The Value of Classroom Diversity

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

I am in my eleventh year teaching but often find my greatest educational epiphanies as a parent. One such moment occurred last spring when my daughter’s first grade class discussed de jure racial segregation of American society during the first half of the 20th century. When she came home, she shared what she had learned and asked this poignant and powerful question, “Daddy, does that mean I couldn’t have gone to school with my best friend?” At that moment, as she contextualized the reality of segregation in her head and heart, the power of classroom diversity became crystal clear.

However, the value of diversity is currently being unrealized at a rate unseen in the last 50 years. Abundant data points to resegregation of America’s schools, such as a 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA that noted, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools.” As an educator, these statistics are alarming, since I’ve seen the value of a diverse classroom in three key ways.

First, as my daughter experienced, classroom diversity promotes student growth and reflection. In the most recent edition of Educational Leadership, Peter Levine noted that, “by talking and listening to people different from ourselves, we learn and enlarge our understanding.” This claim has proved true in my class numerous times, such as a recent discussion of an article on the demographic composition of Congress. The students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences clearly enhanced conversation and analysis of the role of gender, race and life experience in representation.

Second, diverse classrooms play an essential role in career preparation. Students are entering job markets with diminishing concern for community or national boundaries. Integrated classroom environments are important in helping students learn to collaborate and communicate with the different cultures and backgrounds found in the 21st century work environment.

Finally, diversity prepares students for citizenship. My collegiate alma mater’s motto is, “Emollit mores necsinit esse feros,” which means, “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.” In my classes, I have seen how diversity enhances this ‘humanizing’ effect of education as students learn to engage in civic discourse. My students routinely discuss politically charged issues ranging from wartime civil liberties to affirmative action, and diverse views enhance learning to defend and explain opinions in a civil fashion. In a recent op-ed, former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott stated democracy requires, “mindfulness and tolerance,” and integrated classrooms enhance the ability to learn these essential traits.

Of course the value of classroom diversity is not a new concept. Next week, my students will read Brown v. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court noted, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life,” without a quality education.

Both research and my experience show the link between quality and diversity in schools. Obviously, reversing racial and socioeconomic resegregation is a task without simple solutions. However, difficulty is not justification for failure to act, and that is why programs such as the Stronger Together Grants proposal in the President’s budget are essential steps forward in providing diverse classrooms.

It has been more than sixty years since the Court decreed separate educational environments to be “inherently unequal;” it remains for us to ensure all students are receiving the full promise of a quality education.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @plkelly27.

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for such a great content regarding education, education is the first priority for all, because education change the mentality, and if mentality changed, no doubt we are in the great living environment.
    Like many educational institutes use apps for vivid purposes like mylyapp for parent teacher communication, why not diverse education under the use of apps, yes diversity in education is necessary.

  2. I believe that everyone deserves quality education. I also think that diversity is important, since it helps kids to learn other cultures and to see the world from different perspectives.

  3. The statement that “debtors Prison” does not exist for Student Loan debtors is only half true. The Dept. of Health and Human Services hired Sallie Mae/ Student Loan Marketing Association, from 1999-2001, to forge student loan “assignment of judgment” documents (approximately 300), amounting to about $15million to $30million in forged student loan documents. These were allegedly related to HEAL loans. However the DHHS documents alleged that millions were paid by the DHHS in exchange for the “assignment”, sale, or transfer of student loans were all false. The DHHS did not pay, did not receive, nor have 300 judgments assigned to them at all. Subsequently, without notice, many students, such as myself who had paid all the student loans, especially the HEAL loans which by the way were not insured by the Federal Government, lost their jobs, were prohibited from practicing their professions, and had employers and prospective employers told that, “A Federal Crime had been committed”. These accounts that were subjected to criminal acts by the DHHS, have now been transferred to the Dept. of Education. The 300 criminal acts cannot be investigated because there is no agency willing to accept jurisdiction. And yet false statements continue to be made and millions of dollars of lost income because of the Nation-wide passing of forged of documents and deceit of Federal Courts continues. When did the Federal Government think that it was OK to commit crimes of Racketeering, Forgery, and Mail Fraud, specifically to advance extortion, and to undermine State and Federal Courts? Documents proving these acts is available on request.

  4. This is a great discussion. It parallels one that has been ongoing in higher ed around study abroad, namely, Is sending students abroad valuable? The answer to this and about whether diversity in classrooms is beneficial is that ‘it may be a good thing, but it can be an even better thing’. Going abroad, or having diversity in classrooms, in itself does not magically result in transformed students. What does transform students and make diversity and the experience of differences valuable and transformational is an intentional learning curriculum that connects cross-cultural/racial frameworks and concepts to cross-cultural experience. In short, it’s not the experience of diversity that is valuable. It’s the meta-thought about being in the midst of diversity that is valuable. The same can be said for having international students in US classrooms. It’s a win-win situation only when there can be learning about learning in an multicultural classroom. Without dedicated, intentional learning about negotiating diversity of communication styles, learning styles, etc, we’re missing a lot of the benefit and advantages to having diverse classrooms.

  5. Terri,

    In Denver we had forced desegregation in the late 70s into the 80s with wonderful results. Some families left the public schools and missed out on this experience. Today, the students who stayed are many of the same citizens today who are in positions of influence. I would argue they had a superior education.

    The advantage of diversity is to experience the power of the human experience. The experience of diversity also leads one away from blanket stereotypes and narrow-minded views of those different from themselves.

