In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culturally Responsive Leadership

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Handbooks
  • Conceptual Frameworks
  • Cultural Competence
  • International Perspectives
  • Comparative Studies
  • Antiracist/Race Conscious Leadership
  • Dual Language/Bilingual Programs
  • Special Education Leadership
  • School-Community Relationships
  • Leadership Preparation
  • Professional Development Resources

Education Culturally Responsive Leadership
Lauri Johnson, Carrie Fuller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0067


Culturally responsive leadership, derived from the concept of culturally responsive pedagogy, involves those leadership philosophies, practices, and policies that create inclusive schooling environments for students and families from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds. Common practices include emphasizing high expectations for student achievement; incorporating the history, values, and cultural knowledge of students’ home communities in the school curriculum; working to develop a critical consciousness among both students and faculty to challenge inequities in the larger society; and creating organizational structures at the school and district level that empower students and parents from diverse racial and ethnic communities. Similar terms used to describe this approach to leadership include culturally proficient leadership, culturally relevant leadership, culture-based leadership, cultural competency, multicultural leadership, and leadership for diversity. Although there are subtle differences in how authors and researchers employ these different terms, in general these approaches encourage teacher leaders, school principals, and district-level leaders to “lead for diversity” and work with teachers, parents, and the larger community to develop curriculum frameworks, pedagogical practices, and organizational structures and routines that are consistent with the cultural orientations of ethnically diverse students and their families. While much of the investigation of culturally responsive practices has focused on classroom teaching, recent efforts have applied a culturally responsive framework to school leadership. In general, these studies characterize culturally responsive school leaders as those who emphasize high expectations for student academic achievement, exhibit an ethic of care, promote inclusive instructional practices, and develop organizational structures that empower parents and the larger community in the life of the school. Culturally responsive leadership often overlaps with “leadership for social justice” approaches, a term that has been prevalent in the US educational literature and focuses on improving the educational experiences and outcomes for all students, particularly those who have been traditionally marginalized in schools. While this bibliography incorporates some sources that focus on socially just leadership, it emphasizes those school leadership theories and practices that respond to issues of ethnicity, culture, language, and race.

General Overviews

These sources discuss general leadership approaches to diversity issues, often through reviews of the empirical and research literature. Riehl 2000 is a classic review of leadership for diversity that focuses on developing new meanings for diversity, inclusive organizations, and school-community relationships. Gardiner and Enomoto 2006, McCray and Beachum 2011, Beachum 2011, and Madhlangobe and Gordon 2012 emphasize the multicultural and culturally responsive skills needed by 21st-century urban school leaders. See Agosto, et al. 2013 for a meta-analysis of the literature on culture-based leadership that intersects with social justice concerns. For empirically based studies of school leaders’ views and practices, see Boske 2009, a survey of administrators’ views on leadership standards; Brown, et al. 2011, which documents how school principals closed achievement gaps in diverse schools; Theoharis 2008, personal narratives of social justice leaders; Santamaria 2013, a qualitative study of critically-oriented leaders of color; and Sapon-Shevin 2011 who details real-life scenarios of schools centered on social justice.

  • Agosto, Vonzell, Leila Dias, Nikia Kaiza, Patricia Alvarez McHatton, and Donna Elam. 2013. Culture-based leadership and preparation: A qualitative meta-synthesis of the literature. In Handbook of research on educational leadership for equity and diversity. Edited by Linda C. Tillman and James Joseph Scheurich, 625–650. New York: Routledge.

    In this insightful review of twenty-three practitioner and academic articles published between 2000 and 2010, the authors advocate for bridging social justice leadership and culture-based leadership. They question why the literature for practitioners uses culture-based terms but not terms related to social justice leadership.

  • Beachum, Floyd. 2011. Culturally relevant leadership for complex 21st–century school contexts. In The SAGE handbook of educational leadership: Advances in theory, research, and practice. 2d ed. Edited by Fenwick W. English, 27–35. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Advances a leadership framework that emphasizes emancipatory consciousness that is geared toward liberty for all people; equitable insight that shuns a deficit perspective and acknowledges students’ uniqueness and diversity; and a reflexive practice that is oriented toward a change agency—all of which result in new knowledge, feelings, and actions.

  • Boske, Christa. 2009. Children’s spirit: Leadership standards and chief school executives. International Journal of Educational Management 23.2: 115–128.

