Sharpening the View of Diversity: Five Leadership Imperatives

by Linda Orozco, Ph.D.

©All Rights Reserved (2000)


Diversity. If the new millennium has a motto, promise or threat, "diversity" would be it. From media reports, to student enrollments; from immigration to crime and poverty; our nation is keenly aware of the diversification of the country. Do we celebrate the Latino explosion in popular music, cringe at the drastic drop in minority enrollments in the UC system; hang our heads in shame at the 'railroading' by police of minority suspects in Los Angeles? Good? Bad? Blessing? Or threat? An individual's perspective on 'diversity' depends a great deal on their vantage point.

Pollyanna Perspective

With increasing diversity across the country, there are growing efforts by mainstream Americans to support and believe a simplified, 'Pollyanna' perspective. This perspective embraces the concept of Americans as - all just one people, one race- human. We should view each other and ourselves as the same, not different. (Marks, 2000) This 'Pollyanna' perspective has been the foundation for dismantling affirmative action, racial preferences, and placing emphasis on a color-blind society. Then, as Rodney King recommended, we could all "Just get along". This perspective embraces the fairness of treating everyone alike, encouraging Americans into the melting pot, and promoting an Americana perspective with a subtle message of English-only simplicity. But Pollyanna is dead; if she ever lived at all. Where was 'Pollyanna' when Americans profited from or turned their heads during slavery, during Chinese immigration to build western railroads, or during our country's shameless massacre of Native Americans? No, we cannot resurrect nor cling to Pollyanna now, as if she were a lifeboat for Americans in the stormy seas of diversity. This perspective has never effectively represented the American consciousness in action, nor does it today.

This author still remembers believing the 'Pollyanna' perspective. We are all people, the same, equal. My rose-colored, Pollyanna glasses were lost when I was 8 years old. This change didn't come because I was a brilliant or particularly gifted child. This insight came when I was old enough to notice others' reactions to me. Those 'Pollyanna' glasses weren't exactly lost; more accurately stated, they were torn away by others. To others, I looked different. The southern California 'surfer look' was not my look. Instead my skin was olive, my eyes deep-brown and slanted, and my hair dark as charcoal. Certainly not the commercialized 'All American' look. But I was All-American, a fourth-generation American. But that didn't matter in the eye of the beholder. Instead, the comment, 'Go back to where you came from', was my awakening at 8, that America wasn't color-blind. Race and ethnicity are man-made constructs, they ARE in the eye of the beholder. (Hodgkinson, 1995) Throughout their lives, Americans that do not fit a commercialized 'American look' receive demeaning, divisive, and racist comments and questions by their fellow Americans. Minority members know these comments/questions well. They include 'Where did you come from?', 'How did they learned to speak English so well?' or 'You don't look American'. No, Americans do not see each other as the same, as equal. We are not now, nor have we ever been a color-blind society.

Census 2000

The current U.S. Census is the best example of our country's true non-Pollyanna consciousness. We aren't just ALL Americans- we are 'racially distinct'- according to Census 2000. Each American is categorized into one of five races:

• White

• Black or African American

• American Indian and Alaska Native

• Asian

• Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander

And, there was one question for EVERYONE to answer on Hispanic origin- yes or no.

Sounds simple enough. The little boxes accompanying these options represent you and I. Little boxes, according to Congress and Thomas Jefferson's original intent of the Census, to define, quantify, and count the American population in ways Congress sees useful. (Baron, 1995) Useful? The census is meant to be useful. But what is the purpose of KNOWING the number of Native Hawaiians and NOT knowing the number of Italian-Americans? What is the value in knowing the number of Black Americans when 25% of the WHITE population is darker than 25% of (light-skinned) blacks? (Hodgkinson, 1995) Can we draw some valuable conclusions when lumping together blacks from South Central Los Angeles with recent black immigrants from Kenya? What conclusions can be drawn by grouping recent Brazilian immigrants and third generation Mexican-Americans-- when we can expect neither to speak Spanish, have the same education level, or cultural experience? But Congress wants this data to be useful. Will it? Or will it drive Federal agendas and bean-counters to further a simplistic, inaccurate, divisive perspective of non-white Americans? Will conclusions reached with data from Census 2000 match the U.S. Census Bureau's [ ] own Mission statement:

