“Equity Has to Be a Priority”
Converging Interests and Displacing Responsibility
I have stressed the importance of looking beyond the superficial rhetoric of policies and practices, in order to focus on the material and ideological work that is done to legitimate and extend race inequity. When judging education policy, therefore, it is pertinent to ask some deceptively simple questions. . . . These are by no means the only relevant “tests” of equity and policy, but they are among the most revealing and fundamental because they go beyond the expressed intent of policy-makers and practitioners to examine how policy works in the real world. First, the question of priorities: Who or what is driving education policy? Second, the question of beneficiaries: Who wins and who loses as a result of education policy priorities? And, finally, the question of outcomes: What are the effects of policy?
—David Gillborn, “Education Policy as an Act of White Supremacy”
I entered the Zion School District with the intention of studying “multicultural education” on the ground—in schools and among teachers in different school contexts. In 2005, this was the language used in schools and colleges of education to reference work around diversity and sometimes equity. Consistent with this national trend, I knew the Zion School District had a policy on the books titled “Policy on Multicultural Education” as well as a district administrator charged with implementing the policy. As the chapters in this book highlight, I learned something about how the district and particular teachers engaged this thing called multicultural education, but I also learned much about how educators engaged whiteness in their various approaches to diversity.
Before going inside schools and hearing about how teachers engage diversity-related policy and practice, it is useful to consider how the Zion School District’s central office understood, engaged, and shaped efforts around diversity. One obvious starting point for this analysis is to look directly at the multicultural education policy. Indeed, the policy itself and work surrounding the policy composed a significant portion of the central office’s leadership around diversity. But widening the lens to examine other diversity-related work is also important for understanding how issues of equity and whiteness get taken up, used, and discarded in particular contexts. This chapter focuses on the narratives of central office leaders and the work done at the central office in order to provide a more complete rendering of the context surrounding what happens at Birch Secondary School and Spruce Secondary School. Starting with the central office’s policy and practice begins to answer David Gillborn’s call for better understanding the “material and ideological work that is done to legitimate and extend race inequity” in schools (2005, 492).
I return, first, to the district policy initially introduced in the previous chapter. The policy’s origin and implementation are indicative of larger trends in the central office’s work around diversity. By examining the policy, we begin to see how interest convergence and the displacement of responsibility for equity play out on the ground. Then I shift focus to other diversity-related work engaged by central office leaders and the ways they described the work being done in the district. Here I suggest that the central office leverages its responsibility for equity when it is so compelled because of external pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). In these cases, we see a convergence of interests among federal mandates, district priorities, and communities of color. When there are no such interests converging, however, the central office displaces responsibility for equity back to the schools. When equity is solely a policy imperative driven by mandates or funding, diversity-related efforts end up being limited and temporary. In these instances, whiteness and the interests of those with power are always maintained, because—whether shaped by federal mandates, site-based decisions, or accountability pressures—diversity-related policy and practice in the Zion School District are consistent with niceness and thus rarely disrupt the status quo or challenge inequity.
As I mentioned in the introductory chapter, the Zion School District developed a diversity and multiculturalism policy in 1997. The development and adoption of this policy followed a series of events that brought attention to diversity-related concerns in the district. In 1994, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found that at least seven Utah school districts were not meeting the federal guidelines for educating English-language learners (ELL), and in 1995, a member of the Zion School Board resigned from his position due to frustrations regarding the board’s “inability to face issues of diversity, religious conflict, site-based management, and inequitable building programs.” The board member who resigned was quoted in a newspaper article saying, “The school board [members are] really sharp, but they are insensitive to people who are different from them,” and “the board’s greatest challenge is to get in touch with the district’s increasing minority presence.”1 Within the next couple of years, members of the Latino community filed suit against the district with the OCR, citing the district’s failure to properly educate ELL and special education students.
When I was in the Zion School District in 2005 and 2006, one central office leader told me that the district had had an “ethnic affairs person” in the mid-1990s, and when he resigned, a committee was formed to “look at what we needed to move things forward. It was a matter of what do we need.” She noted that the committee was not formed “out of any particular problem,” but that the group was charged with examining “how to work better with our students of color and our families.” The committee ultimately determined that “we needed a policy to bring importance to the whole idea [of diversity and multicultural education].” So when district leaders perceived a need to respond, the multicultural education policy was created.
The development of this policy was clearly a reaction to community pressure, changing demographics, and tensions among district constituents. Not insignificantly, central office leaders described the policy’s initial development in nice ways. They were quick to point out that there was not “a problem” that needed to be addressed. There was some sort of “need” and a desire to “work with” communities of color. This framing gets repeated in other diversity efforts, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with it, it simultaneously absolves the central office from any wrongdoing and positions the staff as proactively engaging diversity-related work. It does not position the central office as protecting its investments in whiteness, and it fails to highlight the way action emanates from the convergence of interests.
