Every Student Must Be IncludED: School Climate Matters Now More Than Ever
“Diversity is about bodies, and inclusion is about culture”
-DeRay Mckesson, social justice activist
Why so much talk about diversity and inclusion lately?
Incidents of hatred, intimidation, and harassment have exploded across our nation over the past year. Far too many of them have occurred in school settings. Responsible schools have responded with statements of inclusion, affirming their institutions as safe spaces for students who are Muslim, Jewish, Black, disabled, LGBT, Latino, immigrants, or other groups targeted by the surge in harassment and hatred. These schools are now making good on their words by developing or improving their inclusiveness in order to ensure a safe and nurturing climate for every student.
What exactly is inclusiveness and why is it important?
Inclusiveness is a process – a journey. Inclusive schools work tirelessly to respect, value, understand, and accept the uniqueness of each person. These schools develop a strong collective identity that encompasses all demographic and identity groups. No groups of students have to remind the dominant culture that they, too, are members of their own schools.
Inclusive school climates foster the sense of belonging for students and encourage positive emotions that fuel the motivation to learn. Across differences, students feel included as equal members of the community; they feel their voices matter. When that happens, students are seven times more likely to be academically motivated.
But the benefits of inclusion aren’t limited to academic motivation or success as measured by standardized tests. Not hardly. The benefits flow in many directions. Inclusive schools actively identify and remove systemic barriers hindering underserved student groups. At the same time, inclusion taps into the power of diversity to enrich the lives of all students, not just minority students (a common misconception). Among the research-based benefits of diversity and inclusion are:
Greater social and emotional well-being;
Enhanced learning outcomes;
Increased intercultural and cross-racial knowledge, understanding, and empathy;
Better preparation for employment in the global economy; and
Increased democratic outcomes.
Makes sense. So why haven’t we been focusing on this?
It’s important to note that tapping into the power of diversity has become a challenge over the past two decades. It’s due to – ironically – a national movement away from the concept of inclusiveness that started with A Nation at Risk (1980) and gained momentum through the standards movement. I’ve written in detail about this in Guiding Teams to Excellence with Equity, but here’s the short version.
In the 1990s, U.S. policy began guiding schools away from pedagogy that emphasized relating across differences (e.g., social outcomes, heterogeneous environments, group work, multicultural education) and toward focusing on equity and outputs (test scores). The mantra was to educate all students to high standards and to close “the achievement gap” in any environment. For the first time since Brown v. Board of Education, it no longer mattered if environments – schools, classrooms, groupings, etc. – were demographically (e.g., racially and socioeconomically) isolated or diverse. Educational equity became about accountability for teaching every student well in any neighborhood, school, or classroom.
After No Child Left Behind (2002), the nation became fixated on narrow measures of excellence provided by standardized tests. Public schools seemed to become less concerned about actively developing diverse and inclusive (or even integrated) schools and classrooms to influence positive educational outcomes. At the same time, many families with economic means moved to districts with schools labeled “excellent” due to test scores.
On the positive side, this era forced states to look more closely at underserved students. On the negative side, the era of heavy-handed accountability and standardized testing resulted in a “public education system that is simultaneously becoming increasingly diverse in terms of its student population and increasingly segregated and unequal”. In 2016, U.S. schools were more racially and socioeconomically segregated than they had been for decades. Today, even in diverse schools, student populations are often stratified to the point that historically underserved populations (e.g., African American, Latino, and Indigenous) are clustered in low-level academic courses and tracks. This failure to close gaps in high-quality instruction does not bode well for the future of our democracy.
Must we accept such doom and gloom?
No. Lights are flickering in the darkness. Teachers have been stepping up and speaking out. Researchers are also voicing the need to prioritize school climate as an equity treatment. Even legislators have recognized the need for change. When it passed in late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) required states (for the first time ever) to include non-academic factors such as school climate in their accountability systems. With increased ability to monitor school climate, schools can paint a more nuanced picture -- beyond standardized test scores -- of how they are doing with excellence and equity.
Yet, as I write this (March 2017), the U.S. Senate voted to block ESSA’s accountability rules, sending more power to the states. We’ll see how this all shakes out. Regardless, no matter how the pendulum of school reform politics is swinging, responsible schools remain accountable to their students, which now means reconnecting with the moral purpose of public schools and prioritizing school climate and inclusiveness.
I agree! How do we go about this work?
Since inclusiveness (and Cultural Proficiency) is a journey, it’s a continuing, never-ending, iterative process with three essential phases: awareness, commitment, and action. The journey starts with increased awareness of one’s own culture and its influence on others. What follows is a strong commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. Then, the process continues outward to action: improving practices and policies so that they are more fair, just, inclusive and culturally responsive. Facilitators make the process easier by using tools and mental models – such as the Cultural Proficiency framework – with teams.
This is the work of schools in our era. To counter climates of intolerance, apathy, and fear. To ensure a high-quality education for all students, especially historically underserved populations. And continue to make democracy possible.
It’s a tall order. Equity work has never been easy. We need to be strategic, systemic, and systematic. This is where skilled professionals in the field can make a distinct difference between good intentions that backfire and success. Equity, inclusion, cultural competence, and high expectations for every student is the vision of IncludED, The Core Collaborative’s new suite of services that support teams in learning together and making a difference in the lives of all students. IncludED launches this June at MindFuelED. I’ll be there! Will you?
 Southern Poverty Law Center. (2017). Hate incidents. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/hate-incidents
 Wikipedia. (2017). I, too, am harvard. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Too,_Am_Harvard
 St. George, D. (2015, February 23). Struggles of minority students in Montgomery: ‘I, Too, Am B-CC. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/struggles-of-minority-students-in-montgomery-i-too-am-b-cc/2015/02/23/a46a6f7e-b86e-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html?utm_term=.72dbfaa11796
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 CampbellJones, F., CampbellJones, B., & Lindsey, R. B. (2010). The Cultural Proficiency journey: Moving beyond ethical barriers toward profound school change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.