  6. I read your blog. It’s impressive. I can learn some new idea from your article. Thank you.

  7. It is readily apparent that not even a doctorate can protect someone from being and holding on to inherently racist ideas. I would bet dollars to donuts Teri has never been to an inner city school, and has never seen, let alone met, the hardworking families and students , and the teachers who relentlessly believe in their potential. Faced with poverty and discrimination, they continue to work and believe in spite of incredible odds against them. them. Oh, no, they are not worthy to meet. Because they all are ” black, illegal, pregnant and low performers”. Yes, let abandoned them once again, and regulate them to the trash heap. Of course, it is evident Teri never met them. Why, because Teri ran away, and only chose to mix with people who were exactly like Teri. So racism continues it casual loop.

    Being a urban school teacher, I continue to be blessed to know and serve these communities.

    Kudos and thank you, Mr. Kelly! You have proven your point and the challenges are well illustrated . Excellent observation on your part! Thank you for your bravery and openness.
    l

  8. I grew up in Atlanta in the 1960’s and 1970’s when schools were segregated and attended a white school for grades 1-7. You could count the black students on your fingers (Martin Luther King’s children, Rev Ralph Abernathy’s sweet son Ralph, Hosea Williams’ daughter) who were very well behaved well spoken children serious about education and middle class people with no ghetto background or baby mamas, no disrespectful “music”, no ebonics, no violence, and no pants on the ground. They had fantastic parents.

    When 8th grade rolled around, busing had arrived and my parents wanted me to be safe and away from bad cultural influences and get an exceptional education (I knew even then I would be working my way to a PhD) so we were part of white fight to the next white county then came back so I could attend a white private school.

    I got that excellent education and yes, went on to college and graduate school. I am glad I attended the schools I went to. We chose the same private schooling/home schooling for our own family with superior academic results. We have entirely missed all of the bad elements.

    For us, schools are for education, not social experiments or bringing culture and education to the lowest possible level. In our area, the public schools are essentially black and illegal from Hispanic countries. They are poorly performing, full of violence, gangs, kids with pants on the ground listening to gross music, and full of 11 year old pregnant black and Latina girls. They test at ridiculously low levels. Very few whites send their kids there. There is no advantage to doing so.

    We and our kids have friends on 6 continents and can get along with anyone but we and our family are not willing to be anyone;s diversity project. Ours are in college and also have plans for graduate degrees. I’ve seen the results of diversity in schools and have seen formerly great school systems ruined by it. No thanks.

    • Your comment is exactly why diversity is so important. To prevent this type of prejudice and discrimination that people like yourself do not even recognize. Newsflash: many black families (other than the King family) also have kids in college, advanced degrees and even more importantly the intelligence to understand hate when they read it. Minority students who do not come from educated families, born in poverty still deserve the same opportunities as privileged children not facing the same adveristy. Hopefully your children in college will interact and learn with other races and cultures so they learn to see the world from different perspectives, not just one of white privilege. Hopefully it will break the cycle. Good luck.

    • And this is exactly why the country is so polarized. People only educate their children in the “right” classrooms, only get their news from the “right” sources that match their worldview, and only have engaging conversations with people who already agree with them.

      The goal is not to force anyone’s child into a bad environment, it’s to create an even better environment for all children. Children from strong family backgrounds can learn a great deal by being exposed to the realities of the world and the difficulties some people face. No child deserves blame or credit for where they came from, and maybe the “good” children could learn compassion rather than scorn.

      Admittedly, though, a single strong child in a bad environment would indeed likely be lost. That’s why good environments are needed first, and then by increasing inclusivity they become even better, for everyone. That’s not even to mention the enormous benefits that we all receive by living in a stronger society where everyone has been equipped with the education to succeed and contribute.

      I went to a public school in the south, and went on to get an engineering PhD from one of the top schools in the country. I am better for the both of them.

      “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

    • Terri,

      First, thank you so much for reading the blog post and sharing your thoughts. While I appreciate your insights, as the author of the post, I obviously respectfully disagree with your position.

      I understand the desire you have enunciated to do what you believe is best for your children. As a parent myself, I also feel that impulse on a daily basis. However, where we diverge is in regards to the path to doing what is best for our children. As noted in the post, there is ample research behind the educational benefits of diverse classrooms, and I can also attest to that value from my own experience teaching. I am proud to teach in a diverse public school, and contrary to the claims you made in your comment, my students are exceptional- they are each unique with their own wonderful backgrounds and experiences, and, since you made a point of it in your comment, I’ll note that my students “test at ridiculously HIGH levels.”

      I do, however, agree with you that promotion of diversity is a “social experiment;” the difference is that I see this as a POSITIVE thing that is also known as the “American experiment.” Our national motto, e pluribus unum, speaks clearly to this belief, the idea that out of many backgrounds we can become one people. That belief IS a radical experiment in the course of human history, and I am a firm believer that diversity in our schools plays a key role in making sure we fulfill that promise instead of devolving into the balkanization that is occurring in far too many parts of the world.

      I am thrilled that your children received a quality education, and it is my earnest hope that each child in our nation has the same experience. But in order to reach that goal, it will take a national consensus to pull together to do what is best for all children instead of dismissing what happens to any child other than our own. Fortunately, I don’t see this as an either-or proposition. My child is currently receiving a world-class education in a diverse, public school environment, and while you say “no thanks” to diversity, I am thankful every day for the richness that diversity brings to her education.

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