Young female teacher standing in front of students at computers.

Promoting and reaping the benefits of diversity

How school districts can support student achievement through equitable hiring practices

By Meredith Brown, Elizabeth Zamora Mejia and Stephen McLoughlin | September | October 2019
California school districts face unique challenges but also great opportunities based on the growing diversity of California’s population. California is already one of the most diverse places in the world. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that no race or ethnic group constitutes a majority of the state’s population. Instead, according to the 2015 American Community Survey complied by the U.S. Census Bureau (Johnson, 2017) the demographics of the state’s residents are as follows: 
  • 39 percent are Latino;
  • 38 percent are white;
  • 14 percent are Asian American;
  • 6 percent are African American;
  • 3 percent are multi-racial; and
  • less than 1 percent are Native American
Studies show that while California’s public schools are becoming increasingly diverse, a surprisingly small percentage of teachers share similar backgrounds with their students, resulting in a significant teacher–student diversity differential (Miller, 2018). This diversity variance is significant because studies also suggest that all students benefit from a diverse faculty, both in terms of social development and academic performance, with a particular benefit felt by minority students who are taught by people with a similar background (Ogawa and Achinstein, 2011). The benefits of diversity do not end with ethnic groups. Research also shows that LGBTQ students can benefit from a supportive environment including staff and faculty with various sexual orientations and gender identities. This diversity can help address the serious issues that plague LGBTQ students. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are two to three times as likely to be bullied as non-LGBTQ peers, more likely to miss school, and almost five times as likely to attempt suicide (Greytak, Villeans and Giga). Thus, a staff with diversity can help support LGBTQ students and help educate all students about gender and sexual orientation issues. 
One potential source of the lack of diversity among the administrators and leaders of California’s K-12 public school districts is the higher education system’s failure to promote and encourage diversity in programs that produce teachers and administrators. Although this issue has been long recognized, the problem remains as the percentage of degrees granted to African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Native Americans is still well below these groups’ proportional representation in the U.S. population (Trejo, 2017). However, higher education institutions, particularly in California, are trying to address this issue. For example, the University of California’s published guidelines suggest that their campuses advance educational goals, including diversity and equal opportunity, by introducing or placing additional weight on a broad range of selection criteria when making admissions and employment decisions (University of California, 2015). The efforts of higher education institutions are not only helping to diversify the pool of employment candidates for schools, but also offer a blueprint for school districts to develop processes that promote diversity through their hiring process. 

Studies show that while California’s public schools are becoming increasingly diverse, a surprisingly small percentage of teachers share similar backgrounds with their students, resulting in a significant teacher–student diversity differential.
Of course, educational institutions must balance the need to promote diversity with legal requirements related to hiring practices. In sum, the quest for diversity and equity has been upheld as lawful as long as the means of achieving these goals do not include “discrimination” or “preferential treatment.” The courts have defined “preferential treatment” as “any kind of treatment favoring one group or individual over another”; it is not limited to so-called quotas “but extends to all preferences granted to the target groups.” Thus, school districts must develop effective inclusive hiring practices that do not fall into the broad definitions of discrimination or preferential treatment. To achieve this goal, school districts can utilize two general means of increasing diversity without running afoul of the law: (1) developing cultural competence to widening the pool of potential candidates and create an atmosphere where employees benefit from working with people from different backgrounds, and (2) removing barriers in the application and hiring process by addressing implicit biases. Developing cultural competence  One of the first steps to increase diversity is to recognize that school districts cannot simply wait for diverse candidates to apply for positions. Instead, diversity requires an active process of recognizing what diversity actually means and then seeking and attracting qualified candidates that may not otherwise be aware of or interested in, positions. Further, to truly reap the benefits of diversity, institutions must develop an atmosphere where people of diverse backgrounds can work together to understand and take advantage of their different backgrounds and experiences.  Cultural competence is helpful to understand how this active engagement works. Although the meaning of the phrase “cultural competence” has evolved over time and does not have one set definition, it generally refers to the ability to recognize and work with people from diverse backgrounds. Thus, cultural competency implies that promoting diversity is not just about ethnicity, but includes acknowledging how a person’s background influences their thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, and values.  A high level of cultural competence allows an institution not only to attract potential faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds but also foster a community in which people from diverse backgrounds want to work for the institution and actively benefit fellow employees and students by openly discussing their different backgrounds.  One of the first steps in promoting cultural competence is widening the pool of candidates for positions by taking specific steps to reach out to people with diverse backgrounds. These steps include the following:  1) Publicizing information about job openings and positive news about your institution with local community-based organizations, including Hispanic, African American, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ professional organizations, churches, temples, Chambers of Commerce, and fraternal organizations. 2) Using local and diverse outlets to announce position openings and share news about your institution, including foreign language/cultural radio stations and newspapers.  3) Developing ongoing relationships with the graduate programs and alumni associations of colleges and universities that have a high percentage of graduates from minority populations.  4) Hosting informational receptions for the local community to develop contacts with a pool of qualified candidates. 5) Establishing a welcoming environment for applicants through mentoring programs and professional development opportunities for existing employees. Removing barriers by addressing implicit biases  Even if an institution promotes cultural competency and actively seeks diversity, barriers to achieving diversity are often subtle and may go unnoticed. These subtle roadblocks to diversity are often the result of implicit biases. Unlike explicit bias, which reflects the attitudes or beliefs that people express at a conscious level, implicit biases impact judgment and/or behavior through cognitive processes that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control (Dovidio, Gertner & Kawakami, 2002). In the hiring process, people or groups may allow their unconscious beliefs about a certain group of people influence how they assess a candidate, even if they are unaware of the influence. In other words, a person may interpret a statement made by a candidate more harshly if it fits into the person’s preconceived notions of the candidate’s race without explicitly knowing it. 

