Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) sounds like it should be a good thing. It is made up of mostly good words. We rightly value diversity, both intellectual and cultural. And who could be against inclusion? Equity is actually not such a good thing as it emphasizes having the same outcomes, but it sounds like equality, which is another very fine word.
But like many bad enterprises, DEI takes a bunch of good words and in Orwellian fashion uses them to advance the very opposite of what those words mean. DEI undermines true diversity by reducing and dividing us into ethnic and sexual identity categories while crushing actual intellectual and cultural diversity. And rather than including people from those diverse intellectual and cultural strands, DEI classifies us as either oppressor or oppressed, with the former deserving whatever harsh consequences they might get while the later is entitled to whatever benefits they can grab. Rather than creating equality, this Manichean split into oppressor and oppressed justifies different rules and differential treatment depending on which category you find yourself in. This produces a mad scramble to have one’s own group somehow included in the blessed oppressed category while trying to throw one’s enemies into the damned oppressor category.
As Rick Hess recently pointed out. this DEI world view is very unpopular among large segments of the population, cutting across partisan and racial lines. So why is DEI spreading so rapidly if its ideas are deeply unpopular? Some of the answer can be found in the Orwellian appropriation of positive words for negative purposes. But people can only be fooled for so long, so why is it continuing to grow even as more people can see it for what it really is? A big part of the explanation can be found in the fact that DEI has some organizational advantages within mainstream institutions. The existence of DEI staff led by Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) acts as a political commissariat, articulating and enforcing ideological orthodoxy. It mobilizes the relatively small group of activists who support its woke agenda and amplifies their voice within institutions.
In a series of studies that James Paul and I have released through the Heritage Foundation, we have documented the extent of DEI staff and CDOs. In our first study, Diversity University, we found that the average university among the 65 institutions belonging to one of the Power 5 athletic conferences has 45 DEI staff. That is more than 4 times the number of staff they have devoted to providing services to students with disabilities, which, unlike DEI, they are required to do by law. These universities have 40% more DEI staff than they have History professors. Despite this outsized effort, surveys of students suggest that the campus climate is no better and may actually be worse at universities with larger DEI staff.
While DEI staff are nearly ubiquitous in higher education, they are only beginning to make their way into K-12 public school districts. In our second study, Equity Elementary, we look at every school district with at least 15,000 students — all 554 of them — to see if they have Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) listed on their web sites. We found that 39% of them do. Among the largest districts, with more than 100,000 students, 79% have a CDO. But even among the smaller ones with closer to 15,000 students, 32% still have a CDO. We then look at whether having a CDO is associated with closing achievement gaps on standardized tests. Contrary to their ostensible purpose, districts with CDOs actually have larger gaps in achievement between black and white students, Hispanic and white students, and non-poor and poor students than districts without CDOs. And those gaps are growing wider over time, This pattern holds true even after controlling for a host of other observable characteristics of those districts.
CDOs in K-12 public school districts may be educationally counter-productive because, like their higher education DEI brethren, they are more focused on promoting a political agenda than they are on finding effective educational interventions. That political agenda includes advancing policies that likely exacerbate achievement gaps, such as eliminating Gifted program and advanced math offerings while selecting English and Social Studies content for its political orthodoxy rather than educational quality.
People are beginning to notice how DEI efforts are educationally counter-productive and politically radical, and they are starting to organize against this. Parents are achieving enough success at pressuring their schools to abandon this woke agenda that they prompted the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to condemn them as domestic terrorists and seek intervention from federal agencies, which the Biden Administration and Attorney General Garland promptly supplied. This appears to have backfired horribly, causing dozens of state affiliates of NSBA to defect, which resulted in NSBA retracting its letter and apologizing (to its affiliates but oddly not to parents).
The Biden Administration and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, however, can’t as quickly back away from their declarations condemning protesting parents. McAuliffe, who was way ahead in the polls, has seen his lead evaporate and may be upset in next week’s elections. This turmoil is also not helping Biden’s chances of pulling together the votes for his multi-trillion dollar reconciliation proposal.
Our own research on this issue is attracting a lot of attention. Kyle Smith has an excellent column in the New York Post summarizing our Equity Elementary findings. And Fox News had me on last weekend to discuss that study and its implications for the Virginia gubernatorial contest.
The increasingly woke education reform movement has had little substantive response to this research or the parent backlash that is underway other than to call people racists. This name-calling approach is losing its sting as it continues to be mis-used. And the fact that the ed reform establishment continues to embrace a failed strategy for advancing school choice focused on progressive priorities suggests that many existing ed reform organizations are rapidly becoming irrelevant.
Soon they will become like the Children’s Defense Fund and the advocacy organizations built around the War on Poverty in the 1970s. Those organizations still exist and still receive millions in foundation grants. They still write white papers, issue press releases, organize conferences, and make speeches to each other about how right and good they are. But it has been almost half a century since those organizations had any real political influence. This will soon be the fate of many education reform organizations if they do not change their approach.
McAuliffe may survive and Biden may get his trillions, but the future of any politically successful education reform movement has to be focused on helping parents control the education of their own children and capitalizing upon their concern that a woke agenda is fundamentally undermining their control and their values.