The theory of interest convergence suggests that people believe what benefits them, and the majority group tolerates and/or pursues advances for racial justice only when it suits its own interests to do so (Bell 1979, 1980, 1987; Castagno and Lee 2007; Tate 1997; Taylor 1999). Thus the interests of people of color to achieve racial equity will only be accommodated when they converge with the interests of White people. When the price of such racial remedies becomes too high or costly for Whites, progress is halted and the status quo is maintained. The price of racial remedies is more than just financial costs. It also refers to ideological, psychological, and relational costs incurred as a result of undoing whiteness. Similarly, George Lipsitz (1998) suggests that the status quo of whiteness is maintained through the ways in which White people invest in our/their own interests and maintain sole possession over those interests. Incremental change is made when those interests are perceived to converge with the interests of communities of color, but only to the extent to which such changes do not significantly disrupt the dominant cultures, ideologies, or institutions.
In the development of the multicultural education policy in the Zion School District, we see the convergence of interests between the district and minoritized communities. Students of color were not being well served in district schools, so the community pressed the district through various means (e.g., lodging a formal complaint, resigning from certain roles in protest). The district had an interest in appearing responsive to community needs and in appearing to ensure the success of all district students. The convergence of these interests resulted in the development of a policy explicitly framed around multiculturalism and equity. But as we will see, the way the policy got subsequently taken up and implemented was determined by leaders’ possessive investment in whiteness and the extent to which diversity-related efforts encroached on whiteness.
When the Zion School Board approved the policy in 1997, it also approved money for a full-time administrator to ensure the policy was carried out. The district conducted a national search to fill this newly created position, and it ultimately hired Ms. Garrison, a woman of color who had many years of experience working with schools and educators around issues of diversity. Ms. Garrison was still in the position ten years later, but she had been responsible for a number of other programs during her tenure, so multicultural education never represented more than 40 percent of her job responsibilities. One district administrator explained that when the policy was created, the Board of Education “really didn’t have a clear idea about what multicultural education was” and that the policy “hasn’t moved since” it was created. Many others agreed that very little progress had been made in the decade following the development of the policy. Perhaps the price of real progress toward equity was too high and the investment in whiteness too great for the Zion School District.
Because the possessive investment in whiteness is rarely explicitly acknowledged or named, there must be other, presumably legitimate, ways to explain what happened with this policy’s failed implementation. Ms. Garrison attributed the lack of movement to the absence of support needed to do her job well. She described herself as staunchly committed to diversity and equity, but she also admitted that she had not been able to successfully implement the policy during her time in the Zion School District. She did not, however, fault herself for this failure; rather, she cited a number of other factors, including the fact that her budget had not grown since her first year of employment, that she was “never brought to the table” for discussions about strategic planning and academic achievement, and that “multicultural education was simply not a priority in the district.” Ms. Garrison noted that “the district is here [while she made a fist with one hand] and I’m here [while she made a far-away fist with the other hand], and the gap or distance is getter further and further apart. We’ve been working for months on strategic planning, and I’m not a part of it. If I’m not there, nobody raises [the issue of diversity].” She also said, “I’ve never believed that I had the support of the administration.” She added that the exception was her first year in her position, when “there was a lot of buzz around multicultural education because the policy had just been created.” In the years since, however, Ms. Garrison lamented that other priorities had been identified that “took precedence over everything else in this district.” Here we see Ms. Garrison displacing responsibility for the policy’s lack of implementation around equity “up”—that is, to the larger entity of the central office. She cites other district priorities, her not being part of key district initiatives, and a lack of financial support for work around multicultural education.
Some central office leaders agreed that the conditions within the district had not been right for the diversity policy to be effectively implemented and added that “[Ms. Garrison] is just one person.” In contrast to Ms. Garrison, who placed responsibility for the policy’s ineffective implementation on her central office colleagues and supervisors, the central office leaders pointed to the schools as failing to initiate work around diversity and equity. They were able to do this because of the district’s site-based leadership context—an issue that I return to later in this chapter.
Here we see other central office leaders displacing responsibility for action around equity “down” and relinquishing their own accountability. One central office leader explained that when Ms. Garrison approached schools during her first year about developing strategic plans around multicultural education, the “schools said, ‘Back off, and we’ll let you know when we need you.’” Highlighting the local authority of schools speaks directly to the district’s norms around site-based leadership and the lack of power and influence this particular policy had over individual schools. It also speaks to the way in which whiteness protects and encourages a business-as-usual approach to schooling.
Although most central office leaders of color and some White leaders believed that factors outside Ms. Garrison’s control were largely to blame for the slow progress of diversity-related efforts in the district, some of the White central office leaders were more critical of Ms. Garrison, did not believe that she had a clearly outlined agenda, and held her largely responsible for the lack of progress around multicultural education and equity. Placing responsibility for the failure to achieve system-wide equity on one individual is absurd, but it is illustrative of a common approach seen in school districts across the country. Hiring one person to serve as the leader for diversity and equity efforts often results in the isolation of both the person and the efforts, as well as scapegoating the hired person so that she is held responsible for any program problems or failures. Furthermore, these diversity-related positions are often the only higher-ranking leadership positions held by people of color, which serves to exacerbate their marginalization and increase the likelihood of their “failure.”
