Diversity and Technology as Innovation for Desegregation

Educational institutions seek to be transformed by the integration of technology while they also seeks become more diverse and equitable for underrepresented groups. While progress has been made on both fronts there are significant differences in commitment and success. One explanation is that the technology industry has captured our imagination of innovation as a process for progress. Broadening innovation to include diversity practice is essential and would strengthen the field’s ideas and participants. Collaboration between diversity and technology departments would lead to true mission driven transformation of schools, especially at private schools which have often aided a resegregation of the US educational system.

Saber Khan
Feb 28, 2018 · 10 min read

(This essay was written with critical feedback from Erica Corbin, JP Connolly, and Matthew Reininger)

Hiking with some students from San Francisco in Pinnacles National Park (April 2010)
  1. Teachers

Ten years ago I was teaching math and science at a K-8 Quaker school in San Francisco. It was an exciting time in my career. I put lots of energy into my classes, trying challenging curriculum with lots of support and appreciation from students and their families. This was the first time in my career laptops were available for student use during class and I took advantage of opportunities for collaboration on digital documents. In the evenings I was working on my Masters in Special Education at San Francisco State University. In those classes I learned about how to use data to support students with different learning needs. For the first time in my career I felt I was a successful teacher.

While I was ready to redesign my classroom and work with a diversity of learning styles there was much that remained hidden and missing from my education and classroom. I did not understand my identity as a South Asian man. As a middle class immigrant from Bangladesh I was expected to be an engineer or doctor. Someone like me would be welcome in Silicon Valley and most other industries accessible to White and Asian men in the United States. As an educator I received no training in how to support the identity development of my students. There was no person assigned the job of pushing students and teachers to think and learn about racial identity development at the school.

Tech’s diversity problem: It’s not just a pipeline issue (Washington Post)

For all schools, identity development, equity, and inclusion are key challenges in a diversifying country. And most fail to reflect the diversity of their locality and fail to help their students learn about their racial and cultural identities. Private schools which are generally whiter and richer have been drivers of segregation as they offer those with privilege an opportunity to opt-out of the public school system. Many private schools, especially those in the South started as “segregation academies” to thwart court-ordered desegregation in Brown v Board of Education. While these institutions are no longer explicitly racist they enforce a loose form of de facto segregation in the South and in the rest of the US.

In New York City, which has one of the highest densities of private and charter schools, school choice has lead to a resegregation of the public school system according to the New York Times.

Despite the structural challenges a dedicated group of diversity practitioners seek to transform private schools into equitable and accessible institutions.

Diversity and Inclusivity Framework for curriculum (Thomas Laird)

2. Schools

The incorporation of technology into the classroom has been one of biggest trends in the evolution of school over the past few decades. From how we communicate to how we assess learning has been augmented by the use of computers and digital technology. New roles, job titles, companies, and philosophies have created a new industry, educational technology to support this transformation. This trend has happened while schools have sought a much deeper and meaningful transformation. Educational institutions seek to be inclusive of historically underrepresented identities and equitable in opportunities for all community members. Let’s take a moment to reflect on these two trends and make connections between the two. Drawing these two efforts together can make both more effective and bring them closer to fulfilling the mission of a school.

The SAMR Model for technology integration in schools (Sylvia Duckworth)

Diversity and technology are two of the most quickly evolving areas in education. As some schools have made technology and equity a priority they have hired staff, financed budgets, and devoted time to those efforts. For technology integration, schools have followed each other in one-to-one device programs, maintaining digital services, and working with students and teachers. According to a 2007 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) report about 80 percent of schools had a high-level staff position, with 60 percent reporting to the head of school. A quarter of the schools reported having a tech staff of at least 5 members. And most report that 1 to 2 % of the school’s operating budget is spent on the technology department.

Technology Department Staffing 2007 NAIS Technology Survey

The heavy investment in technology reflects one of the ways that private schools extend and compound privilege. Private schools prefer to be called independent schools, implying a level of independence from the public system and other schools while denying the exclusive and exclusionary nature of the sector. But in practice, this independence is hard to identify and often means they are independent of scrutiny from outsiders. Most private schools have adopted 1:1 digital devices for their students and teachers, finding space on the schedule and staff to teach Computer Science or Maker education, trained faculty in the use of digital tools for school work, and embraced a host of digital platforms. This reflects an understanding by those in power that the future of work is digital. But the past, present, and future are more diverse than these institutions, while diversity effort remain modest.

About five years ago I began working in technology education when I moved back to New York City. I was fortunate to land at a progressive private school in the West Village. One of the best parts of the school was a deep commitment to diversity and identity work, something that was entirely missing from my career previously. Under the leadership of diversity practitioners, a full-time role at the school, I was able to participate in a faculty of color group, support students of color, and engage parents of color. The school sent me and others to the People of Color conference organized by NAIS. In these groups, I was able to see myself as a person of color and how I could seek and offer support to other people of color, especially those that have been excluded from these institutions. By seeing my racial identity more clearly I could see better how others saw me and my role as a teacher. I consider this an essential part of who I am and a part of my job at a school even though it is not part of any job description or assignment.