    DOI: 10.1108/09513540910933486

    This electronic survey examined how 1,087 members of the American Association of School Administrators ranked national leadership diversity standards. Standards ranked most important focused on all students, while those ranked least important centered on specific culturally and linguistically diverse populations. A majority of administrators felt they were not prepared to address equity issues.

  • Brown, Kathleen M., Jen Benkovitz, A. J. Muttillo, and Thad Urban. 2011. Leading schools of excellence and equity: Documenting effective strategies in closing achievement gaps. Teachers College Record 113.1: 57–96.

    Authors examined twenty-four elementary “Honor Schools of Excellence” for differences in achievement gaps. Interviews with stakeholders and equity audits revealed eight small gap (SG) and eight large gap (LG) schools. While demographic similarities existed between the two groups, how principals encouraged academic achievement and offered instructional support differed greatly, as did their expectations for academic excellence.

  • Gardiner, Mary E., and Ernestine K. Enomoto. 2006. Urban school principals and their role as multicultural leaders. Urban Education 41.6: 560–584.

    DOI: 10.1177/0042085906294504

    Using the framework from Riehl 2000, this qualitative study examined the work of six principals through a cross-case analysis. The principals were least knowledgeable about culturally relevant instructional practices and varied in terms of holding high expectations or deficit perspectives of their students.

  • Madhlangobe, Lewis, and Stephen P. Gordon. 2012. Culturally responsive leadership in a diverse school: A case study of a high school leader. NASSP Bulletin 96.3: 177–202.

    DOI: 10.1177/0192636512450909

    Through focus group interviews with teachers and parents, shadowing, and observations, this case study details the culturally responsive practices of an assistant principal in central Texas, emphasizing her focus on caring, building relationships, being persistent and persuasive, being present and communicating, modeling cultural responsiveness, and fostering cultural responsiveness among others.

  • McCray, Carlos, and Floyd Beachum. 2011. Culturally relevant leadership for the enhancement of teaching and learning in urban schools. In The international handbook of leadership for learning. Edited by Tony Townsend and John MacBeath, 487–502. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-1350-5

    Advances the notion of “cultural collision and cultural collusion”—when students of color are at odds with the culture of the school, develop a defeatist outlook, and educators fail to reach out to them. In response, culturally relevant leaders encourage diverse teaching methods, value multiple voices, and create community connections.

  • Riehl, Carolyn J. 2000. The principal’s role in creating inclusive schools for diverse students: A review of normative, empirical, and critical literature on the practice of educational administration. Review of Educational Research 70.1: 55–81.

    DOI: 10.3102/00346543070001055

    This comprehensive review is organized around three key tasks for principals: fostering new meanings of diversity, promoting inclusive school cultures and instructional programs, and building relationships between schools and communities. Riehl concludes by arguing that school administration is a moral and epistemological discursive practice connected to the leader’s identity.

  • Santamaria, Lorri J. 2013. Critical change for the greater good: Multicultural perceptions in educational leadership toward social justice and equity. Educational Administration Quarterly.

    DOI: 10.1177/0013161X13505287

    Qualitative study of leadership goals, decisions, and practices of six leaders of color. Common characteristics include engaging in critical conversations, assuming a “critical race theory” lens, consensus building as decision-making strategy, consciousness of stereotype threat, contributing to academic discourse, honoring constituents, leading by example, building trust, and servant leadership.

  • Sapon-Shevin, Mara. 2011. Zero indifference and teachable moments. In Leadership for social justice and democracy in our schools. Edited by Alan M. Blankstein and Paul D. Houston, 145–168. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

    This chapter in an interesting edited collection begins with real-life scenarios of discrimination based on racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation in schools. Sapon-Shevin then outlines common barriers administrators face in terms of time or lack of formation as well as attributes of schools centered on social justice.

  • Theoharis, George. 2008. Woven in deeply: Identity and leadership of urban social justice principals. Education and Urban Society 41.1: 3–25.

    DOI: 10.1177/0013124508321372

    Using critical race theory, this secondary analysis focuses on seven principals committed to social justice. Theoharis provides insightful personal histories revealing what brought these leaders to their work, and describes their common characteristics, which include arrogant humility, inspired vision, and dedication in the face of resistance.

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