At every turn, we see how the possessive investment in whiteness and the price of racial remedies shaped the way the multicultural education policy was taken up, dismissed, and rationalized. One central office leader told me that the policy was never implemented because it “required things the schools weren’t ready to do.” In addition, the central office was also not ready to do what was needed to pursue equity. The price of this work is high for school systems whose foundations rest on racial hierarchies. It is also high for educators whose understanding of school success rests on assumptions of colorblindness, equality, and meritocracy. Uprooting these foundations is difficult and potentially scary; it is far easier, not to mention nicer, to continue operating as if the foundation is stable. Indeed, if we widen the lens from this specific policy to the central office as a whole, we can see how these trends operate on a larger scale. This widening of the lens also brings whiteness into relief.
Central office leaders in the Zion School District largely talked about diversity-related efforts by using the language of “equity.” And equity was primarily understood as “providing equal educational opportunity” and “closing the achievement gap.” Not insignificantly, equity and equality were collapsed into the same idea, making them synonymous, so that fairness and justice (equity) is equated with sameness (equality). Central office leaders further described their goals as “all students having access to high-quality programs” and “all our kids are learning and succeeding.” More than half the central office leaders I spoke with characterized diversity-related efforts—and especially “equity”—as a “high priority” in the district. Equity was variously explained as “one of our top priorities,” “[something] we talk about all the time,” and “a central office goal.” This diversity discourse is a familiar one among educators. Indeed, to not talk about equity—or, at least, equality—as a priority would run the risk of being critiqued.
But this default diversity stance is too often paired with real, material inequity in schools. Although Zion School District leaders said equity was a priority, they were simultaneously faced with data that indicated the prevalence of achievement gaps and the academic failure of many students within district schools. The patterns were similar to those seen in districts across the United States: Almost 90 percent of White students scored within the proficient range on the state’s standardized test in language arts, while less than two-thirds of Latino students and just over half of African American students received a proficient score. Similarly, 80 percent of White students—compared to barely half of Latino students and less than half of African American students—received a proficient score on the state math exam. In addition, students of color were 2.2 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than White students. Clearly, these are not acceptable outcomes. How did central office leaders make sense of these data, and where did they place responsibility and calls for accountability? Tellingly, they often pointed to the schools.
Overall, most central office leaders believed that although there was a strong sense of the importance of diversity-related efforts and pursuing equity at the district level, this urgency tended to break down at the school level. Many central office leaders named one or two schools that they believed were “doing a good job” addressing diversity and equity issues, but they agreed that most schools in the district were not addressing these issues. Central office leaders offered three main reasons for this breakdown at the school level: site-based leadership, deficit discourses, and no sense of need for diversity-related efforts. Displacing responsibility to the schools is a key mechanism for abrogating accountability for equity within the district. It also highlights the degree to which educational leaders invest in whiteness and minimize the cost of upsetting the status quo. The resulting pattern is one where central office leaders reify whiteness in the name of honoring each school’s authority to manage their own affairs. This is a nice approach to leadership that not only permits but virtually ensures continued inequity.
The Zion School District has a history of patterned decentralization. Beginning in the 1950s, superintendents began the process of decentralization so that individual schools had more immediate control over their affairs. During the 1970s, the notion of “shared governance” really took hold as a philosophy that valued the voices and perspectives of multiple constituencies. During my time in the district thirty years later, I heard less about shared governance and more about site-based leadership. Although the district’s website had a manual titled “Shared Governance Guide: Active Cooperation for More Effective Education,” the extent of shared governance appeared to be that schools maintained “school improvement councils” (which were primarily composed of a small number of staff from a particular school) and “school community councils” (which included local community members and were supposed to be representative of the school’s student demographics). Both central office leaders and teachers made frequent reference to site-based leadership, particularly in the context of our conversations about equity and diversity-related work in the district.
Because the Zion School District has a long history of site-based leadership and local control over schools, there is a well-established tradition of the central office being fairly hands-off when it comes to decisions affecting individual schools. Most central office leaders who believed equity was a priority for central office leadership explained that the implementation of this priority was variable within schools because of individual school leadership. Ms. Benson’s explanation was representative of what many of her colleagues told me:
[Central office] leadership people see it [equity] as a priority, but site-based management makes it a more complicated issue because each school is its own little kingdom within a larger kingdom. And so the priorities that the district, board, and superintendent set, everyone is aware of, but they only give lip service to it. . . . I think districts that are more top-down probably have an easier time with something like this because there are fewer options. So I would say there is a lot of variation on understanding and implementation and willingness to march along. But I think our district leaders are very sensitive and very aware. I am really impressed with their ability to see the needs.
Ms. Benson clearly attributed the absence of equity efforts in schools to site-based leadership. Her reference to a “kingdom within a kingdom” is a nice way to recognize the presumed authority and autonomy of both individual schools and the central office. In a similar vein, Ms. Venidos, the Director of English Language Services, talked about how the support she provided schools and individual teachers to meet the needs of English-language learners was “voluntary because we are a site-based management district.” She went on to explain that this often resulted in a lack of communication between the central office and schools and among various schools, so that, in the end, “everyone goes at everything differently” and “there is little collaboration.”