Even if an institution promotes cultural competency and actively seeks diversity, barriers to achieving diversity are often subtle and may go unnoticed. These subtle roadblocks to diversity are often the result of implicit biases.
From a legal perspective, it is unlawful to ask an applicant any question that may reveal a protected characteristic, such as race, religion, sex, disability, etc. (See 2 Cal. Code Regs. § 11016(b) [preemployment inquiries may not “directly or indirectly identify an individual” on the basis of a protected characteristic]; Government Code § 8310 [it is a misdemeanor to ask any such question in an application for state employment].) As it is unlawful to gather such information from candidates, it is likewise improper to monitor the information. However, the law does not protect against all biases, whether implicit or explicit. Thus, institutions should be aware of the dangers of implicit biases and take active steps to address them. While detailed trainings on implicit biases are available, here are some immediate steps institutions and those involved in the hiring process can take:  1) Establish the specific qualities and characteristics that are important for the candidate to possess before starting the interview process and make sure all questions are related to these factors. 2) Throughout the evaluation process, ensure all candidates are evaluated on the initial selection criteria to avoid letting implicit biases influence the process when making final decisions or evaluations between select candidates. 3) Establish a specific process to give meaningful consideration to cultural sensitivity and understanding of the diverse student population in ways relevant to the specific position so these factors can be considered separate from questions addressing general qualifications. 5) Involve multiple people throughout the selection process who can have honest conversations about the candidates so individual implicit biases can be addressed. 6) Provide ongoing training on implicit bias and cultural competency to those involved in the hiring process as well as all staff.  Conclusion California’s diversity creates a special opportunity for public school districts willing to take the steps necessary to promote, seek, and take advantage of the educational and social benefits that bringing people with different backgrounds together offers. Although some of the statistics regarding staff diversity may be discouraging, California is also at the forefront of analyzing and offering equitable solutions to address the lack of diversity of administrators at both the district and school site levels. Thus, school districts can take advantage of the research, insights, and legal frameworks to actively promote and create more diversity in school administration, which will ultimately benefit all those involved in the education process.   References Claire Cain Miller, Does Teacher Diversity Matter in Student Learning?, N.Y. Times, Sept. 10, 2018), Greytak E.A., Kosciw, J.G.Villeans, C, & Giga, N.M., From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, A Survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Hans Johnson, Just the Facts, California’s Population, Public Policy Institute of California (March 9, 2017) Hi-Voltage Wire Works, Inc. v. City of San Jose (2000) 24 Cal.4th 537, 562. JoAnn Trejo, “A Reflection on Facility Diversity in the 21st Century,” The American Society for Cell Biology, Nov. 1, 2017, John F. Dovidio, Samuel L. Gertner, & Kerry Kawakami, Implicit and Explicit Prejudice and Interracial Interaction, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (2002) available at Rodney Ogawa and Betty Achinstein, Changed(d) Agents: New Teachers of Color in Urban Schools, New York: Teachers College Press; 2011. See also Amy Stuart Wells, Laruen Fox, & Diana Cordova-Cobo, How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students, available at University of California , Office of the General Counsel, Guidelines for Addressing Race and Gender Equity in Academic Programs in Compliance with Proposition 209, July 2015, See summary of research on cultural competence, released by the Nation Center for Cultural Competence at citing Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M., Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.

Meredith Brown and Elizabeth Zamora Mejia are partners at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. Stephen McLoughlin serves as Senior Counsel with AALRR.

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators