What do we mean when we talk about making schools more diverse, equitable, and inclusive?
Generally speaking, we’re talking about making sure all students—especially those who’ve been historically undeserved by public schools—receive an education that will help them reach their full potential.
So, how do we achieve this?
This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.
Over the last few years, researchers and practitioners have increasingly turned to diversity, equity, and inclusion—or DEI—work, meaning designing and implementing policies, programs, and initiatives at the district or school level to resolve inequities. Educators might, for example, buy more classroom books with stories that better reflect students’ racial diversity. Or leaders might mandate anti-bias training to prevent stereotyping that can threaten student progress, such as setting lower expectations for students of color.
On the micro level, these initiatives can open educators’ eyes to just how inequitable schools can be and bring into focus how to start resolving inequities.
Here’s the catch: DEI work is just one step toward reaching the macro goal of making public education more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
You can do all the right training, buy all the right books, change all the right policies, and you’ll still be working within a system that wasn’t designed to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Sometimes, schools call themselves a success because their students of color excel academically—yet, their courses are structured around a white, Eurocentric perspective that deprives them and their peers of opportunities to explore more cultural backgrounds.
Reaching that macro goal hinges on effectively carrying out DEI work at the micro level.
Now that more districts have committed to this work, even in the face of legislative hurdles, we’ve learned a thing or two about DEI best practices and pitfalls to avoid.
Before we get to those, though, let’s take a closer look at DEI work across the nation’s schools.
Taking stock of the diffuse DEI landscape
We don’t know the exact number of districts that are investing in DEI efforts because what districts actually call those initiatives vary so widely. But we do know they have made investments well before 2020, according to researchers.
We also know that in the summer of 2020, driven by the murder of George Floyd and the historic national outcry for a racial reckoning in public institutions, district leaders and teachers’ unions increasingly spoke of their commitment to DEI.
Today, there’s more anti-racist education literature of varying quality on district leaders’ bookshelves than ever before. More districts are looking inward to build out their own initiatives with local community support and rejecting third-party DEI consultants peddling quick fixes.
And district leaders are taking a closer look at internal data to determine the best course of action to manage disparities—such as whether students of color are being disproportionately harmed by discipline policies, said Decoteau Irby, an associate professor of educational policy studies and qualitative researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Even educators have a strong sense that this work is coming along.
In a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center June survey of 1,897 educators, 78 percent agreed that in the past two years, their district or school has made progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.
But there are caveats.
Between August 2020 and June 2022, the EdWeek Research Center found that educator respondents who felt comfortable running and/or prepared to run an anti-racist classroom, school, or district dropped by 10 percentage points.
That is a concern. Tremendous pushback against all things DEI began just under two years ago. Starting in January 2021, 42 states introduced bills or took other steps to limit classroom conversations and staff training on racism and sexism. And between July 2021 and March of this year, book bans—specifically books with LGBTQ characters, people of color, and those that address race and racism—were instituted in 86 school districts across the country, affecting 2 million students, according to PEN America.
Researchers and practitioners alike recognize how destructive this opposition can be toward meeting DEI goals. But they also believe it sends an urgent message to forge ahead.
DEI work is just one step toward reaching the macro goal of making public education more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
“The acceleration, the increased effort, the increased interest and time and commitment into anti-racism and racial-justice work resulted in a [public and legislative] pushback,” Irby said. “The pushback is, in and of itself, a sign that we were on the verge of, and, in some cases, were making substantial progress in terms of addressing these issues.”
In spite of this opposition, if districts want to work to make schools more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, what exactly must they do?
Local data, in-house expertise
Daniel Bullock has led equity efforts for Durham public schools in North Carolina since 2017. He has found that mandatory districtwide workshops and professional-development sessions during which administrators and classroom teachers analyze district data produce concrete results. The educators become better equipped to identify disparities, which then opens up conversations on how to address disparity.
For example, the district’s student survey data presented at one of these sessions revealed that English-learners and special education students experienced lower levels of self-efficacy than any other student group. Teachers were then able to discuss whether those labels are what led students to feel less capable, because they imply a deficit. Or perhaps they contribute to lower expectations educators set for these students.
“Let’s understand how inequity is manifesting in the system and how we modify the system to be more equitable,” Bullock said of the data-driven DEI approach. “It brings people’s defenses down and serves as a starting point.”
He’s also been intentional about hearing from local community leaders, getting another look at students and families’ experiences with the school district, good and bad.
That sort of in-house, local approach as opposed to an over reliance on third-party outsiders is an effective way to strengthen DEI work and shield it from naysayers, the researchers said.