Thus, from the perspective of the central office leaders, district-level policies, services, and support opened up a number of doors for diversity-related efforts, but site-based leadership seemed to close many of them at the school level. This notion of site-based leadership was the most frequently cited reason among central office leaders for the lack of effective diversity and equity efforts in the schools. In other words, site-based leadership allowed, and even encouraged, the central office to displace responsibility for equity to the schools. Absolving themselves of this responsibility also meant that central office leaders could not be held accountable for equity. When displacement of responsibility occurs, even well-intended and vocal appeals for equity are meaningless.
One central office leader of color articulated this well when she said that although there were “pockets of really exemplary work” around equity, “there is no overarching vision” within the district. Instead, there was “poor communication” about what the commitment to equity actually was. In contrast to many of her colleagues, she located these “exemplary pockets” and “missing vision” across both the central office and the schools. She did not abrogate the responsibility of central office leaders but rather identified equity as an institutional, systemic issue. Indeed, maintaining that continued inequity is simply the result of site-based leadership within the district seems to miss the complexity of the issue. As I illustrate later in this chapter, site-based leadership does not stop the central office from mandating particular diversity-related policies and practices within the schools.
The second most frequently cited reason among central office leaders for the lack of diversity-related work in the schools was the prevalence of a “deficit discourse” throughout the district. Every central office leader of color and one White central office leader I spoke with referenced how teachers, school-level administrators, and some central office personnel were “still working from deficit models” about particular groups of students. They said that these deficit ideologies resulted in strongly held beliefs about students and families being to blame for low academic achievement. The deficit discourse, according to a number of central office leaders, allowed teachers to continue doing what they had always done in the classroom and to avoid any responsibility for the consistently low academic performance of particular groups of students. Ms. Harding, for example, noted that “people have to start changing their attitudes” and begin to question their assumptions of deficit. For her, this was why multicultural education was so important—because she believed it forced teachers and administrators to be aware of and reflect on their assumptions and how those assumptions might be affecting educational practice. As we will see, however, the way multicultural education was engaged in the Zion School District actually did little to disrupt patterned inequity.
Recognizing deficit ideologies in individuals is important, but any effective approach to equity must be systemic and systematic (Vaught and Castagno 2008). Part of the difficulty in advancing this sort of structural approach stems from the value we place on niceness and individual goodwill. Ms. Luna highlighted the pervasiveness of niceness among educators when she noted, “People are now less likely to talk negatively about certain people, but they still don’t challenge each other’s assumptions.” Ms. Venidos agreed and explained that the resistance to diversity-related efforts and the persistence of deficit assumptions stemmed from two different positions: “For some, it’s truly a matter of not knowing, while others are more purposeful,” but “either way, it’s harmful to our students.” Ms. Venidos was clear that the outcome of “harm” is what is most important. But when harm is understood as perpetuated by individuals who primarily “don’t know any better,” and this understanding is situated in a context where leaders displace the responsibility for change to other individuals, action toward equity is unlikely. Being educated in, and for, whiteness creates a powerful set of conditions and operating mechanisms that sustain inequity.
The data I collected at the Birch and Spruce secondary schools were consistent with these central office leaders’ analyses regarding the presence of deficit ideologies. As I illustrate in later chapters, a deficit ideology was clearly subscribed to by many teachers and was a significant barrier for working toward greater equity and educating against whiteness. My point here is that a number of central office leaders were well aware of the prevalence of a deficit ideology within the district, and yet they seemed to do little work to confront it. Pairing this explanation with the previous one of site-based leadership highlights how nicely framed diversity rhetoric and good intentions for equity are meaningless if responsibility is displaced and accountability disappears. Site-based leadership encourages a passing of the buck. In this context, the price of leveraging its responsibility for equity is too high for the Zion School District.
Subscribing to deficit beliefs about particular groups of students—and their families and communities—is not necessarily nice if nice is understood to mean thinking and behaving in ways that are kind and positive in relation to others. In other words, we might say that educators who maintain deficit assumptions are not nice toward the people they believe are deficient. But deficit ideologies are often revealed in seemingly neutral and compassionate ways—a point that becomes more obvious in later chapters. Furthermore, educators and leaders who simultaneously critique deficit ideologies in private (i.e., in an interview with a researcher or among a small group of close colleagues) and ignore or fail to confront them in public (i.e., at a staff meeting or when deficit discourses are actually observed) are engaging niceness in powerful ways. Central office leaders who balance this private/public tension maintain the “culture of nice” within the Zion School District.
