Oft the Afterthought: Diversity and Inclusion in Schools

In the past week, I have been fortunate to be in touch with many different people in the world of education from a wide variety of schools.  I am excited to be a part of the conversations in the Colorado Independent Schools Inclusivity Network, a collection of educations from independent schools who are committed to making their schools more inclusive communities.  I spent a lot of time in Seattle, visiting folks at a number of public and private high schools and having conversations with those at the University of Washington about their diversity initiatives.  I have been discussing ways that I can be a part of making schools more inclusive in Washington State, Colorado, and Illinois.

All of these conversations have really got me thinking about the place that diversity has in schools today.  Having taught in and been involved with schools for a number of years, it is clear to me and I am sure anyone who is even peripherally related to schools that DATA is the central focus of most conversations.  How can we help students meet our Adequate Yearly Progress goals?  Now, I am one of those in the world of education that think a focus on data can actually be great because it forces schools to ensure that all students are learning.  Does it always turn out to be positive?  No.  Are many kids over-tested?  Yes (my students in Chicago took over 20 standardized tests per year)!  Does that mean we shouldn’t focus on data to ensure that our students are learning?  Not at all.

A serious concern I have, though, is that in the push for data, schools are often ignoring incredibly important conversations.  In their thirst for data, schools are adding extra reading classes or math classes and cutting the arts.  Further, in the intense focus on student achievement through data collection, many schools are losing focus of how they can serve their students holistically.  It is simple common sense that students who feel safe and welcome in their school environment are going to perform better and learn more!  Yet so often in my professional conversations, I feel like I am working to convince educators or acquaintances that schools should care as much about building inclusive and justice-seeking school environments as they do about data-driven instruction.

When it comes to diversity, schools are facing two important challenges today.  First, school segregation remains an incredible issue that stands in the way of our school system being one of access and justice.  Our schools, in fact, are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board.  Second, in an almost contradictory trend as compared to the reality of school segregation, the country is becoming ever more diverse, and many schools are facing increasing challenges in best-serving their diversifying student bodies.

As for the former of these two great challenges, “What we [see] is that if you are in a highly segregated black or Latino school, chances are you are in a low-income neighborhood,” says Gary Orfield, co-author of the report, “Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation.”  Across the country, students of color lag behind their white counterparts in most all academic areas:

Reading Trends by Race in the U.S. - ages 9 (light gray), 13 (dark gray), and 17 (black)

Considering that students of color are statistically more likely to be tracked into an under-resourced, low-income school, is it any wonder that our students of color are lagging behind their white counterparts academically?  It is impossible for our educational system to be one of access and justice so long as it is also one of segregation.  Further, this is an issue of class (a subject we don’t touch in schools with a ten-foot pole).  As much as race plays a role in our schools, the levels of class segregation make race seem like a minor issue.  After all, the national average funding gap between the richest schools and poorest schools is $1,348 per student per year (Illinois and New York have the largest gaps for poor children, at $2,615 and $2,465 respectively).  In a school of 800 kids, that’s a difference of $1,078,400 per year that can pay for teachers, technology, books, resources, tutoring, and after-school programs in wealthier schools.  Again, is it any wonder that our lowest-income students lag so far behind their wealthy peers?

While a focus on data and testing has its place in the school system, we must have the courage to look at education holistically.  The solution to our failing educational system does not solely lie in teacher accountability and endless testing (as our fearless leader would seem to suggest).  The solutions must work creatively to close the funding gap AS WELL as the achievement gap (since undoubtedly they are linked).  We must end the practice of funding schools based on property values, whereby those in the poorest neighborhoods will always be guaranteed inferior schools.  We must also work creatively to integrate our schools – particularly since diverse schools are shown to be stronger academically!  There’s evidence that economic diversity leads to increased achievement.

Aside from tackling the systemic structures of segregation in our educational system, schools cannot allow themselves to get caught up in the “data, data, data” game.  Schools are realizing more and more that their student bodies are diverse and thus have diverse needs that must be met if schools are going to best serve their populations.  More and more Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) youth are finding the courage to come out in high school.  As the gap between rich and poor widens in the U.S., new economic realities are producing new needs for students of all class backgrounds.  Our religious landscape is changing, and students from a variety of religious traditions find themselves marginalized in the school environment.  Despite the overall trend of school segregation, schools are finding their students to be more and more diverse racially and ethnically.  The reality is that a cookie cutter education cannot produce the best learning and achievement results, and it sure as hell isn’t going to produce well-rounded leaders!

One of the most common buzz words in education today is “differentiated instruction,” the concept that teachers must work to meet all student learning needs (such as reading ability or math computational skill) in a diverse classroom.  We must take that principal and apply it to our school environments with regards to our diversity and inclusiveness initiatives.  We do not ask our teachers to pay tribute to our diverse student learning needs once a year with a “Everyone Can Learn” day.  Then why is the attention paid to diversity often done through a yearly “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Cultural Celebration” or something of the like?  It is time for schools to proactively look to ways that they can begin to build inclusive environments for all students year-round.

Safe-Zone Training for staff and students can create inclusive environments that reduce bullying for LGBTQ students.  Anti-Racist Student and Faculty organizations and trainings can help to create inclusive environments, and schools can create spaces for inclusiveness training while also creating “affinity group” spaces for students to talk about their school environment with others who look or feel like they do.  Schools can actively pursue curriculum that values all voices and all cultural traditions.  Schools can implement “religious studies” curriculum that informs students about the incredible and beautiful diversity of religious thought and tradition.  The point, though, is that we can no longer afford to treat diversity and inclusiveness in education as an afterthought.  Again, our students will perform better if they feel safe, welcome, and included in school!  In turn, our narrow-minded push for data for data’s-sake must end, and we must pair our efforts to hold teachers and students accountable with efforts to create powerful, inclusive communities where students are excited to learn.

After all, Educational Reform is Social Reform, and education is the most important and pressing civil rights issue of the 21st century.  Simple thinking about “good teachers” and “bad teachers” and about basic educational skills is frankly not enough.  We must work for a holistic model of educational reform, one that tackles the systemic racism and classism that has created the “achievement gap” while creating inclusive school environments.

My incredible friend Erin Jones, the Assistant-Superintendent of Student Achievement for Washington State’s school system, recently framed the conversation this way:  It is time that we stop talking about the academic deficits of our students, a conversation that places the responsibility for our “achievement gap” solely on the shoulders of our disenfranchised young people.  It is time that we begin a conversation about the deficits of opportunity that we have created for our students.

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One thought on “Oft the Afterthought: Diversity and Inclusion in Schools

  1. [...] I discussed in a past blog, the national average funding gap between the richest schools and poorest schools is $1,348 per [...]

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