"To be the preeminent collector of timely, relevant, and quality data about the people and economy of the United States."? (Census, 2000, ¶ Facts)

Certainly the quality of the data collected will be in question since the idea of race is a man-made construct. Racial and ethnic classifications have no basis in science or anthropology. (Etzioni, 1999; Hodgkinson, 1995) Further, the racial categories on the U.S. Census have changed each and every time the Census has been conducted since 1790. Hodgkinson (1995) has referred to the use of race as more like 'science fiction that science'. New categories are invented or old ones combined. Americans have accepted this 'fluid' view of race quite naturally, as if it were a scientific categorization. It isn't. And data collected on race has historically been used to the benefit of the user, in spite of the blatant and inaccurate generalizations derived. (Baron, 1998)

Blending Colors and Categories

If the prior discussion didn't undermined one's comfort level with racial and ethnic classifications, then America's growing mixed marriages will. As recent as 1967, sixteen states in America had laws restricting black/white marriages. (White, 1997) In that year, the Supreme Court struck down such laws. But before and after that date, multiracial marriages and their offspring have populated our country.

One of twelve marriages in 1995 (8.4%) were mixed, either by race or ethnicity. Current estimates indicate that over 50% of third generation Mexican Americans marry non-Hispanic whites; while even more Asian Americans do. (Etzioni, 1999) Intermarriage between blacks and non-blacks is less frequent but rising consistently. Over the past 20 years, black-white marriages have more than quadrupled. In 1990, there were an estimated 1.5 million interracial marriages. In fact, these groups are growing consistent with the trend set by every European-origin group as well. In America, European-origin Americans marry outside their group by over 50%. (Glazer, 1996) For the first time, Census 2000, will acknowledge the growing population of Americans identifying themselves as mixed racially/ethnically by allowing them to check more than one category on the Census survey.


So the Census' questions on race/ethnicity, and our efforts to keep classifying Americans along these lines continues to defy science, logic and purpose. Our government agencies, social programs and even schools haven't caught on to this fact yet; but many Americans have. There appears a growing trend by Americans to refuse to categorize themselves in such a way. In 1998, 13,575 students filing applications at the eight University of California campuses refused to provide racial/ethnic data. This was an increase of 153% over the previous year. (Marks, 2000) Also, personnel directors in school districts across the country are discovering an increased trend by applicants to select "Refuse to State" on racial/ethnic questions.

Cultural Fluidity

Certainly, Americans are diverse. Our physical appearance, food, clothing, music, customs and cultures include a global perspective of varying intensities. Each American can identify some personal ancestral heritage, but relate to it in varying degrees. Recent immigrants are more likely to have the strongest cultural ties to homelands far away. Some Americans are intensely connected to their heritage finding themselves defined as "more Irish than others" (fill in the culture). Other parents (and grandparents) find their second and third generation American children losing connections and ownership to preferences for a culture's customs, music, food, language, etc.. (Nieto, 1996) In addition, some Americans are gliding easily across their own cultural borders to embrace another culture, and find themselves referred to as 'honorary Hispanics, Swedes, or Italians', for example.

As Americans, we enjoy a rich cultural heritage of international flavor. But each American gravitates towards their own personal cultural identity- sometimes unlike any other. Tiger Woods, the superstar golfer, has referred to himself as a 'Cablinasian'- a self-described acronym reflecting his one eighth Caucasian, one-fourth black, one-eighth American Indian, one-fourth Thai and one-fourth Chinese roots. (White, 1997) This is another reason why the American population is difficult to categorize with racial/ethnic labeling. And it is also the reason why this labeling fails to provide purposeful information to define the country's population and doesn't give rise to a direction for improving the American life-style.

