Cultural Competency for School Leaders

America is a diverse nation made up of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultural identities. Issues of race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality and gender identity intersect to make up students’ individual experiences which, in turn, determine their learning and social/emotional needs.

Identity Statistics

It helps for educators to be aware of diversity facts and figures. For example:

  • A little less than half of the national public school population comprises students of color, and the National Center for Education Statistics predicts this population will increase to over half (roughly 56%) by 2024.
  • As of 2017, 18% of children in the United States live in poverty, and students of color are disproportionately represented in this group.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 8% of high school students identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and another 1.8% identify as transgender.

In response to these statistics, there is increasing demand for educational leaders who can effectively meet the needs of diverse student populations. Because schools serve on the front lines of student development, it is important for them to have culturally responsive leadership to build supportive, adaptive environments that offer all students a chance at success.

Effective Leadership Is Essential

The National Policy Board for Educational Administration’s 2015 publication, Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) describes effective leaders as continually striving for equity of educational opportunity while employing culturally responsive practices to promote student success and well-being. Cultural competency is especially important for leveling the playing field for students from marginalized and underrepresented groups.

Experiences of inequality often lead to disproportionate stress among students from historically underserved populations. Stress will shape students’ experiences and correlates with everything from misbehavior to heart disease. It affects students’ abilities to cope with daily pressure and can shorten the lives of those who suffer from it.

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of such stress, as it can impede their development and interfere with their abilities to learn and succeed academically. Effective educational leadership means being attuned to the data on diverse student populations, working to address the needs of unique student bodies, and striving to support faculty and staff in providing academic rigor while creating a culture of support for all students.

To become more aware of and familiar with the needs of their students, school leaders should educate themselves on institutional biases, academic deficits and low expectations in their communities.

For example, food insecurity negatively impacts students from one in six families nationally. It produces cognitive, emotional, mental and physical consequences, resulting in poor academic performance, a higher number of missed school days, and greater difficulty in getting along with other students. School leaders in communities with high levels of food insecurity rely on continuously updated data to drive programming that will meet the needs of their students, from afterschool meal programs, to summer nutrition programs, food pantries and BackPack programs.

Positive, Schoolwide Effect of Cultural Competency

Although a data-driven approach to individualized student support is key to creating the right programming, it is also important in hiring practices, professional development and resource allocation. Culturally competent administrators hire well-prepared and highly qualified individuals, and those who reflect each school’s diverse demographic.

Student achievement gaps diminish significantly when a school staff represents a variety of cultures. In addition, culturally competent professional development will create  a more supportive school culture, and resources like the Diversity Responsive Principal’s Tool allow school leaders to assess and implement practices to facilitate student learning and well-being.

If you are interested in making a difference in the cultural environment at the administrative level, consider earning a Master of Science in Education – Educational Administration (With Principal Licensure Option) online from Youngstown State University. The M.S.Ed. program curriculum addresses the challenges that today’s educators face and includes a course on Culturally Responsive Leadership. Through the examination of culturally responsive pedagogy, you can learn how to improve student engagement and foster positive learning outcomes.

Learn more about Youngstown State University’s Master of Science in Education – Educational Administration (With Principal Licensure Option) online program.


National Center for Education Statistics: The Condition of Education

The Annie E. Casey Foundation: 2019 Kids Count Data Book – State Trends in Child Well-Being

Centers for Disease Control: Youth Risk Behavior Survey

National Policy Board for Educational Administration: Professional Standards for Educational Leaders

PSFNC: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resilience: What Can We Do?

American Youth Policy Forum: Food for Thought: How Food Insecurity Affects a Child’s Education

Teaching Tolerance: Diversity Responsive Principal’s Tool

Learning Policy Institute: Teachers of Color: In High Demand and Short Supply

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