them home, and help relieve some personal pressure.

“Some students from some families might not have that access, or it might be putting extra pressure on families. Like maybe they don’t have time to leave work, or maybe they are working a second shift and they don’t time to make an appointment. Whatever the case may be, that access is there. So we try to cover all bases, not just the education in and of itself, but also the other factors that go into play,” says Keith.

One of the misconceptions of personalized learning is that it will make teachers dispensable since everything will be technology-mediated. Nick argues this point, saying that schools cannot advance personalized learning efforts without the personal touch teachers bring.

“None of this happens without the leadership, and the courage of educators. And they shouldn’t have to go at it alone. Currently, we carve out space. We give appreciation to teachers who try new things. But we haven’t organized really to innovate, and create, and to follow the lead and expertise of our professional educators on moving these issues forward,” he says.

“We’re coming out of a time where teachers have really been limited. I remember when it was about teacher-proof curriculum. I’m really trying to pretend like it didn’t matter who the fantastic adults were in the room. And this is not just a technical expertise. This is not just a value based one on purpose, and nurturing a public good of education. It’s a professional one.”

O’Sha says teachers have to make individual choices to switch up their teaching styles to be more student-centered, but the biggest changes need to be institutional and widespread.

“There are a lot of institutional decisions that need to be made in terms of scheduling, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary, and laterally discussed student needs and progress, so that it’s not just in a particular class, that student sees that individualized learning, it’s a individualized learning that spans their academic exposure.”

Nick says teachers should work together to help make positive classroom adjustments and override the fears of big change.

“It’s about organizing, teachers organizing themselves to support each other. Swimming against a tradition and a 150-year-old institution is hard work. It’s not easy to change. So it takes a team effort. And I’d say it’s just teachers coming together in and if needed outside of their formal organizations, and making decisions that the reasons they decide to teach were to make a big difference, not just for individuals, but for their communities. And so it’s really about coming together and joining hands because there is strength in numbers. And it’s hard to change big institutions. It doesn’t happen easily.”

A students’ interaction with a teacher can change their whole life. Teachers define the memories students have of school and growing up. That definition could be positive or negative, and O’Sha is working to intentionally craft an environment in her classroom that helps students feel understood.

“All that new jargon that’s come out about what these practices are that make sure that a student is seen in the full complexity of their identity and their experience. It’s making sure that we are connected to the communities, making sure that we have pipelines so that students can serve their communities and the communities can serve themselves. And making sure that not only do schools begin these conversations about you’re valued, you are wonderful, but that is seen and practiced in our interactions, and how we treat students, and how we hire teachers, and how we appoint people in legislative positions,” she says.

So how can educators make sure their classrooms are equitable?

“Equity is being fully encompassing of an individual in order to make decisions,” O’Sha says.

“Stacking the deck. Equity is making sure that students have the same ability to take for granted their academic environment being for them, and structured for them, and in their favor. And thoughtful, intentional, and curated for their success. And not feeling as though they are in a system that has been structured for them to fail.”

So what are the pieces of a successful individualized learning plan? Stay tuned for the rest of our series to find out.

This podcast episode is brought to you by Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a nonprofit organization designed to empower excellent, experienced teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. To learn more about Teach Plus, visit

You are invited to join Teach Plus and Teach Plus Rhode Island Fellows at the MET School in Providence, RI on Saturday, June 8th for a day of learning and conversation around promising practices in personalized and student-centered learning. Come as a participant or apply to present! The agenda will include guest speakers, teacher led workshops and self-guided break out sessions, as well as breakfast and lunch provided. Learn more and register for this free conference.

Mariel Cariker

Mariel Cariker

Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.