But this level of commitment and support for diversity work is still rare in the private school community. In contrast, the role of the diversity and equity staff are in much fewer number, loosely defined, and under-funded according to a NAIS survey of diversity practitioners from 2017:

“The job role is still often imprecisely defined; only 31 percent say that their job responsibilities are extremely well-defined or very well-defined. A little more than half of the diversity practitioners report to the head of school (55 percent), and less than half (47 percent) are part of their school’s senior administrative team. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) do not have anyone reporting to them in their diversity role.”

Perceived Definition of Diversity Practitioner Duties and Responsibilities 2017 NAIS Diversity Practitioners Survey

3. Unpaid Labor

There a few metrics available to us to compare diversity and technology directly and to judge their proximity to power at a school. As non-profit institutions, private schools have file documents to the government explaining their mission and finances. These 990 forms can be found on Guidestar. The form includes names, titles, and salaries of the highest paid employees. I looked at technology and diversity positions and salaries in ten leading private schools in New York from 2016, the last year for which data is available. Of the ten schools, five have titles that include the word “technology” compared to only one that includes the word “multicultural”. One school has two titles that include the word technology in the top salary. This is out of a total of 90 jobs.

Data on positions and roles at leading private schools in NYC (guidestar.org)

Of the 6 technology jobs the average salary is $199,227 compared to $170,364 for the single diversity job in the top salaries list from those ten schools. These are some of the oldest and richest educational institutions in the country where they can spend large sums of money and resources on priorities. Both departments are at the periphery of the goals of schools, according to the count of jobs. From this brief look, it is easy to see the discrepancy between the two departments. Missing from this analysis is data on race, gender, sexuality and other known categories of identities that can explain gaps in pay and power. But it is worth remembering that diversity is often done by women of color and technology integration is often done by white men. One project seems to feel like an essential innovation while the other is left at the margins.

In schools that do not fully support diversity work or have a Director of Diversity, most schools, the work is often undertaken unofficially by a faculty member of color, a group that is often marginalized in overwhelmingly white and wealthy private schools. This unpaid labor comes with a great cost too because you are often called upon to offer help in situations related to diversity by the leadership when the time and effort could be spent on labor that will get a reward:

New research backs up previous studies that suggest professors of color may be imperiling their tenure and promotion prospects by performing service work to help their institutions become more racially inclusive. It’s common knowledge in academic circles that publishing papers and acquiring research dollars are the most valuable activities for moving up the higher education ladder. Scholars who excel at research tend to get academic tenure.

On the contrary, professional work tied to improving diversity — such as building opportunity pipelines, recruiting and mentoring — are discountable. A study out this year, found that marginalized professors spent twice as much time mentoring, recruiting and “serving on various task forces,” than their White male counterparts. Higher education experts say that these activities take away time that could be applied to the more career-accelerating work of publishing. (How Faculty of Color Hurt Their Careers Helping Universities with Diversity, Diverse Education)

The damage that the sidelining of a faculty member of color causes should be considered in light of data on the diversifying student body and overwhelming whiteness of the teacher staff.

(The State of Racial Diversity in Educator Workforce, Department of Education)
(The State of Racial Diversity in Educator Workforce, Department of Education)

4. Taking Back Innovation

A broader vision of innovation that goes beyond the technology industry and accounts for identity and equity work can help bring more support for this unpaid but essential labor. Instead “innovation” in the public school system, such as vouchers, charters, and school choice, has led to a rapid resegregation of the public school system. We have to study outcomes and take them seriously and be willing to change our approach if needed. While there are many threads worth looking at in comparing technology and diversity departments in private schools, we need to focus on the power and language of innovation.

With the resources devoted to technology in staffing, it is not surprising that technology usage feels ubiquitous in many schools. But we have not seen a similar commitment to diversity department staffing. And as equity, diversity, and inclusion work remains essential to how schools function in society this blind spot creates a large deficit in what schools can and should be. Ideally, the tools of technology can aid the work of diversity by creating a caring community with the critical mass to enact change. Ultimately if schools want to home to innovative thinking and practice they have to commit to diversity work a way that will allow themselves to be transformed by it. One the best avenues for this change is to redirect technology staff to engage directly with diversity work as they are well placed to have large scale impact on a school. While this may seem like a sudden change in mission and scope technology practitioners and diversity practitioners, are often asked to change directions, take on new projects, and serve the mission of a school in innovative and challenging fashion. To borrow a term from tech and re-framing equity and inclusion as innovation offers avenues to work towards to justice.

Toward that end I recommend:

Short term

  1. Have all technology staff take diversity and equity training.
  2. Support and encourage technologists, especially those of color, to engage in diversity work.
  3. Redesign technology curriculum to take ethics, identity, and creativity seriously.
  4. Study and propagate diversity practices and innovations — affinity groups, privilege walks, White Anti-Racism, implicit bias, etc.
  5. Reward diversity work with compensation and promotions.
  6. Reform hiring practices to be transparent, especially about compensation and roles.

Long term:

  1. Study how digital technology can aid diversity work as in #blacklivesmatter, Color of Change, GLSEN, and Teaching Tolerance
  2. Create a deeper understanding how technology, especially the internet, allows hate and bigotry to spread in new ways.
  3. Set public goals for diversity that matches the diversity of the locality.
  4. Diversity of the teaching staff should also match the diversity of the student body.

Saber Khan

Written by

Educator. Email me at mrkhanatndv@gmail.com

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