The final reason referenced by central office leaders for the lack of diversity efforts in the schools related to the demographic context of particular schools and areas of the city. A number of people mentioned one or two schools they felt were doing “really exemplary work” and “were more aware” of issues related to diversity. All the “exemplary” schools they mentioned were on the west side of the district and served largely students of color. Ms. Benson summed up this theme well when she said that on the east side, “there is not a sense of urgency, and I don’t think there is a real feeling of need. . . . I really think it has to do with need. If there is a pressing need, then you make the effort and you try to adjust your behaviors or your thought patterns. If you don’t, then I think it’s just too comfortable to stay where you are.” Ms. Benson followed up this remark by explaining that more schools on the west side that serve diverse student populations seemed to recognize that there was “a need” to do something different in order to better serve their students, whereas most east-side schools with larger percentages of White and middle-class and upper-class students were content with a business-as-usual approach, since the schools’ test scores were generally high at the aggregate level.
The No Child Left Behind Act makes “need” at the school level obvious because of the way it requires data to be collected, disaggregated, and publicly available. Schools that have not been successful at meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and demonstrating improved academic achievement on standardized tests are, therefore, more likely to feel a sense of need and urgency to do something different to meet the expectations being placed on them by federal and state governments and their local school districts. When success is defined by tests, there is no perceived diversity problem or need at schools with high aggregate test scores. Lost in this dynamic are the students of color who are not being well served in east-side schools and who essentially become invisible through the prioritizing of need as defined by test scores.
The notion that only schools whose leaders perceive a need will pursue diversity-related work points to the reactive nature of many diversity efforts. When equity is pursued as a reaction to a perceived need, the strategies employed are often limited and temporary. But this path is presumably the only nice one to take, because proactively working for equity requires naming whiteness and changing the institutional and ideological foundation of schools. Sitting back, waiting, avoiding potentially difficult work, and then responding appropriately when so compelled are constitutive components of niceness; these behaviors also allow whiteness to grow unhindered. The limited and temporary nature of reactive diversity efforts is highlighted by turning to instances where the central office did engage in diversity-related work.
If the Zion School District followed a pure system of site-based leadership, then the story of diversity-related policy and practice would be solely about schools, and the central office would be absent from the discussion. This, however, was not the case. Alongside central office leaders’ discourse about the absence of diversity efforts in most schools were narratives of relatively successful efforts coming out of the central office. In the following sections, I examine these efforts in order to shed light on when, how, and why the central office leaders acted inconsistently with the philosophy of site-based leadership and with their typical pattern of displacing responsibility for equity to schools.
As we will see, the central office leverages its responsibility for equity when there is a convergence of interests stemming largely from policy or funding pressures. In these cases, the interests of minoritized communities, the Zion School District, and the federal government intersect and prompt action. Significantly, action occurs primarily because of the presence of federal pressure. Most central office leaders referenced either the Office of Civil Rights or NCLB regulations and explained that equity “has to be a priority” given these two imperatives from the federal government. A number of central office leaders cited both the desire to be released from OCR review and the mandate to comply with federal NCLB regulations in order to maintain access to federal funding as reasons for equity being a high district priority. In other words, equity was articulated as a policy imperative—that is, something that derived from external pressure, sanctions, or funding. The central office’s efforts around assessment services, language services, and refugee services highlight the spaces where interests converged in the Zion School District. Even in these spaces, however, action was limited and investments in whiteness were protected.
Within the Zion School District, the central office led multiple efforts throughout the year to gather data and disseminate it to students, families, and teachers. These assessment services came out of a department in the central office with at least five staff members who were skilled in statistics, testing, and evaluation. The central office allocated significant resources toward the development and use of “practice” standardized tests and toward the collection and dissemination of multiple forms of achievement data. Math teachers at Birch, for example, were required to administer tests that resembled the end-of-the-year proficiency test, and they were expected to use the data obtained from these weekly assessments to shape their curriculum and instruction.
Central office leaders talked about these efforts as “accountability measures,” and they pointed directly to NCLB regulations as the primary driver behind these efforts. Although the Zion School District examined disaggregated data prior to the No Child Left Behind Act, state and federal accountability models forced central office leaders to analyze disaggregated achievement data more deeply and make such data publicly available. Interest convergence is operating here because minoritized communities have an interest in publically available achievement data if it helps advocate improved schooling for their children, and the Zion School District has an interest in such data if it ensures their compliance with federal mandates and, in turn, ensures access to federal funds. In addition to the financial gain for the district, there is a less tangible, but no less real, reputational gain in being responsive to community and constituent concerns.
Examining and publicly sharing disaggregated achievement data pushes the norms of niceness because it brings achievement gaps into clear view. A nicer approach would be to ignore such data, but even disaggregated data can be understood in nice ways. Although data are needed to see where problems exist, the real test of whiteness occurs in how problems are understood and subsequently addressed. Disaggregated achievement data can easily be used to reinforce deficit beliefs about particular groups of students. When faced with clear achievement gaps based on race, socioeconomic status, language, or disability, educators can look either internally or externally for an explanation and subsequent remedy. Looking internally to the system of schooling and working for institutional change would be a step toward ensuring equity. But looking externally and locating the cause with students, families, and communities reproduces deficit ideologies. Although deficit frameworks are not exactly nice toward those groups, they are nice in that they shelter oneself, one’s colleagues, and the institution of schooling. This choice functions to protect whiteness, even when niceness may be slightly compromised.
