Earlier this year, more than 160 Durham Public School teachers, staff, and administrators logged onto Zoom to complete a formidable task: learn how to use data, empathy, and self-reflection to eliminate the racial disparities that have long plagued this district.
The training session began with a reminder of norms.
“We ask that we exercise or allow constructive friction, meaning that there can be some friction in these discussions,” said Daniel Bullock, one of the session’s coordinators. “And that’s totally fine, but we do want it to be constructive and move us towards a better end as a group.”
District-wide diversity, equity and inclusion training has gained significant popularity in recent years as policymakers and administrators became more convinced by research that academic disparities between white students and students of color were partly caused by some educators’ false beliefs of the intelligence levels and behaviors of students of color. Districts could start to systemically address those disparities once educators start to recognize racist or biased ideas and build systems to protect students from them.
“Schools are uniquely situated as places that can change life chances for people in our society,” said Zachary Casey, chair of educational studies at Rhodes College in Tennessee. “If we have goals of more racial equity, schools have to be central to that work.”
But in the last year, K-12 DEI professional development has been under attack by conservative politicians who argue that the trainings are ineffective, divisive, and are meant to shame white people for something they are not responsible for. At least 14 states have passed laws restricting what schools can say and do in these trainings.
“The charitable hope is that this kind of cultural training will actually increase professional sensitivity in a way that will help reach students who might otherwise find themselves needlessly alienated by the schools that serve them,” said Max Eden, an education research fellow for the right-leaning think-tank American Enterprise Institute. “My concerns, vis-à-vis the reality, is there is all but no reason, empirically speaking, to believe that diversity training actually accomplishes those ends in the professional sphere.”
He cites, for instance, a 2016 Harvard Business Review study which found mandatory diversity training in U.S. companies did not lead to improvements in actual behavior or diversity, especially when the training came in reaction to a negative event like a lawsuit.
Another concern, Eden said, is that these trainings are considered to be so morally infallible that if diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives don’t work or make things worse—such as changes to school discipline programs leading to more school violence—school districts may end up doubling down on the initiatives rather than critically reviewing them and trying something different.
For Casey at Rhodes College, off-the-shelf diversity training programs often fail because they don’t respond to the specific contexts and needs of individual schools.
“The most impactful antiracist changes I’ve seen in schools have come from teacher leaders who worked with others in their schools and districts to create new ways for teachers to collaborate on ways to improve the experiences of their students of color,” Casey said.
To illustrate what a district-level diversity, equity, and inclusion training can entail and the types of conversations it elicits, Education Week sat in for Durham’s mandatory session held in January. Participants’ names are withheld in this story, a condition intended to allow for open and honest observed conversations.
As the day’s session progressed, there wasn’t much friction between participants. Colleagues cordially agreed with each other on things they could be working on to better support all students; they commiserated over challenges in the way of this work such as ongoing staff shortages; and they shared personal stories of their own work toward addressing historic inequities, including at least one white male educator acknowledging some discomfort in how to do the work yet eagerness to try.
Normalizing conversations about race and implicit bias
Back in 2013, Durham received a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights complaint alleging Black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately getting more out-of-school suspensions. Data found that African American students, who made up close to 50 percent of the district’s students at the time, represented almost 78 percent of the students who received these suspensions while only about 5 percent of white students, who made up about 19 percent of the district, received the same suspensions. And students with disabilities were twice more likely to be suspended than students without disabilities.
(Durham is made up of about 80 percent students of color, with close to 59 percent white teachers and about 39 percent Black teachers, Bullock said.)
While Durham’s initial response to the complaint was to update its student code of conduct, Bullock, who at the time was a social studies curriculum specialist for the district, saw how neighboring districts with similar complaints but a larger white student population took the approach of developing or adopting an office of equity affairs.
Bullock made the argument to the then-superintendent that equity efforts, specifically normalizing conversations around how race and implicit bias play out in school policies and procedures, were, in fact, more pressing in Durham due to its student demographics.
“I do think when people envision racism in schools, for example, people’s primary idea of what that looks like is it would be a majority white space or majority white class with a few Black students in the class who were being mistreated in a white space,” Bullock said.
“What some people struggle to see or understand is that you can be in a majority Black space or a space with majority students of color and if there are deficit ideas present about students of color, they can be just as damaging, if not more damaging, in the majority Black and brown space.”
Bullock became executive director of equity affairs in January 2017. Since then, Bullock and his office have led mandatory school-based and district-wide workshops and training sessions. They’ve worked with community leaders and activists in identifying topics to discuss. The goal has been to get administrators and classroom educators alike to use district data to recognize racial disparities in things like which students get disciplined and which students get recommended to advanced courses and then coming up with strategies to resolve them.
In the January training session, as in previous district-wide training sessions, the more immediate goal was to get educators talking about how to improve the academic and social-emotional outcomes of marginalized students in their work.
And conversations among participants were very much that: observations from teachers, staff and administrators alike across age, gender and race based on presentation slide prompts; some personal anecdotes; and rhetorical questions on how to better support students when educators are balancing other workplace issues.
Cordial conversations in breakout rooms
In the training, participants were shown data from a fall 2021 district-wide survey of students, asking them how sure they were that they could do the hardest work that is assigned in their class.
When broken down by subgroups, students in the district’s gifted programs reported the highest levels of confidence while students in English-learner programs and those with disabilities reported the lowest.
In breakout rooms, participants were asked to reflect on these findings, and what they individually could do to reinforce the belief that all students can be academically successful.
“Maybe just that labeling of them as being smart, makes a huge difference in their confidence level,” one staff member said of the gifted program student data.
