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Diversity In The Classroom

“Inclusion builds a culture of belonging by actively inviting
the contribution and participation of all people”

Diversity In The Classroom Impact on Education

It can be challenging to talk about diversity in the classroom when there is no common idea of what “diversity” means in an educational or pedagogical context. Before we can talk about diversity in the classroom, we must establish a shared foundation of reference.

Diversity is both separate from, and yet more than, desegregation or affirmative action. That being said, it was the official act that desegregated schools in 1954, Brown vs Board of Education, that made possible the contemporary environment in which we are better able to study, affirm, and re-enforce the benefits of diversity in the classroom.

It is those benefits that this paper discusses, focusing on diversity teaching as we know it today, which includes a diversity of race, religion, gender, color, ethnicity and national origin, socioeconomic status, ability, sexual orientation, and learning styles – and how they demand a teaching approach that proactively incorporates diversity teaching and inclusive practices in the classroom.

Changing Demographics Require A shift In Teaching

No demographic data has been collected across as significant a period of time as in the race and ethnicity category. The racial and ethnic demographic of the United States remained relatively unchanged prior to 1960; however, racial and ethnic diversity has consistently increased since then (Table 1) and is projected to continue on this trajectory in the decades to come (Table 2). Because the change in racial and ethnic composition is more heavily represented in younger age groups, classrooms are a harbinger of the future. In 2014, minority groups, including Latino, African-American, and Asian students, already made up a higher percentage of students than their white peers.

While data for other diversity categories have not been collected for traditionally marginalized demographics across the same significant time period (e.g., the 2020 Census was the first in which data were gathered on LGBTQ+ Americans), we can nonetheless see similar trends of increasing diversification in categories outside of race and ethnicity.

Gallup conducted a nearly annual poll to determine the percentage of the American population identifying as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or
Transgender) and found that the numbers increased year over year (Table 3). In the discussion of the wider

findings, it was noted that “[t]he pronounced generational differences raise questions about whether higher LGBT identification in younger than older Americans reflects a true shift in sexual orientation, or if it merely reflects a greater willingness of younger people to identify as LGBT” (Jones, 2021).
Whether the percentage is growing in terms of absolute numbers or an increasing comfort with identification as LGBT, the change demonstrates a demographic shift toward greater diversity.

findings, it was noted that “[t]he pronounced generational differences raise questions about whether higher LGBT identification in younger than older Americans reflects a true shift in sexual orientation, or if it merely reflects a greater willingness of younger people to identify as LGBT” (Jones, 2021).
Whether the percentage is growing in terms of absolute numbers or an increasing comfort with identification as LGBT, the change demonstrates a demographic shift toward greater diversity.

As the American population continues to diversify, education must respond to proactively teach younger generations how to navigate an increasingly heterogeneous society, not only to maintain the level of work in the United States but to be able to work effectively in what will undoubtedly a
the significantly more diverse environment in the years to come.

Digging Deeper

For more on school- and district-specific demographic data, or to explore other trends in education, Urban Institute has created a web tool, the Education Data Explorer, to pull data easily from the U.S. Department of Education Common The core of Data.

To learn more, visit education data. urban.org/data-explorer.

The Impact of Diversity Education on American Society

William Frey, an esteemed demographer, asserts in his book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America that the “growing diverse, globally connected minority population will be absolutely necessary to infuse the aging American labor force with vitality and to sustain populations in many parts of the country that is facing population decline”  (Frey, 2018, p. 3). This is supported by a study conducted by AAC&U, which found that, when employers were asked to assess how strongly “important” learned behaviors and skills (in this case, at the college level) contributed to workforce success, 79% cited “Communicate/ work with people from different cultural backgrounds” (Finley, 2022). Incorporating diversity into the classroom at every educational level creates a stronger labor force. But what about the larger society? A study published in American Psychologist demonstrates the impact of increased awareness of and education about traditionally marginalized groups by reviewing the effect of the increase in public visibility of and participation by women, supported by the activism of the feminist movements: “These personality findings…call for correction of many social scientists’ claims that gender stereotypes are unchanging (e.g., Haines et al., 2016) and that a group’s lower status necessarily implies a stereotype of lesser competence (e.g., Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; Ridgeway, 2014). Instead, despite— or because of—the massive flow of women into paid employment, people’s beliefs about the sexes are predominantly of personality difference but competence equality” (Eagly et al., 2019, emphasis added). Meaning, gender stereotypes were changed, and in some cases eliminated, as women proactively challenged the status quo. Gender diversity continues to evolve, but we can extrapolate a lesson from the evolution of gender stereotypes (in this case, viewed through a traditional, binary lens) that it is the proactive work of incorporation and inclusion of less visible, traditionally marginalized, and/or underrepresented groups that will lead to a more productive society.