Prejudice and Discrimination

This doesn't mean our country is free of discrimination, racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and fear of others different than ourselves. Tiger Woods may be a wealthy professional golfer, but that fact did not deter fellow golfer, Fuzzy Zoeller, from stereotyping him and condemning him by his 'blackness'. (White, 1997) Many question whether the death of unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by New York police officers' 41 shots would have occurred at all if he had been white-skinned. Current events and the growth of hate-crimes and the resulting need for anti hate-crime legislation serve as reminders that many Americans continue to judge each other by physical appearance and identification.

America's Identity Crisis

So where does that leave diversity in America? The Pollyanna perspective of a color-blind society that ignores cultural, social and physical diversity doesn't fit. Yet, Americans defy categorization along racial and ethnic boundaries. So why continue to measure 'diversity' with flawed definitions, inaccurate measures, and with erroneous results? From kindergarten enrollment forms, to job applications, to U.S. Census surveys the use of racial and ethnic categorizations is an antiquated concept. This process continues to disappoint, divide, distract, and undermine opportunities to seek true measures of diversity in the American population that hold weight and promise in our efforts to fulfill the American dream for everyone. The country is rich in the diversity of cultures and identities. The energy and effort expended on racial and ethnic categorizations would be better spent on constructs that directly impact quality of life issues, public policy issues, and future directions for services and resources.

There are social, cultural and legal elements that unify Americans and all residents of the United States. These are a commitment to democracy, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a continued support for mutual tolerance. (Etzioni, 1999) As educators, our task is to build upon these common elements for the students and the country that we serve. Our goal is also to seek solutions to the obstacles encountered in delivering quality educational services to each student entering the schools.

NEW View of Diversity - The Leader's Lens of Five Educational Imperatives

Diversity, in educational environments, must be re-focused on five imperatives. The following five imperatives of diversity re-channel energy and efforts away from current obsessive and erroneous practices of racial/ethnic categorizations. Instead, these five define diversity in a manner leading toward positive and productive outcomes in the education of all students. Summarized as DIVERSITY = VALUE. These imperatives are 1) Diversity is a Valued Asset, 2) Diversity is Acceptance, 3) Diversity in Learning, 4) Diversity is Unfolding, and 5) Diversity is Economic.


V = Valued Asset

A = Acceptance

L = Learning

U = Unfolding

E = Economic

1 - Diversity is a Valued Asset

Should educators and school leaders be concerned if schools reflect and contain only students from homogeneous groups? Are there advantages for students and/or schools with more diverse populations? Is there a 'compelling interest' for schools to strive to achieve a diverse student body in the interest of their organizational goals? School vouchers, schools of choice, charter schools, magnet schools, desegregation, ethno-centric schools- these are the current potpourri of educational options. But is there value in schools that contain diversity? Or asked differently, are there advantages that diverse schools have over homogeneous ones?

Most of the recent literature and debate on diversity continue to revolve around affirmative action, racial preferences, discrimination, and other measures to repair past discriminatory practices. These are 'remedial' measures. This writer encourages the view of school diversity from a different angle - valued asset.

Major demographic projections estimate that the United States will contain 50% 'minority' members by the year 2050. Would the country be better served if schools were maintained as homogeneous institutions of learning across racial/ethnic lines? IF "separate but equal" ARE created equal; then how do 'segregated-equals' compare to diverse schools? In the last two decades, little research has focused in this direction. Certainly educators, school leaders, attorneys, legislators, and politicians have focused time and energy on promoting or defending the 'remedial' measures discussed above. But a handful of researchers have focused on diversity as a 'valued asset'.

