5 ways schools can make better progress on diversity, equity and inclusion

Black staff members report the most negative workplace experiences of any racial or ethnic group, report finds
By: | October 5, 2021
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Education has failed to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion over the last five years despite the attention paid to these issues, according to the racial justice nonprofit Promise54.

Compared to a study the organization did in 2016, the education sector—including schools, nonprofits and private organizations—has not made significant progress on diverse hiring, creating more inclusive climates or overhauling discriminatory systems, says Xiomara Padamsee, founder and CEO of Promise54.

“The results are really sobering. I hope it’s a call to action to do better,” says Padamsee of her organization’s just-released “Unrealized Impact 2.0” report. “We’re not close to representing the students we serve as a country.”

About 80% of the students served by the 20,000 respondents to the study were of color but only 53% of the staff in those schools or organizations were also of color, Padamsee says.

The racial gaps are even larger at leadership levels—for instance, 65% of executive team members and 67% of board members are white. And when researchers investigated school climate, respondents described a persistent anti-Blackness and bias. Black staff members continue to report the most negative workplace experiences of any racial or ethnic group.

“Black women experience the lowest levels of inclusion and equity of all women,” she says. “And Black staff members have among the lowest rates of agreement that they can bring their whole selves to work.”

Organizations, including schools, too often “quick fix solutions” that won’t have a long-term impact on diversity, equity and inclusion. For instance, districts might hire a chief diversity officer or appoint an equity task force but those moves alone won’t lead to progress.

“The real answer, the right answer, according to the data, is how you do any of those things,” she says. “It’s not if you create a chief diversity officer position, it’s about how you create it—how much influence do they have?”

Driving DEI

The report detailed five promising practices school leaders looking to achieve true diversity, equity and inclusion:

1. Moving past random acts of DEI: While many organizations incorporate diversity, inclusion and equity into mission and vision statements, only about a third clearly articulate the benefits and even fewer define the terms. When the latter two steps are not taken, diversity, inclusion and equity do not become fully embedded in district operations.

Organizations also err when they take a sequential approach by, for example, focusing on just diversity first and later moving to inclusion and then equity. Promise54’s data show that focusing on all three is more likely to lead to more positive employee experiences.

2. Diversifying leadership beyond the CEO: Organizations working to diversify hiring too often focus on the highest level—the CEO—and entry levels, and fail to put diverse employees into other leadership posts, the report says.

When four or more racial or ethnic groups are represented on a leadership team, those organizations make far more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion. Staff with diverse leadership teams are also more likely to agree that their organization recognizes and eliminates exclusion, the report finds.

3. Sharing power through meaningful engagement: Progressive organizations offer staff frequent opportunities to be involved in making decisions that impact them, such as by providing feedback on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Another way to achieve this is by including people from diverse backgrounds in interviewing and hiring new employees.

4. Moving beyond icebreakers to authentic relationships: Organizations can support the development of trusting relationships through coaching and mentoring. Organizations should also support employees who want to form affinity groups, which are spaces intentionally designed for connection among individuals who share common identities or experiences

5. Infusing accountability for things that matter: Many organizations collect data across a wide variety of DEI-related strategies, such as the diversity of networks from which they recruit. But organizations advance when they also track equity-based outcomes, such as the rate at which diverse employees are retained, given salary increases and promoted.