The Multiple Dimensions of Diversity

by Gil N. Garcia
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XII, Number 2, December 2000, Diversity in Our Schools: New Opportunities for Teaching and Learning

When we talk about diversity in schools, we most likely mean there are minority students or English-language learners in the classrooms. Gil Garcia, a senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, advises us that there are many facets of diversity beyond language and ethnicity that we should embrace.

When diversity flourishes, the benefits to children and youth, to the schools they attend, and to their homes and communities are significant. When diversity is embodied in education, it provides the structures and support that are necessary to build and sustain student attitudes and self-esteem needed for a successful life. Regrettably in most of the education research literature, diversity remains too loosely, or in some cases too narrowly, interpreted and implemented.

Image of African-American employee using a computer
In the business world, diversity has begun to define initiatives used to attract and retain highly competitive employees.

We have made some progress—the manifestations of diversity have evolved from simply being viewed as cultural themes and events (like fiestas, typical foods, folk dress) of select subgroups in relation to their equivalent "American" themes and events. However, diversity issues are still frequently treated as separate components within organizational structures. For example, it is still common to see organizational charts that list diversity staff as a separate team. Worse yet, diversity staff are responsible for serving only the students considered diverse students, such as English language learners. Diversity issues are usually associated with minority students, their educational condition, and their "special" needs. Rarely are the key issues that frame the concept applied to their nonminority peers. Education literature rarely presents explicit conversations on the store of knowledge that each person brings into the classroom or of the impact of the knowledge base that the participants represent. For example, little has been documented about the adults in the classroom and what they learn from their students; likewise for the literature on any lessons learned about or by majority peers as a result of their association with minority and language minority peers. However, a multi-dimensional view of diversity per force lends itself to encompass and make use of the many perspectives of diversity.

The richness of the art and integration of diversity is seen in other arenas from which educators can learn. Delving outside of the education box reveals diversity’s multi-dimensional qualities. Consider, for example, what diversity now means in the world of corporate business. Though interpreted broadly and used as variously as in the field of education, in the business arena diversity has begun to define initiatives used to attract and retain highly competitive employees.

Dell Computer and Pfizer Corporations are but two examples of companies that have instituted strong diversity policies. They are serious when they state that their workforce must be ethnically, racially, and gender diverse, but they take full advantage of diversity’s other dimensions when they intentionally look for employees with different types of personalities, experiences, and problem-solving approaches to suit their many work niches, from product development to quality control to marketing to diverse customers. Each company values diverse thought and perspective, seeing diversity as a necessity for a winning organization. They have implemented mentoring programs to teach new hires the ropes and to promote their careers in relation to their skills and expectations. The diversity initiatives of companies such as these are designed expressly to attract and keep the best, and importantly, to promote a community spirit. These outreach efforts are neither accidental or poorly planned — each company intends to be the best and the most competitive.

Imagine a local public school district that instituted such policies. We might see the following statement: It is the policy of this school district to ensure that we attract and sustain a diverse student body and a diverse workforce that is well trained and educated. If you come, we will serve and support you — whatever it takes to ensure your success as a student or employee. We intend to enhance our community’s collective diversity by creating a community of learners. If you accept the invitation to join our district, you promise to do your best. Your achievements are our profits.

Here would be a school district that intends to do its best educating the children of the community. The policy would mean that parents and family groups, district staff at all levels, and students — in other words, everybody! — would be involved in the process of developing school plans in relation to community needs and expectations; the screening, hiring, and training of staff in relation to the goals of the learning community; and the diagnosis and assessment of students in relation to their needs, interests, and aspirations. It would give new meaning to phrase: "We’re building new bridges toward the future" as students leave school well prepared for participation in an increasingly diverse society.

The reality is that the dimensions, activities, and effects of diversity could and should be quite diverse. Effective educators will make use of the principles of diversity employed in other arenas to promote the services they offer and to enhance the lives of the people they serve. The only boundaries to our creativity in ensuring we make the most of diversity are self-made.

Gil N. Garcia is a senior research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), National Institute on the Education of At Risk Students. He is the Contract Office technical representative for the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory and is the institutional monitor of the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence. He is also heading the recently launched partnership between OERI and NICHD/NIH on the initiative, Development of English Literacy in Spanish-Speaking Children. He can be reached at 202-219-2144 or gil_garcia@ed.gov


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