Patricia Gurin's research studied the positive effects of diversity upon students' educational experiences. (Friedl, 1999) Although her study was conducted on college students at the University of Michigan, her findings are valuable to K-12 educators. She concluded that students in more diverse educational environments:

+ showed greater engagement in active thinking processes

+ demonstrated growth in intellectual engagement and motivation

+ demonstrated growth in intellectual and academic skills

The most comprehensive study to date on the value of diversity in education was conducted by Alexander. (Friedl, 1999) He concluded that there were two outcomes of school diversity:

+ cultural awareness

+ student's commitment to promoting racial understanding

William Bowen and Derik Bok studied the past five decades of affirmative action college admissions in their recent book, The Shape of the River. One of their conclusions stated, "...there is no mistaking the predominantly favorable impression that students of all races share about the value of diversity in contributing to their education". (Friedl, 1999, p. 44)

Finally, in their 1999 report, "Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Higher Education" (Schrag, 1999), several prominent civil rights leaders concluded:

+ students attending integrated colleges/classes are exposed to a wider spectrum of ideas and views, learning more and becoming more open to others

+ graduates of diverse campuses are more likely to live in integrated communities

Certainly more research needs to be conducted to continue to validate this perspective of diversity as valued asset. However, educational leaders are in key positions to promote these advantages and capitalize on this asset.

2 - Diversity is Acceptance

Schools face the responsibility of teaching tolerance, understanding, acceptance, and communication in our increasingly diverse world. Assuring quality education for all students is a promise educators must keep. Educators must address the special task of preparing student to live in their diverse community, country and world. Promoting civility, respect and working relationships in our diverse society should be a major goal of schools.

Aggressive, pro-active programs of acceptance and tolerance can have a positive impact on the social skills of all students. (Barta and Winn, 1996) These measures must be implemented in local schools throughout the country to equip students with the social experiences needed to live successfully with others. Developing learning environments free of bias and prejudice must be accompanied by formal programs, lessons, and experiences in communication, problem-solving, conflict management, and collaboration.

In taking responsibility and advocating for the educational needs of all learners, no single solution exists. Instead educators should embrace the concept that educating learners to live in a diverse world means embracing diverse solutions. (Kameenui, 1993) Multicultural education is one such solution. Two goals of multicultural education are increasing academic achievement and promoting greater sensitivity to cultural differences. (Dunn, 1997) Another solution in teaching acceptance and tolerance of diversity is global education. All learners are part of a larger world population, with all the accompanying needs, issues and complexities. Education and schools better serve students if they assist them to become truly 'world citizens' as no previous generation has before them. Global education assists students in addressing many education, societal, and world issues. Three promising practices include:

a. emphasizing interdisciplinary concepts

b. modeling inquisitiveness and skepticism

c. stressing participatory learning (Byrnes, 1997)

3 - Diversity in Learning

Each student brings to school their own individual set of experiences, culture, and frame of reference. Developing teaching and learning practices specifically for racial or cultural groups is ineffective, stereotypical, and harmful. Stereotyping has no place in public education. "Researchers have clearly established that there is no single or dual learning style for the members of any cultural, national, racial, or religious group." (Dunn, 1997, p. 74) Instead, instruction must be designed to respond to students' learning styles. These learning styles vary by student. The most successful learning experiences for students are those which incorporate an understanding of the student's strengths and weaknesses, motivational and learning styles, and personal experiences with high quality content.

Gardner reminds educators that there is a host of 'intelligences'. In order for a particular intelligence to develop, three conditions must be present:

a. the individual must have the opportunity to learn

b. the culture must place value on the intelligence's development

c. the individual must place value on developing intelligence

Each student's intelligences develop differently, without regard to race and ethnicity. Educators are encouraged to address both students' multiple intelligences and cultural influences on learning. The process of teaching and learning is more effective as educators understand this concept. Learning experiences that are individualized and culturally responsive allow students to learn at their own rate, provide positive reinforcement, and assist students in reaching their full potential. (Reiff, 1997)

A well-developed, comprehensive plan for addressing cultural diversity in learning is reviewed by Wardle. She encourages educators to, "... focus on recognizing the unique set of experiences each child brings to school, and learning how we can utilize those experiences to help him or her achieve the utmost self-esteem and academic success." (Wardle, 1996, p. 153) Her Anti-Bias and Ecological Model addresses components of culture, race, gender, and disability combined with additional factors of family, community, and socio-economic status. Each of these aspects influence student learning, and provide a larger framework for teaching each student effectively. Thus, diversity can enhance learning and can be used effectively in increasing student success.