Linda Skrla and James Scheurich (2001) have suggested that the assessment efforts and accountability mandated by NCLB regulations make educational inequity visible and therefore serve an important role in changing educators’ deficit views. The collection and dissemination of data are a necessary step in achieving equity, but it is not sufficient. Some of the staff in the Zion School District’s assessment department were keenly aware of the multiple ways data could be used and understood, and they struggled against the tendency of various audiences to read data in simplistic and deficit-oriented ways. As the next two sections illustrate, since central office leaders primarily engaged diversity-related work through efforts related to language services and refugee services, it is not unreasonable to believe that achievement data served to legitimate this deficit-oriented work.
Diversity efforts related to language services were particularly prevalent in the work of central office leaders and in central office professional development programs and student services. Approximately five years prior to my research in the Zion School District, a Latino community member filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against the Zion School District. The complaint alleged that the district discriminated against ELL students by not providing services necessary for them to participate meaningfully in the district’s educational programs. The Zion School District entered into a “Commitment to Resolve” agreement in which it voluntarily agreed to resolve the allegations and compliance issues but did not admit guilt or a finding of violation. The interests of the Latino community to ensure a high-quality education for their youth converged with the district’s interest in avoiding sanctions from the federal government. So the district’s hand was forced, but whiteness shaped how the hand ultimately moved. Through the Commitment to Resolve, the district was able to avoid acknowledging the legitimacy of the claims being made—here, whiteness was operating in the district’s ability to determine the meaning of the issue (Harris 1993). The district positioned itself as being responsive to the needs of ELL youth and families, which served to protect it from accusations of wrongdoing, racism, and inequity. This protection is an important gain for institutions.
One of the major changes in the district stemming from the OCR case was that all teachers would be trained in second-language-acquisition knowledge and models. As a result, the district sponsored a multiday professional development series in the “Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English” model for all teachers hired prior to 2001, and all teachers hired after 2001 had to obtain an “English as a secondary language” (ESL) endorsement by the third anniversary of their employment. By spring 2005, almost five hundred educators in the district possessed their ESL endorsement, and another 150 were in the process of obtaining this endorsement. Reactions to this mandate were mixed; some teachers and administrators thought it made sense, while many others thought it was either “overboard” because not all teachers worked with ELL students or “pointless” because the endorsement programs did not teach them anything new. District administrators felt strongly that they had long since complied with the agreements outlined in the Commitment to Resolve and were hoping that the Office of Civil Rights would soon close the case against the Zion School District.
One teacher spoke at length about the district’s focus on ELL students and the primary role language services played in the central office’s diversity-related efforts: “Yeah, usually in our career-ladder days or in-services, especially before school, we gather in different places, and after school too, and have these big in-services [for the entire district], and the last few years they have been pretty much about, you know, ESL students.” This district-level focus on language services was especially evident in the marketing and popularity of a professional development program called SIOP, an acronym for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. The SIOP program came up in many conversations I had with teachers and administrators about multicultural education and diversity. SIOP is a national model that was developed specifically for use with ELL students—as is evidenced in the program handbook’s title, Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model. The SIOP offerings by the central office were in addition to the ESL endorsement required of all teachers.
This emphasis on language services was prevalent throughout the district, and it is a theme that reemerges in later chapters. The point here is that it was a key way in which the central office engaged diversity-related work, and it was a reactive response stemming from a convergence of interests and significant federal pressure. Interests converged because the district had a high stake in both avoiding federal sanctions and advancing its reputation as a responsive and “equity-oriented” institution, and the Latino community had a high stake in the quality of schooling young people received. But the actual policies and practices emanating from these interests converging represent a low-cost approach because educators’ investments in whiteness are hardly touched by efforts aimed at assimilating students into the dominant culture. The focus on language is also a decidedly nice approach to engaging diversity since it emphasizes inclusion into the mainstream, dominant linguistic fold.
In addition to language services, refugee students and their families were also on the forefront of a number of district initiatives and funding decisions. The Salt Lake Valley has long been a United Nations refugee relocation site, so there has been a large population of refugees in Utah since at least the 1970s. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the majority of refugee students came from Southeast Asian and Eastern European countries. By 2005, the vast majority of refugee students were from African countries, primarily the Congo, Sudan, and Somalia. These students had often spent their entire lives in refugee camps and had little or no access to schooling or the English language. This presented a unique challenge for the Zion School District since it was the first time it saw so many students who were nonliterate in their own language, came from families who spoke no English, and had no history of formal schooling.
According to every central office leader with whom I spoke, the Zion School District’s recent focus on refugee students and services was the direct result of the arrival of Somali Bantu youth.2 One district leader explained that “previous refugee groups from Eastern European countries seemed to integrate fairly quickly,” but that with the current group of refugees, “we are training them almost as infants because they come with little or no formal schooling and have lived their entire lives in refugee camps.” The district hired a private consultant to work exclusively on this issue by building collaborative relationships with social service agencies that serve refugee families and by developing workshops for teachers, administrators, and even the refugee families themselves. The workshops I attended all emphasized skills that the district believed refugee families and students lacked, including, for example, how to wash their hands, shampoo their hair, eat a “well-rounded” meal, and exercise.