Diversity in the Classroom Is a Multifaceted Effort

What we know about incorporating diversity into the classroom, both in terms of strategy and content is that the practice establishes an inclusive environment in which all involved (students, teachers, administrators, aides, etc.) feel safe, accepted, and supported in their learning journey, leading not only to a great preparedness for adult life but also for a better learning outcome.

The Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning at The University of Delaware provides a helpful explanation of what teaching for diversity means:

“Teaching for diversity refers to acknowledging a range of differences in the classroom. Teaching for inclusion signifies embracing difference. Teaching for equity allows the differences to transform the way we think, teach, learn and act such that all experiences and ways of being are handled with fairness and justice. These ideas complement each other and enhance educational opportunities for all students when simultaneously engaged” (CTAL, 2022).

Breaking apart from that statement, we see that teaching for diversity, inclusion, and equity are interwoven components of proactive diversity education, and simultaneously equally important areas in which to foster knowledge.

Teaching for diversity is often associated with multiculturalism, but ultimately it is recognizing differences, understanding the origins of those differences, and celebrating both the unique experiences that different cultures contribute to our society. To proactively teach for diversity means to
explicitly speak to these differences and to gives students a framework for putting those differences into context. 

Teaching for inclusion depends on the establishment first of an inclusive space. Creating an environment in which students feel comfortable expressing themselves in a safe, respectful manner even – and especially – when disagreements arise, provides a model of inclusivity in practice. Targeted lessons about inclusion within this structure thus have an immediate connection to the lived experiences of students.

Teaching for equity requires addressing educational disparities due to not only a student’s prior educational experience, but the impact that demographic factors, such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, ability, and more, might
have already had and will continue to have on the student’s education.

Teaching for diversity, inclusion, and equity together creates an environment of safety and acceptance, which in turn supports greater educational success. This is captured in an article from The Fordham Institute, in which the authors explain:

“Feeling safe and valued is vital to a child’s development. Learning suffers when students fear for their safety, worry about being bullied, or don’t sense
their teachers have high expectations for their success. In a healthy, supportive climate, students are engaged and take intellectual risks. They follow well-established rules and norms for behavior that their teachers and school leaders model and maintain”. (CAO Central, 2021).

Other research supports other, significant cognitive benefits gained from having
diverse classrooms.

The late Katherine W. Phillips, who was a professor at Columbia Business School, shared her findings in a 2016 interview that “In a class discussion or on a problem-solving team, bringing together different viewpoints and experiences makes everyone thinks harder and provides better evidence for their opinions.” Phillips further explained that “Given the right atmosphere and guidance, which is a tall order, students in diverse classrooms can build cross-racial friendships, achieve greater levels of empathy and have a chance to work on all-important social and emotional skills” (Kamenetz, 2016).

At a high level, some of the practices that help foster diversity include:

Proactive Teaching for Diversity

Incorporating diversity into the classroom can be daunting. Teachers frequently have many other demands and have to work within time, material, and administrative constraints.

Parrish Business Services has a wealth of experience with diverse teaching and implementing diversity practices in educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies.

For more information on proactive teaching for diversity, download our paper How Title IX Supports Teaching Diversity. This work discusses how the 1972 Title IX Amendment provides a foundation for the proactive incorporation of diversity in the
classroom to reduce and/or eliminate sex- and gender-based discrimination.


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