Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections
Part 2 of Lessons from the Field: Understanding Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in High-Quality Instructional Materials

What Is Academic Success (Student Learning)?

Reimagining how to foster academic success in the classroom and document students' growth

“Teachers genuinely believe in the intellectual potential of these students [of color] and accept, unequivocally, their responsibility to facilitate its realization without ignoring, demeaning, or neglecting their ethnic and cultural identities. They build toward academic success from a basis of cultural validation and strength” (Geneva Gay, 2001).

Within the field of education, “academic success” is a widely used construct that is equated to “student achievement” and often linked to students’ performance on standardized test scores. This narrowed definition of academic success justifies the school failure of Black students and students learning English and shifts the blame to students, their families, and communities.

In her seminal article, “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” Dr. Ladson-Billings stated that “despite the current social inequities and hostile classroom environment, students must develop their academic skill” (p. 160). In 2014, she clarified that her stance on “academic success” must center “the intellectual growth that students experience as a result of classroom instruction and learning experience” (p. 75).

The measure of academic success should not be solely based on test scores from standardized tests and other traditional definitions of success. Educators and researchers have recognized that White middle-class standards are often set as the benchmarks of success. Schools typically expect all students, regardless of their background or culture, to assimilate to these standards. While Dr. Ladson-Billings and other scholars have affirmed that it is important for all students to have exposure to and know how to navigate the dominant culture, all educators must strive for equity within the traditional definitions of academic success, thus expanding the definition in broader and richer terms to center student learning and academic growth over time.

To move toward equitable educational outcomes for Black students and students learning English, we must reimagine how to foster academic success in the classroom and document students’ growth. To do this, we must shift toward measuring “academic success” through a range of different means, including but not limited to project-based learning, portfolios, and student reflection. Building academic success requires that teachers take responsibility for their students’ learning, create and sustain learning partnerships with students and families, and build students’ agency in their learning while consistently calling out and mitigating the structural racism and injustices that limit historically resilient students’ academic growth.

What are we learning?

Through our work with educators, we have noted several practices that speak to how they foster academic success with their historically resilient students. It is important to note that these educators highlighted the interwoven nature of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) and teacher practices in fostering student learning and academic growth and success. Below, we provide some examples of how educators have engaged standards-aligned instructional materials in service of culturally relevant instruction and an expanded definition of academic success. 

Teachers who embrace cultural relevance believe that historically resilient students have what it takes to succeed, hold high expectations for them, reaffirm their humanity, and create opportunities to experience learning growth. For example, in a conversation with one of the educators, she noted that:

“We need to make sure that our actions as educators are never putting barriers in front of students, and in fact, we are pushing them to shatter glass ceilings, regardless of any label that society may put on them. I think my purpose [as an educator] is to make sure that all of our students succeed beyond our expectations, but especially our students of color who usually are counted out of advanced classes and advanced opportunities.”

Teachers we spoke to know where their students’ strengths and areas of weakness are and use them as a starting point when teaching. This deep knowledge of students is based on a genuine commitment to students’ academic success and requires an investment in every student in the classroom. For example, one teacher described her interactions with students during a math lesson. She noted that:

“I’m able to identify which students really understood the task at hand, and which students really need to be extended a challenge because they kind of had a firm grasp on the content. Then I ask myself, “What students do I need to revisit some previous learning  because they may be missing some of those foundational pieces that I need to build on so that they can access the materials on the grade level that I’m presenting?”

Another teacher stressed the importance of checking for students’ understanding of the content before moving on to new materials. This teacher noted that:

“I need that time to come back with them and go over the assignment and talk about those mistakes and help them fix it, and talk about error analysis, things like that.”

Here, we see the teacher taking ownership of and demonstrating a commitment to student learning and academic growth when students do not fully understand the content and dedicating time to reteach and provide scaffolds until the content is understood. This kind of messaging can signal to students that their teacher is invested in them. 

As we’ve learned more about the practical applications of Dr. Ladson-Billings’ work, we’ve come to understand how academic success, particularly viewed through the lens of student growth, can’t be defined by a test score or even by successful completion of an assignment. Teachers who embody this understanding move past these limited definitions of academic success to see how their academic learning and growth have evolved over time. This means they scaffold tasks based on what their students bring to the classroom and use assessment as a tool to understand what their students know and can do, not as a way to identify gaps to fill. 

Significant time is spent understanding students’ prior knowledge and the grade-level learning targets to craft instruction that is meaningful for all students. Standards-aligned instructional materials have the potential to play an essential role by clearly defining grade-level targets and offering carefully designed activities that may be adapted to meet the needs of all learners. When standard-aligned instructional materials are used in conjunction with culturally responsive pedagogy, we are learning that both student engagement and learning experiences expand across the students’ range of growth and potential. We hope you continue on this journey with us as we explore how teachers work with standards-aligned materials in service of the other aspects of culturally relevant pedagogy. 


Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. HarvardEducational Review, 84(1), 74-84.

2 thoughts on “What Is Academic Success (Student Learning)?

  1. Equity is a magical place many never see as often as I to intervene and create equity, the reality of what students live and face daily is so politically enforced that I want to scream. The hope that I am challenged with then comes from every individual that is committed to do the work of educating. I find hope in people who are really charged to educate and lift others. My personal dilemma is am I involved in meaningful work. I was at LSU ( Louisiana State University) while I taught in the public schools of Baton Rouge. A woman walked up to me one day on campus and said, ” Why are you teaching with them those people don’t care.” I just looked at her because I was truly one of those people. What do you do when you know the best effort has gone out and Harvard intellectuals say pasting test scores are fleeting. I really believe we must trust that what are engaging in is worth the effort no matter what others think. The saying, “One does better when they know better,” only works when there is a value to do better. Money isn’t the best elevator in education it only helps our commitments and values to challenge the status quo is the best. I want to be the best educator I can be today. Jo Dawkins

  2. Some thoughts on academic success:
    1) There is a disconnect between what invested educators consider “academic success” and what others consider this to be. For example, I find that the majority of students and their parents want good grades, but the grades (letter or number) matter more than WHETHER THE STUDENT HAS ACTUALLY LEARNED ANYTHING. This is seen when teachers that give out easy A’s and B’s are lauded as “wonderful” while teachers that “take ownership” and have high expectations for all students (which involves MUCH MORE WORK for the teachers as they must actually read and mark up student work, conference with students and provide extra help, and then grade final versions) are criticized as too demanding when after all that effort, some students get the poor grades they deserve. Another example of this is evident when more than ever before, students are off on VACATION throughout the school year. These incidents were becoming more frequent before the pandemic, and now they have further multiplied. Parents just take their children out of school whenever they want. Well, their message is loud and clear — they must feel that being in school is not connected to academic success and/or school is just not that important. There is a disconnect between academic success and what that means and entails.
    2) Academic success needs to be based on more than grades. Not only because of the above-mentioned situations where a letter or number becomes the end-all-be-all rather than the knowledge it represents but because success based solely on a grade is very limiting to students that have different learning styles and abilities. I like to conference with students and have them tell me about the content — I find that this reveals very quickly whether they understand or are having difficulty. Another way to check understanding is by having students demonstrate it in some tangible way — teach another student, teach the class, etc. When a student can do this, he or she has achieved success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About the Author: Abigail Amoako Kayser, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the College of Education at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a former elementary teacher. Through her research and teaching, she aims to advance our understanding of how teachers ensure equitable, just, and anti-racist educational experiences and outcomes for historically resilient students in the U.S. and Ghana.