We are committed to seizing the opportunity presented by ESSA to ensure that students are receiving a genuinely well-rounded education.
Music and art; world languages; physics, chemistry, and biology; social studies, civics, geography and government; physical education and health; coding and computer science. These aren’t luxuries that are just nice to have. They’re what it means to be ready for today’s world.
And today, I want to talk to you about one more essential element of the well-rounded education we all want for our children: diversity. Like math and reading, like science, social studies, and the arts, diversity is no longer a luxury; it’s essential for helping our students get ready for the world they will encounter after high school and, increasingly, throughout their lives.
The decision in the Brown case made clear that diverse schools benefit students of color and that the segregation ran counter to the Constitution as well as our values as Americans.
And today we know that diversity – of all types – benefits all students.
Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the use of an applicant’s race by the University of Texas in making admissions decisions was justified by the benefits of diversity.
The court agreed with the university’s goal of creating an “academic environment” that offers a “robust exchange of ideas, exposure to differing cultures, preparation for the challenges of an increasingly diverse workforce, and acquisition of competencies required of future leaders.”
Today, for many reasons, the “compelling interest” in diversity, as the court put it, is greater than ever.
Today, diversity is not a nicety but a necessity. Not just for some students, but for all of our students.
The evidence that that is true is everywhere.
The transformative power of diversity in education is enormous; it boosts empathy and reduces bias, and greatly increases the chances that low-income students will attend college—without in any way compromising the academic outcomes of their middle-class peers.
It exposes students to perspectives and ideas that enlarge their world views.
Diversity also increases the likelihood students will succeed and become leaders in their careers and communities. Because success today requires mastering the art of working productively with folks whose experiences are different from your own.
The business world gets it.
One study showed that companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of racial diversity. But it’s not just racial diversity—it’s cultural as well.
In today’s working world, your boss may not look like you, your office-mate may not worship like you, your project teammates may not speak the same language as you, and your customer may not live on the same continent as you. Today, cross-cultural literacy is another way of saying competitive advantage.
Our kids need to be ready for a flatter world with more fiber-optics and fewer fences. If your child wants to grow up to work at Google or Facebook, they better be able to relate to people around the world as well as know how to code.
But that’s true of just about any company today. No amount of longing for a different time will change the fact that our world is becoming more interconnected—and that is a good thing. We are stronger together.
The task before all of us is not to hide from reality—again, a reality that can and will make us stronger—but to make sure America’s students are the best-positioned in the world to thrive in it, to lead it.
And so, what I’m asking you today is to act not only in the interest of someone else’s kids, but also to act boldly in the interest of your own.
I’m asking you to demand diversity—not just in schools but also in the classrooms within those schools.
It’s not enough for kids from diverse backgrounds to just pass each other in the hallways or on the playground. True diversity requires students to actually learn alongside one another.
Our efforts to promote diversity must extend beyond the students.
We also need a diverse teaching force. A growing majority of our public school students are nonwhite, but only 18 percent of the teaching force identifies that way—a number that has barely budged over the last 15 years.
We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers who are positive role models, as well as from the changes in classroom dynamics that result. But, all of our children benefit if they learn from, and are guided by, a variety of adults with unique experiences and perspectives.
We do our students a disservice if their first interaction with a teacher or boss who has a different background from them is in college or on the job.
Because diversity matters so much to the prospects of all our kids, President Obama’s most recent budget proposal included a similar effort that would offer grants to help districts create and implement strong voluntary, community-developed plans to increase socioeconomic diversity in their schools while improving student achievement…
I am also pleased to tell you that Senator Chris Murphy and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge will soon be introducing legislation based upon our proposal. Their legislation will highlight the importance of both socioeconomic and racial diversity, and it deserves the support of their Congressional colleagues.
These efforts harness momentum that is already growing from the ground up.
It’s not happening everywhere and in some places there is out and out resistance…
But there are also communities and neighborhoods all over this country where principals, and parents, and students are pushing for more diversity in their schools.
According to the Century Foundation, in the past nine years, the number of school districts and public charter schools intentionally pursuing socioeconomic diversity has more than doubled…
One place where it is occurring is Hartford, Connecticut, which has one of the most successful socioeconomic integration plans in the country. There, city kids choose to travel to the suburbs to attend schools that meet their needs and suburban kids head into the city. Parents there are opting to send their kids to diverse schools beyond their neighborhoods because they didn’t want them to only encounter other students just like them.
This work may not be easy but it must be done. And it won’t happen without an active force of parents encouraging, demanding, the kinds of diversity that genuinely benefit all of our kids.
So if your children, or your students, go through their school day without diversity as an essential part of their learning experience, ask – really ask – your school leaders why.
Are there teachers of color in your school? More than a couple? If not, ask why not.
Find out if there is an effort to increase the economic and racial diversity of your school system. If there is, find out how you can help. If there isn’t, start it and lead it.
If your school is diverse but its PTA doesn’t reflect that diversity, take the time to get to know parents from different backgrounds. Invite them to join you. Harness their perspectives and learn from them.
As I mentioned earlier, my two girls attend high-quality public schools in Montgomery County. My older daughter attends a middle school that is extraordinarily diverse racially and economically. My younger daughter’s magnet elementary school also is diverse and the majority of students is eligible for free and reduced price lunches. That diversity didn’t happen by accident but by design – it required and continues to require thoughtful community decisions about housing and school policies.
I don’t want to pretend for a second that any of this is easy.
But, we as adults should also listen to our children. As is often the case, they are wise beyond their years.
In preparing my remarks for today, I asked one of my middle school daughter’s friends what she thought about going to school with children whose backgrounds were different from hers. She told me she liked learning about other cultures. She said other students helped her learn more about life. And she also said, and this was my favorite, “when you learn more about others, you also learn more about yourself.”
We are living in a strange and complicated time, full of worries about our kids’ futures. Fear can drive us to stay with what we know, rather than to expand our circles.
But the option we don’t have is to return to a past age – one that might seem golden in some peoples’ memories, but certainly wasn’t for most Americans.
What we can do is prepare our young people to help mold the world they will face. That’s our duty, as parents and educators.
It’s also our opportunity.
Today, for the sake of our nation, our communities and our children, we must work toward a broader definition of the Common School, one that corresponds with the needs of today.
Our history has often veered away from that ideal. But if we want to lead this century, we must make it our reality. Our nation is always strongest when we live, and learn, together.
You can help make it happen.