Schooling for a Diverse Tomorrow

American society is one of the most religiously, ethnically and racially diverse in the world. And in the next 40 years, we will become a minority-majority nation. The change will come even faster for schools, where white children will be a minority before the end of this decade.

Quite simply, the face of America is changing -- but our schools remain remarkably segregated.

Blacks and Latinos in American schools are more segregated than they have been in four decades, according to The Civil Rights Project. Census and school data tell us even more:

  • The average white student goes to a school that is more than three-quarters white.
  • One in four children in poverty attends schools with few middle- and upper-middle class schoolmates.
  • And too many schools that actually are racially or ethnically diverse have de facto academic segregation.

These sobering findings are evidence that educators face a daunting task of preparing students for our nation's diverse future. I spoke about the crucial steps they must take to help their students acknowledge, appreciate and respect diversity when I addressed the Department of Education's Diversity Month program in Washington, D.C., last week.

One of the points I made is that adults in the workforce face the daily challenge of working with diverse coworkers to achieve their common business or agency goals. Schools face a more complicated challenge: Students must first be brought together, and often a set of common goals needs to be constructed to get them to work together effectively.

But bringing students together where they can have contact, learn how to converse with each other about difference and work together on a project that is important to all of the participants is the key to creating the respect they need today and throughout life. The benefits of instilling this respect cannot be overstated. To do it, children need to experience diversity, in every school and every classroom.

Of course, even when students sit in apparently homogenous classrooms, they see differences. As the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, my e-mail inbox is regularly filled with messages from desperate parents whose children have been singled out and harassed because they are autistic, physically different, gender non-conforming, poor at sports, or members of a religious minority.

We can't detain, suspend or expel our way out of this problem. Bias is best dealt with directly.
Teachers need to help children talk about difference, understand what it means, and know about the pain and damage that bigotry can inflict. Failure to appreciate our differences opens a door to dehumanization of those who are different. The only way to keep that door firmly closed is through anti-bias education.

Teaching Tolerance has spent the last 21 years providing educators across the country with free anti-bias education resources for classroom use. We also launched the national Mix It Up at Lunch Day, which encourages students to step out of their comfort zones and sit with someone new in the cafeteria for just one day. We encourage schools to use the event, set for Oct. 30, to kick off a year-long exploration of community-building projects.

But more must be done.

That is why we are working with educators and scholars to create a set of anti-bias standards. These standards will provide a concrete set of learning goals that can be incorporated into English, social studies and other curricula to help foster an appreciation of diversity. They can also guide schools as they take steps to ensure their school is safe for all students and make other decisions affecting school life.

We have identified four major areas -- or domains -- of learning that we believe are essential for combating bias. These are identity, diversity, justice and action.

Identity is composed of choices we make for ourselves as well as external factors. For example, I am a white woman, a mother and an avid reader. This standard is about students understanding who they are and feeling good about it; they will recognize that their identity is a unique mix of factors, that it may change over time, and that, regardless, identity can serve as a source of confidence.

Diversity is where teachers can instill the understanding that everyone has an identity, and that each is special. It's where students will understand that there are different kinds of people in the world, be able to talk with others about their lived experience, relate to people despite differences, and learn the skills to negotiate difference and disagreement.

Justice is where we develop knowledge and values connected with fairness. Educators should be able to teach students to recognize stereotypes and see how those with privilege -- whether it is privilege in the form of wealth, power or race -- are able to maintain that privilege. Students who care about justice recognize and care about people who are mistreated or excluded.

Action is closely related to citizenship. Here educators can help students learn how people in the past have struggled to overcome injustice. They also should learn how to make principled decisions to act in support of every individual's right to fair and equal treatment.

These are the keys to addressing bias in schools. But this is about more than improving schools. It's about instilling students with an appreciation for difference that will prepare them for life in a unique and diverse nation. Only if we succeed at this task can we create a brighter future.