4 - Diversity is Unfolding

Diversity factors are unfolding, fluid, and evolving. Researchers are regularly discovering factors of diversity directly impacting educational effectiveness. There is a growing wealth of research looking at indicators of diversity that have direct connections to the work of educators and school leaders. By addressing appropriate indicators of diversity, the teaching and learning process can be enhanced, and student success increased. There are a variety of diversity factors affecting student learning. A few include recent immigration, English language proficiency, single-mother household, lower than normal birth weight, gender, family income, parent education level, rural vs. urban, and family mobility. Each of these factors provide researchers with a wealth of data quite important in constructing effective instructional practices.

Arroyo, Rhoad and Drew (1999) conducted recent research on student under achievement. After studying over 100 articles related to this topic, they identified 41 specific factors. They found these factors could be categorized into areas of 1) community and cultural influences, 2) family and peer relationships, 3) inappropriate student behavior. They conducted further research and filtered the list down to 10 top influences associated with under achievement in urban settings. Several of the 10 factors are directly related to this topic of diversity. This is the focus educators should be following, specifically addressing areas of diversity related to student performance. These factors also cut across racial and ethnic boundaries to more accurately reflect diversity impacting student performance and success in education. Their study found the following:

+Curriculum relevance - students' perceptions of how meaningful and usable the content material and instructional methods are in their personal lives

+Disengagement - lack of student involvement in/identification with school community

+Confidence in ability - student's belief/expectation that they can learn academic material and be successful in school

+High mobility - student's transfer from school to school in course of a year or more

+Parent expectations - parent's performance standards and goals for students, and their active engagement

+Level of parent education - number of years parents have had formal education

+Poverty or low income - poverty falling below poverty standards results in student under achievement

By continuing to discover, quantify and address different types of appropriate diversity factors, educators may better serve the students in today's schools.

5 - Diversity is Economic

There is one single factor of diversity that is a major index of social disadvantage. That factor is economics. Poverty has a major, devastating effect on student learning. It crosses all ethnic, cultural and racial boundaries. Hodgkinson (1995) stated, "...poverty is a more pervasive index of social disadvantage that is minority status." (p. 176) For example, research from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) demonstrated that the wealthiest 25% of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian 8th graders excelled in math by levels to two, three, and four times better than their racial counterparts in the 25% poorest range.

Poverty negatively impacts student learning for blacks in urban Detroit to blondes in Appalachia. Although larger percentages of minority populations are poor, by sheer numbers, most poor children are white. Unfortunately, a whopping 37% of America's wealth is owned by only 1.5% of the people, while 25% of our youngest children live in poverty. (Hodgkinson, 1995) And the number of poor children has grown consistently.

Hodgkinson (1995) continued on the effects of poverty, "... the furor some whites showed when informed that their children would have to go to school with minority children is mild compared to the reaction of upper- and middle-income parents (of any race or ethnic background) when told that their children will have to go to school with poor children (of any race or ethnic background)." (p. 176)

But the issue of poverty in America and it's affects on student learning are not just a calculation of simple statistics. The diversity of economics includes other facets of poverty.

Concentrated poverty

'Concentrated poverty' is the presence of pervasive poverty in a geographic area or neighborhood. The U.S. Census Bureau refers to these neighborhoods as 'extreme poverty areas' (census tracts) where at least 40% of the residents live in poverty.

Concentrated poverty is directly related to student failure. Not just school failure for poor students, but school failure for students who are NOT poor. In a congressional mandated, four-year study, concentrated school poverty was directly related to lower student performance on every educational outcome measured. Education Week, reported, "school poverty depresses the scores of all students in schools where at least half of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch, and seriously depresses the scores when more than 75% of students live in low-income households." (Concentrated poverty, 1998, p. 1) Concentrated poverty puts ALL students in the school at risk of school failure, regardless of income. That is the staggering, cancer-like effect of concentrated poverty.

