Cultural & Linguistic Competence

Teacher helping African American student in school library

Cultural and linguistic competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professions to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.


Ethnically and racially diverse students represent 43% of the US student population. 

With the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, schools must be aware of cultural differences and how they influence learning styles, communication, and behavior.   Schools must also be equipped to provide meaningful educational experience for all children regardless of race, ethnicity and culture.  School staff must become culturally competent in order to provide a culturally responsive learning environment.  When culture is ignored, students and their families are at risk of not getting the support they need, or worse yet, receiving assistance that is more harmful than helpful.

Approximately 20% of children ages 5-17 speak a language other than English at home, and 5% speak English with difficulty.

The cultural gap between students and their teachers very often can be a factor in students’ academic performance and contribute to achievement gaps among different student groups.  Some 20 percent of public school students are Hispanic, with students of other ethnicities and multiracial students comprising another 22 percent of public school students. In addition, the number of children ages 5-17 who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled between 1979 and 2005 to more than 10 million students. 

These trends will continue as the nation and the school-age population become increasingly diverse and vulnerable. Overall, the dramatic diversification that is currently underway in the United States may someday result in cultural competence reaching a status comparable to computer literacy.

Cultural competence is an important factor in enabling educators to be effective with students from cultures other than their own.

Cultural competence, as it relates to education, is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and an understanding about differences, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the capability and capacity to understand the differences within a cultural and/or ethnic group that makes each student unique, while celebrating the variations between cultural and/or ethnic groups that make our country the unique “melting pot” that it has been characterized as being, although many prefer to describe it as a” salad bowl”.  This understanding provides the basis for the creation of culturally responsive learning environments and teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom.


Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M., (1989). Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.


Featured Resources

Homepage of the Our Nation's English Learners resource

Presents an interactive website that provides a State by State chart of the most common non-English languages spoken by English Learners (ELs), highlighting the more than 400 different languages spoken across the country; a district level map that shows current EL populations; as well as changes in the EL populations over time, and graphics highlighting how likely ELs are to attend schools and districts with high concentrations of other ELs.

U.S. Department of Education

Uses a survey of 96,400 public schools and educational programs and 17,300 school districts in the United States to measure student access to courses, programs, staff support, and resources — as well as school climate factors, such as student discipline and bullying and harassment — that impact education equity and opportunity for students.

U.S. Department of Education
CDC cover page on LGBT Youth

Provides research-based steps parents can take to support the health and well-being of LGBTQ youth. Also, outlines effects on education and mental health regarding this population and what can schools can do to foster a nurturing environment.  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Photo of the English Learner Toolkit for State and Local Agencies book cover.

Assists state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) in meeting their legal obligations to English Learners (EL) and in providing all ELs with the support needed to attain English language proficiency while meeting college- and career-readiness standards. The EL Tool Kit is intended primarily for state, district, school administrators, and teachers, but may also inform other stakeholders concerned with the education of ELs. 

U.S. Department of Education

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