Bullock, who was recently promoted to executive director for equity and professional development for the entire district, said he received support from his district’s top leaders throughout his work.
And that’s critical. To engage in DEI work effectively at the micro level, the organizational resources and support need to be in place.
Real commitment requires real investment
Across the country, those who serve as equity officers or in similar roles are, anecdotally, experienced, credentialed people of color—in fact, they tend to be women of color. Despite their expertise, equity officers sometimes have their judgment questioned by district leaders, and it’s not uncommon for equity officers to face other forms of workplace hostility.
These leaders need continuous, intentional support from district leadership, said Zachary Casey, the chair of educational studies at Rhodes College in Tennessee.
Mentorship within and beyond the district, financial resources to support the initiatives, and the authority to launch innovative programs with specialized personnel, like data analysts, are all key to building a successful program, researchers say. Absent these guardrails, equity leaders can suffer burnout, and districts can fall prey to taking performative rather than substantive action.
At a school where he was hired to provide equity consulting, Casey’s team found Black students were disproportionately disciplined for tardiness. His research prompted the team to suggest modifying the school’s tardiness policy to account for students’ home responsibilities, such as having to drop off or pick up younger siblings because of family work schedules. Changing the tardiness policy would be a substantive action to resolve the disparity in question.
But the school’s principal didn’t feel they had the capacity to take on a tardiness policy change themselves. Instead, the principal requested training on stereotype threat from Casey’s team. Such training could be enlightening but in this instance is a misdiagnosis that doesn’t resolve the core problem.
Effective DEI work at the micro level requires substantive actions and organizational capacity, Irby said.
Designing with equity in mind
Now, let’s say best practices are in place, and you’re seeing results at the micro level: Black students are no longer disproportionately suspended compared with their peers. Or you’ve hired more teachers of color at your school. Or more students have access to high-quality tutoring programs.
The next step is for educators to then realize the larger systemic issue at play—how, even with these signs of progress, the very system they are trying to make equitable wasn’t designed with equity in mind.
In their research, Irby and Casey have found that a growing number of educators doing DEI work have come to recognize more deeply the flawed policy legacy of overemphasizing standardized-test scores.
Test scores might show patterns of academic achievement, but they can’t speak to students’ aspirations, to their sense of self, to their sense of community. Relying on them too much can cause district leaders to neglect other elements that contribute to equity when they’re budgeting—beautiful playgrounds, art and music classes, extracurriculars.
Instead, district policymaking should aim for a more holistic measure of success, such as how much students feel they belong in school and how well curriculum reflects students’ cultural backgrounds, they said.
Let’s put it all together with an example.
Say students of color are underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes. A micro-level DEI goal would be to remove systemic barriers these students face when trying to enroll in these classes, such as academic-course tracking and teacher recommendations. Remove such requirements, then ensure students get ample information and resources to enroll.
But a goal that gets at the macro question of how to make schools more diverse, equitable, and inclusive would be to make sure that regardless of whether students choose to take AP courses, they still have access to rich, rigorous coursework. That includes access to courses like ethnic studies where diverse cultural backgrounds are recognized as foundations of knowledge.
One way to measure how well you’re doing on these micro and macro goals is to ask the students. They know.
Hannah Palmer, a recent high school graduate from Pittsburgh, started a social-justice club at her high school. There, she led professional-development training for teachers to better understand what it takes to support students of color and called on her district to provide more training on how to address conversations around race and racism in class. Her goal was to avoid what she experienced in 9th grade, when her white peers felt it was OK to use the N-word openly in class because the audio-book version of To Kill a Mockingbird they were listening to kept using it.
“I’ve talked to a lot of students about how they just don’t feel safe voicing their opinion, being truly who they are, because the teacher isn’t creating that conducive space for them,” Palmer said.
It’s one reason why she hopes to work in DEI leadership in K-12 schools in the future.
“I just want to diversify curriculum so that all students are heard and represented in school,” Palmer said. “I believe that every student has the right to a quality education where they feel safe. So, that’s kind of what’s keeping me going.”
As educators grapple with what it means to make schools diverse, equitable, and inclusive, they have to hold two truths in mind: Yes, DEI work at their local school or district is important. No, it’s not automatically going to overhaul the public education system.
That overhaul involves a whole new mindset for what public education is supposed to offer students.
So let’s get more educators, policymakers, and even researchers thinking about that macro-level goal and how to achieve it.
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Key to More Equitable Schools? Deep Commitment