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of people living in concentrated poverty grew from 4.1 million to 8 million, with almost one-third of that number being children. In addition, these areas of 'concentrated poverty' are twice as likely to be in urban areas, and black children are far more likely to live in concentrated poverty. This is an additional economic factor to be considered by educational leaders in the development of educational policy, budget development and delivery of services.

Accumulated Wealth

Disparities in family assets, rather than simple income, is one variation of this economics focus. It is also the focus of Yale sociologist, Dalton Conley. In Conley's book, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, he explains continuing black-white inequalities by family assets, not family income.

He highlights that the 'causal starting point' is the difference in wealth and property in the United States. (Miller, 1999, p. A15) Conley found that while the average income for black families is more than half that of white families, the average white family holds assets worth seven times that of the average black family. This statistic demonstrates the strength and persistence of economic advantage. He concludes that "Wealth inequality, more than any other statistic I know, demonstrated the gap between blacks and whites." (Miller, 1999, p. A15) It is difficult to argue with this newly emerging, yet often ignored area of economic difference in America.

Social scientists have long confirmed that even with similar levels of annual income, black high school graduates are far less likely to finish college that white high school graduates. Differences in accumulated assets may be the reason, particularly when black families have significantly lower levels of wealth than similar-income white families.

In 1984, government agencies began collecting data on wealth, instead of only income. This is an additional perspective of economic diversity that should not be overlooked in education. Conley concludes that, "Having parents with wealth is the best advantage you can have." (Miller, 1999, p. A15) With time, the wealthy get richer, and the gap widens with each generation.

Generational poverty

Generational poverty is defined as poverty lasting for two generations or more. The importance and impact of accumulated assets was discussed earlier. While some families have accumulated assets and have enjoyed the benefits such assets provide over generations; other families have experienced poverty on a continuing basis over multiple generations. This concept of generational poverty broadens the perspective of economics from a single dimension, to a multi-dimensional construct.

Payne (1997) analyzed the effects of generational poverty on educational attainment and success. Her research provides educators with an additional lens for understanding the devastating effect of this type of poverty on students and families. Poverty, particularly generational poverty, impacts learning. This includes the detrimental effect of generational poverty on student's cognitive structures necessary for learning, for example- story structures of cause and effect, prediction, consequences, and control of impulses. Other considerations include establishing relationships that motivate students to learn, and understanding the hidden rules of the middle class agencies including schools.

These 'hidden rules' refer to differences between the poor and middle classes. Schools, government agencies, and business all operate within the guidelines of, in Payne's words, middle class 'hidden rules'. "Hidden rules are the unspoken clueing systems that individuals use to indicate membership in a group." (Payne, 1997, p. 246) These include concepts of relationships, achievement, and decision-making. For example, Payne presents a perspective of the different driving forces of decision-making for three levels of income: poor- survival, relationships, and entertainment; middle class- work and achievement; and wealthy- social, financial, and political connections. Her premise rests on the driving forces of each economic condition, and the resulting choices individuals and families make. Continuing, long term generational poverty perpetuates the continuing mismatch between the poor and the agencies (middle class) designed to help them.


Simplistic perceptions of diversity have no place in today's educational environment. Educational leaders must be prepared to lead our country's schools toward inclusive practices which effectively embrace, celebrate, assess, and capitalize on our country's increasing diverse population. Leaders must be prepared to direct the focus and attention on diversity into areas of accuracy, productivity, and purpose. Our changing country and world will depend on the leadership we demonstrate in creating one purposeful society for all.

Sharpening the view of diversity requires attention to five leadership imperatives in education. These re-channel energy and efforts away from past divisive practices toward positive and productive outcomes for educating of all students. As the new millennium begins, these five leadership imperatives hold value for educational leaders.\


V = Valued Asset

A = Acceptance

L = Learning

U = Unfolding

E = Economic


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