For the Zion School District, refugee students were a significant concern because they were highly unlikely to earn proficient scores on the standardized NCLB measures of achievement. Because so much of the district’s reputation, funding, and autonomy rested on how well students performed on these tests, the central office had a substantial interest in “stepping in”—and thus side-stepping site-based leadership norms. Interests converged around the need to better serve refugee students, but the direction of the efforts was shaped by whiteness. There was a shared sense of sympathy and compassion among educators, which drove the deficit-oriented approach to the refugee services offered by the Zion School District. Sympathy and compassion are part of niceness, so here again, the focus on refugee services engages niceness in ways that are expected and accepted among educators.
How diversity-related policies were implemented and subsequent diversity-related efforts were enacted in the Zion School District seem to fall under two general frameworks. There are those policies that were mandated by the central office and those that were readily left up to the schools to implement. When it came to diversity-related efforts, those mandated by the central office were only and always the policies that had, in turn, been mandated or funded by the federal government. Everything else was left up to the schools, which meant that school leadership had a significant amount of discretion in determining when equity was pursued and when it was not. What this meant in the Zion School District was that those schools that primarily served students of color and that had not been meeting accountability standards were more likely to take up diversity efforts as a means to achieving this end. But schools that were secure in their aggregate performance on standardized assessments generally did not see diversity initiatives as useful or necessary. Interest convergence and the possessive investment in whiteness provide a way to understand this phenomenon because schools are acting in ways that protect their own interests; sometimes these interests converge with the interests of minoritized communities, and at other times they do not.
Interest convergence brings both good news and bad news. The good news is that if and when interests converge, some good work can be engaged and progress can be made toward equity. The bad news is that when those interests go away (or if they never converged to begin with), progress is halted, priorities shift, and whiteness once again reigns supreme. In the Zion School District, interests converged to push particular diversity efforts—most notably work related to assessment, language, and refugees. At the same time, in schools and spaces where those interests did not converge, very little got done and responsibility for not engaging diversity efforts was displaced back to schools.
Interest convergence is an important concept for understanding diversity-related work. But it is also important to realize that the convergence of interests is not usually equally weighted. In the Zion School District, the key element in the convergence was actually the presence of federal pressure. All three areas of service were reactions to federal imperatives. Diversity-related efforts at the central office generally grew out of the perceived need to do something, but that need arose out of a policy imperative or mandate and the subsequent convergence of interests. The resulting action was reactive and therefore limited and temporary.
Furthermore, taken independently, interest convergence leaves an incomplete rendering of how and why diversity-related efforts get advanced in schools. Pairing interest convergence with the price of racial remedies and the possessive investment in whiteness provides a more robust explanation. How diversity-related efforts are enacted is shaped by the possessive investment in whiteness and the price of racial remedies, which means that the resulting action is unlikely to truly produce greater equity or dislodge whiteness. Indeed, the extent to which diversity-related efforts advance equity is determined by the investments we make in whiteness and the loss we are willing to incur on those investments.
In fact, the ways the three areas of service were carried out by the Zion School District reify whiteness. Providing language services through an ESL model and providing refugee services grounded in deficit assumptions fail to draw on the strengths and funds of knowledge of students and communities (Gonzalez, Moll, and Amanti 2005; Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez 1992). The implied goal here is assimilation into the dominant cultural norms. Assessment measures may draw attention to perpetual achievement gaps, but unless they are paired with structural explanations and trainings to address institutional inequity, they fail to close such gaps. In the end, then, the power relations and structural inequities in society are merely reproduced, maintained, and legitimated in schools. In other words, although NCLB regulations and the Office of Civil Rights empower key leaders to force equity efforts in spite of a system of site-based leadership, the scope of these efforts is limited. They are limited by educators’ possessive investment in whiteness. Undoing structural inequity would require structural and systemic approaches; it would also require work that might call into question the value we typically place on colorblindness, meritocracy, and equality. This is not the sort of work associated with niceness or consistent with being educated in whiteness.
In the Zion School District, central office administrators overwhelmingly said that “equity is a priority” within the central office and that federal pressure meant “equity has to be a priority.” These leaders were critical of schools because they did not think schools placed the same kind of priority on equity as did the central office. Central office leaders said their hands were tied not only because of strong norms around site-based leadership in the district but also because schools did not feel the same kind of urgency to bring about equity. When the central office did lead diversity-related efforts, these efforts almost always stemmed from externally imposed mandates, which primarily came from the federal government and were tied to funding. Because the efforts of central office leaders around assessment, language, and refugees all stemmed from federal pressure, the federal government became both the common enemy and the buffer for the central office to act in spite of, and in contradiction to, site-based leadership norms. In this way, blame got displaced in at least two directions: first to the schools for not acting in particular ways and second to the federal government for forcing action. Leaders in the Zion School District typically had good intentions around diversity and equity, but when responsibility is displaced, accountability for equity is difficult to locate.
