by Jacob A. Bennett, New Hampshire Bulletin
“I’ve heard the word ‘diversity’ quite a few times,” began United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone.”
That is how the justice responded to an opening statement made last fall by legal counsel defending affirmative action in college and university admissions. Seemingly casting doubt on the underlying premise of race-conscious policies – i.e., that a diverse student population performs better academically – Thomas’ incredulousness runs counter to a robust consensus around the meaning of diversity and the value it has in education and society more broadly.
I confirmed this consensus through my work producing a literature review looking into the meaning and value of diversity in public education.
In that review, which the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity will make available after the organization’s first annual meeting later this month, I identify three cases in which diversity has been conceptualized.
The “legal case” is grounded in the origins and intent of the 14th Amendment, which establishes rights to due process and equal protection, and which serves as the bedrock foundation of the court’s own decades-old line of precedent. The “business case” reflects empirical findings that a diverse workforce is more creative and productive, which is pure gold in a context where efficiency burnishes the bottom line. And the “belonging case,” as I have termed it, turns the focus of diversity efforts toward the individual, to their needs and rights.
What became clearer and clearer to me as I continued my research is that the idea of diversity – like the idea of dignity – accommodates many definitions depending on whom you ask, but in a way that reinforces the concept rather than rendering it meaningless.
Indeed, I found I could refer to definitions from National Public Radio, the United States Chamber of Commerce, McKinsey and Company, or even ChatGPT without losing sense of the word’s meaning. The idea has been discussed and conceptualized widely enough that even a studied skeptic should be able to make an educated guess and hit the bull’s eye.
Diversity is important to folks who care about student success and who believe that measures of educational excellence should consider students holistically, and not just as test-takers. Instead of simply pointing to rises or falls in aggregate test scores as proof of success or failure at the level of the public school or district, educators, parents, students, and policy-makers should look to the ways schools promote a culture of respect and inclusivity; provide relevant training and education to staff and the wider community; address discrimination and bias; advocate for marginalized students; and more generally create a sense of community that extends beyond the schoolhouse gate.
Reporting test scores doesn’t move the needle on DEIJ concerns. Those other activities are, by contrast, time-consuming and can be costly to plan and execute, requiring intentional collaboration, cross-disciplinary expertise, and the understanding that change requires long-term commitment and buy-in from the ground up. That means bringing in all the relevant stakeholders in each school district and its constituent communities and figuring out what needs exist there and what will work to meet them.
As Sarah Robinson and R. Jamaal Downey note in a February post, this is a question of adequate budgeting, of both cash and commitment, and cannot be answered by one solitary DEIJ hire per district.
Speaking of cost, and speaking of singling folks out, there’s been a lot of ink spilled recently by detractors of DEIJ efforts who claim that the salaries paid and the monies spent on programming and development are wasteful and divisive, serving only to segregate students and sow division.
These claims fly in the face of studies showing matching students with teachers from the same race or ethnicity can positively impact academic performance, test scores, and behavioral outcomes, and others showing the significant educational and social-emotional benefits to students who learn from at least one teacher who shares their race or ethnicity.
Of course, in New Hampshire where the overall population is 89 percent white with an educator workforce that is 97 percent white, it is likely that many students of color never encounter a single teacher of the same racial or ethnic background. Even in states with more diverse populations, educator workforces are, on average, whiter than the student populations they teach.
Demography is destiny, it’s been said, and shifts in New Hampshire show that minority populations, especially among children under the age of 18, have grown considerably as of the last census. This fact underscores the importance of public school systems meeting the needs of a changing population.
To meet the challenge and the opportunity of this change, greater attention must be given to increasing recruitment of teachers of color and providing adequate support and development to them after hire, so as to avoid burnout, demoralization, and resignation.
Rather than stand back and rest contented with the addition of four DEIJ officers to the ranks of New Hampshire’s educator workforce, we should consider their roles mere starting points.
This story was written by Jacob A. Bennett, affiliate assistant professor of education at the University of New Hampshire and contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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