“I totally agree,” another staff member said in response. “I mean this question isn’t even about their actual performance it’s just about how confident they are and that I think is almost more telling. If you don’t think you can do well, you’re not going to try as hard.”
“That may be something there to think about, about how we help students think about their capabilities,” the first speaker said.
Participants were then asked to read an article defining the qualities of an “equity change agent” and in breakout rooms discuss their own equity change agent behaviors and efforts to close opportunity gaps.
One teacher spoke about how not all professional development she attends focuses explicitly on the topic of equity and when there is discussion about marginalized students, she said the trickiest part for her was coming away with concrete ideas to apply in the classroom. Following up on that, another spoke about how he recently backed away from an offer to participate in an equity team meeting.
“I kind of felt like if I’m sitting there trying to lead a discussion, where I’m a white male, I kind of felt like a white male trying to talk about equity, I don’t know, something about it felt really uncomfortable for me, so I decided not to take part in that that this year,” he said.
“But it is something that I want to continue to take part in and learn more and listen more,” he added.
There was a brief pause as participants continued to read the shared article that listed three main behaviors equity change agents practice: actively closing gaps, exhibiting empathy and working collaboratively, and engaging in professional learning.
“Would you guys agree that out of the three, the first thing, closing gaps, is maybe one that we need to work more on?” a teacher asked.
“I mean, it’s not that we’re not trying to do that,” she added. “I think in the past couple of years, it’s just become even more difficult because there’s been different types of gaps, I feel like, and for some students they’re getting even wider just because of the pandemic. “
“No I totally agree,” another responded, “You think we’d have just an abundance of resources and help and money and teachers, and I mean it’s been tough to try and keep teachers in the profession as a whole right now.”
“I think for me, it’s gotten to the point where it’s like, I feel not guilty but hesitant to ask somebody for help, because I know they’re already so overworked,” the first teacher responded. “I think that’s true with EC [Exceptional Children’s Services or special education services staff] for sure. I mean in a perfect world, those people would have the free time for us to be able to go to them and ask questions about specific students, but I just don’t think there’s time for that.
“So what can we do I guess is the question, despite not having all the resources that we think that we should.”
While helpful, the trainings have a limit
Darryl Bradshaw, a principal intern at Oak Grove Elementary School who attended the January training session, echoed some of the sentiments shared in breakout rooms that initiatives like these training sessions can only go so far.
While it helps to know what needs to happen—and Bradshaw, who is Black, argues for a greater focus on how various identities intersect when discussing disparities is needed—teachers run up against obstacles that are beyond their control.
With operating budgets set early in the year, there’s little wiggle room to adapt to new needs as the school year progresses, Bradshaw said. Initiatives with financial and political backing that take priority don’t necessarily focus on solving inequity, meaning they don’t prioritize the longstanding needs of marginalized students, especially when it comes to their social emotional needs.
Federal funding, for instance, mainly goes for programs that directly impact standardized test scores, not necessarily curriculum materials that magnify the experiences of students of color, Bradshaw said. Nor does this funding often prioritize things that improve school culture like updated playground equipment, he added.
“When you have issues of inequity but solving those issues of inequity are not going to bring you more dollars or they may not necessarily raise your test scores, you have to ask yourself do I want to put my money in a place where I’m going to see immediate return or do I want to invest in this deep dismantling of inequities in our school,” he said.
Sarah Walls, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Lakewood Montessori Middle School who also attended January’s training, has noticed when it comes to problem-solving and digging into specific data sets the workshops Bullock and his team have led at individual schools have proven more helpful than districtwide sessions.
Colleagues, for instance, have worked together to find ways to nurture student populations less represented in advanced math classes and bring them into these opportunities.
It was one of these districtwide trainings where she heard about people’s experiences with microaggressions either that they personally experienced or witnessed such as a Black woman getting reactions in a surprised tone when she shared that she attended Cornell University. While Walls had gone into that training understanding what microaggressions were, she left with questions for herself such as how she can be more aware of her tone and underlying assumption of students’ academic capabilities when interacting with them.
Yet she’s heard from colleagues that these training sessions can feel frustrating. They’re not the type of training with a clear outcome in the end like a session on how to use a new classroom tech tool. The work that’s supposed to come out of these conversations can last whole lifetimes, which can dissuade districts and schools from getting started, but it’s work that needs to be done, said Walls, who is white.
“There will never be this magic bullet, oh this is going to solve racism in school, or this is going to solve racism in society,” she said. “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is the process.”
It’s just a starting point
A talking point that resonated with participants in the second breakout that January morning was the need for empathy for colleagues, understanding that some may be farther along or behind when it comes to thinking about, recognizing and acting upon racial disparities and implicit bias.
“We’re all somewhere on the road, right?” one teacher said. “And some people are way ahead of us and some people are way behind us, and not judge the people behind you, because you don’t want the people in front of you to judge you.”
In closing the day’s session, which lasted an hour, Bullock provided links to resources on learning more about “equity change agents” and reminded participants to fill out a feedback form to be counted for attendance.
For Bullock, the training sessions are about starting and normalizing conversations around topics of race and implicit bias and he acknowledges how much more work still needs to be done. The district adopted a racial and educational equity policy just last summer. And while overall suspensions have dropped in the district, Black students and students with disabilities are still disproportionately suspended according to the latest district report card.
“We hate that we have to cut these discussions and conversations short because there’s so much more that we could dive into with this,” Bullock said to his audience.
“But again, when we do these, we want to kind of plant a seed for something that can grow after the session is complete.”