Diversity is not our Problem, it’s our Solution

Community, Leadership

K. C. Knudson

For decades now we have framed educational support for economically disadvantaged and minority youth as critical to disrupting the pipeline to prison in America. And though some really heavy lifting has been done in pockets of our country to lift disenfranchised youth out of poverty, most of our schools are still designed to sort students, floating the more affluent, more white students to the top and others the other direction. If our educational system is sorting for similarity, if our educational system creates homogenous groupings in schools, colleges, board rooms, and senate chambers, then we are completely failing to capitalize on the upside of America. You see, the upside of America lies within our diversity.

Beyond changing the futures of individual students, investing in diversity is critical to the future of the world let alone our country. Scott E. Page, the Director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, has conducted research on the link between diversity and improved problem solving. In his book titled The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Page explains that the problems that we face in the world today are inherently more complex and more connected, and therefore, more difficult to solve. His research shows that when solving large complex problems, diverse groups of thinkers outperform highly intelligent individuals working alone. Page notes that in order for groups to capitalize on the full benefits of their diversity, they must know how to work together. The only way that this can happen is if we provide our students the time and opportunity to work together in diverse groups. This means that we must eliminate the sorting mechanisms inherent in our schools.

Mary Catherine Swanson started AVID in 1980. Beginning with a class of 32 low-income and diverse students, Mary Catherine built a program to support students in reaching their full potential. She helped students develop school success skills and self-efficacy while also helping them to access rigorous, college-prep classes. These students excelled, propelling themselves to college and meaningful careers. That continues to be a goal of the AVID program today. However, AVID is also working to help schools across America address the structures and systems that lead to continued institutional classicism and racism.

Burlington-Edison School District has been supporting individual students through the AVID program for over a decade. Most recently our AVID program received fiscal and implementation support through the College Spark College Readiness Initiative. As a result we have more students participating in AVID. We also have a better, more rigorous AVID elective. And, even more importantly, we are beginning to address the mechanisms within our schools that prevent us from capitalizing on our diversity.

We are implementing deeper learning outcomes, working to ensure that all our students are participating in learning experiences that help them to master core academic skills and content, to consider big ideas, to think critically and solve complex problems, to work collaboratively, to communicate effectively and to be self-directed.

Some steps in support of this shift include:

  • Moving to a four by four block schedule to extend class time so that learning experiences can be more interactive, student-centered, and idea-rich; this schedule also allows all of our students to access college prep classes, AVID, and world language — moving beyond graduation requirements to college entrance requirements.
  • Removing gatekeeping mechanisms that have historically kept low-income and minority students out of AP and college prep classes; all students may enroll.
  • Hiring Diverse and Exceptional Learning Specialists to serve as consultant teachers in our schools.
  • Conducting quarterly full day retreats with our administrative team, teacher-leaders, and consultant teachers focused entirely on equity and diversity.

This is not easy work. It is the hardest work that we have ever done. We have a long way to go. We will stick with it because, it is the most important work that we can be doing in education today. Barbara Waxman, educational consultant and former Associate Director of Professional Development for Expeditionary Learning, believes that too often in education we restrict ourselves from talking about our larger aims. She implores, “We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are working in the service of creating something larger, deeper and more meaningful for children. We need for our students to be able to learn and then act in ways that make things better.”

Diversity makes things better.

This blog is part of an ongoing series in partnership with College Spark Washington, an organization that funds programs aimed at helping low-income students become college-ready and earn postsecondary degrees, that profiles schools helping to prepare students for college and career.

For more, see:

K. C. Knudson is Executive Director of Teaching and Learning and AVID District Director for the Burlington-Edison School District.


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