Whiteness thrives on well-intended people, policies, and efforts. Part of being nice entails having good intentions toward other people. How often do we hear “But I didn’t mean to do that,” or “I wasn’t trying to be hurtful,” or “My heart was in the right place” after some sort of harm has been experienced by an individual or group? The fact is that the harm still occurred regardless of whether one meant it to occur or not. Whether the outcome was intended or not is a distraction. When we focus on the intent, we generally lose sight of the real, material outcome. If racial equity and justice are what we seek, we need to move away from an emphasis on whether somebody or something “meant well.” Good intentions mean very little if we do not take responsibility and cannot be held accountable.
Within school districts, it is quite likely that a number of policies are either “on the books” or assumed among central office leaders to be priorities, and yet these policies are not known to teachers. Even when actors know about a policy, there is no guarantee that they will interpret it in the way policy makers intended or in the same ways as other actors within the community. Individuals necessarily understand, adapt, ignore, and adopt policies in various ways depending, in part, on their previous experiences, beliefs, worldviews, and resources (see, for example, Burch 2002; Lipsky 1980; Spillane 2002). In the process of making sense of policies, actors often encounter competing and ambiguous policy priorities and therefore must also make decisions about which priorities to privilege. Districts have an important role in conveying to educators what policies are and what sense they should make of them.
In my interviews with teachers at Birch and Spruce secondary schools, I always asked if they were aware of any policies in the district related to diversity, and I consistently heard responses such as, “I’m not aware of any,” “I don’t think we have any actual policies,” and “There is nothing coming from this school or from the school district.” In fact, none of the twenty-four teachers in my research knew about the policy on multicultural education. When I told teachers about the policy, some of their responses were, “Oh, do they let teachers in on this?” and “Is it just for appearances?”
Many teachers also told me that the district did not convey a sense of pressure or expectation that equity and diversity ought to be priorities for teachers. In my interviews with teachers, I always asked if they felt any sort of encouragement or pressure to be doing diversity-related work, and not one person indicated that he or she felt either encouragement or pressure. One Birch teacher said, “I think there is an appreciation if it’s being done, but there is not an expectation of it being done,” and a Spruce teacher noted, “Personally, I don’t feel any pressure.” Harking back to the idea that west-side schools may be more inclined to engage diversity, teachers at Birch were more likely to feel “appreciated” if they did engage diversity-related efforts than were teachers at Spruce.
One central office leader agreed, saying, “I think teachers, a lot of them, know how to talk about multicultural education and ESL issues, but they don’t do anything differently in their classrooms. And there really is little support for them to do something different. And there’s really honestly, I think, very little accountability for them to do something different.” While she was critical of schools and teachers for not making equity a priority, she also recognized that they were provided very little support for this work and were not held accountable for it. Indeed, providing real support and holding educators accountable for addressing inequity would not be a nice role for the central office to play. It is nice to talk about diversity and equity; it is not so nice to force action around it. This is especially true in districts with strong norms around site-based leadership.
What, then, is to be done? And how do we make sense of inequitable outcomes alongside the presence of educational leaders who maintain that equity is a top priority and that students’ best interests are what drive their work? In his examination of educational policy, Gillborn (2005, 498–99) offers the following observation: “Scholarship on race inequity . . . has long argued that a deliberate intention to discriminate is by no means a necessary requirement in order to recognize that an activity or policy may be racist in its consequences. . . . That racist measures are not only retained, but actually extended, suggests that policy-makers have decided (tacitly, if not explicitly) to place race equity at the margins—thereby retaining race injustice at the center.” My data suggest that although whiteness is at the center, central office leaders articulate this in other ways—ways that are void of race altogether. They articulate it by talking about their own good intentions and the simultaneous responsibility (and, hence, accountability) of others. Indeed, focusing on the intentions of educators may not be the best course of action if educating against whiteness is what we seek. We must, instead, look to the outcomes of educational policies and practices and ask what those outcomes tell us about patterned, structured inequity. We must also consider what it might mean and how it might look to invest in equity rather than whiteness.
Throughout this chapter, I have suggested that some progress is made toward equity when interests converge and external pressure forces something to be done. I have also suggested that the resulting reactive measures are limited because of educators’ investments in whiteness and the high cost of losing those investments. Later chapters will examine some of the specific ways educators are invested in notions of powerblindness and colorblindness, politeness, equality, individualism, and liberalism. These are the workhorses of whiteness. The allegiance to these ideologies is indicative of the ways we invest in whiteness, diversify our portfolio to ensure the overall investment is strong, and cash in on those investments at strategic times. But what I hope also becomes clear through this book is that there are significant costs involved with maintaining these allegiances and continuing to invest in whiteness. The cost is perpetual, pervasive, and widening inequity; unhealthy communities; and an absent sense of relationality and reciprocity (Brayboy and Maughan 2009) with those around us. This toxicity harms us all and is a high price to pay for whiteness.