The Rise of ‘Chief Diversity Officers’ at K-12 Schools

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Diversity officers slowly are corrupting K-12 education by bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into schools and teaching children divisive topics such as critical race theory, a Heritage Foundation scholar says.

A new report from Jay Greene, a senior research fellow in education at Heritage, highlights how harmful these diversity officers and their initiatives can be. Worse than simply indoctrinating children, the report says, proposals to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion contribute to a widening achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

In some cases, the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students can be utterly crippling, he explains.

“So it's easy to understand, this is how many grade levels apart the average white student is from the average black student in that [school] district. That average, by the way, is almost two grade levels,” Greene says at one point.

Greene joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and how they negatively affect disadvantaged students.

We also cover these stories:

  • The Biden administration encourages schools to promote the new COVID-19 vaccine for children.
  • The president’s approval ratings are in bad shape, according to a new USA Today/Suffolk University poll.
  • America is now open to travelers from Europe, Canada, and Mexico, providing they're fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Jay Greene, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Center for Education Policy. Jay, thank you so much for joining the show today.

Jay Greene: It's good to be here with you.

Blair: Excellent. Jay, you recently wrote a report for The Heritage Foundation titled “Equity Elementary: ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion' Staff in Public Schools” that was highlighting the rise of so-called chief diversity officers in K-12 schools throughout the country. First off, before we kind of get into the meat of this report, what are some of the things that these officers do? What is the stated purpose of these officers?

Greene: For most public school districts that have a chief diversity officer, they say that their main responsibility is to help close achievement gaps. So there have been long-standing differences in average test score performance between students in more advantaged groups and in more disadvantaged groups. And districts are interested in finding ways to close those gaps, ideally, by bringing up the students who've been lagging.

Blair: You said between advantaged groups and disadvantaged groups, how are we defining advantaged and disadvantaged?

Greene: The way that districts typically define this is on racial and ethnic lines. So they would refer to white students as advantaged and black or Hispanic students as disadvantaged. But they're also interested in the difference between poor and non-poor or lower-income students.

Blair: And do these definitions change based on where the location is? So like something in New Mexico might be different than New York or Texas.

Greene: You know, it's remarkably not varied across the country. No matter where they are and what their context actually looks like, they still are focused on a very similar set of problems.

Blair: Interesting. OK. So how widespread are these diversity officers in the country? Is this something that most school districts have? Is it sort of like a localized cluster? How do we define sort of like how frequently we see these things?

Greene: Right. That was precisely the question that motivated this research project. And we knew that in higher education, diversity staff are virtually universal. Almost every university in the country has at least some diversity staff. But we were noticing that this was making its way into K-12 public school districts as well, and we wanted to find out how extensive it was.

So we looked at every school district in the country with at least 15,000 students. There are 554 of them, and we searched their websites, looking for chief diversity officers or the equivalent of that—they could go by different titles, but the equivalent of a chief diversity officer. And if they had it, we recorded the title of that person and we recorded that there was such a person in that district.

We found that the number was actually higher than we thought among those 554 districts with at least 15,000 students. We found that 39% have a chief diversity officer. Among the larger districts with more than a 100,000 students, it's 79%. So the big districts almost all have them, but even down, when you look at districts close to 15,000 students, it's still 32% have a chief diversity officer.

So it's making its way, eventually, to every corner of the education space.

Blair: Now, when I hear “a chief diversity office,” or I almost think there's sort of like a hierarchy of diversity officials, is this basically just one person or is this like a whole infrastructure of diversity people at these K-12 schools?

Greene: That varies in higher education. In our prior report, which is “Diversity University,” we looked at 65 universities that are members of one of the Power Five athletic conferences and then we counted how many diversity staff members they had.

We found that the average institution had 45 diversity staff members. That is not the number that you would find in K-12 public schools. The number's quite smaller, but in large districts, you can have several. And in many of the districts, there's only one such person.

So that's why we were not focused on how many there were, but just whether they had a person with that kind of responsibility.

Blair: Now, in the report, you mentioned that one of the key takeaways is that these diversity officers are advancing what you say is a leftist agenda. Can you define for our listeners how a leftist agenda is being promoted here?

Greene: First, we were interested in looking at actually whether they had an educational mission. Ostensibly, their primary goal is to close achievement gaps. And so we looked at whether having a chief diversity officer was associated with closing achievement gaps. We found that was not the case.

In fact, school districts with chief diversity officers have wider achievement gaps that are growing wider over time. And this is true even when we control statistically for a number of observed characteristics in those districts.

So if these chief diversity officers are not advancing their educational purpose of closing achievement gaps, what are they really there for? What are they really doing? And we believe what they're really doing is articulating and enforcing an ideological orthodoxy. That is, they are defining what are appropriate and inappropriate thoughts to be conveyed in school.

And that helps provide political organization to, really, a minority set of activists within school districts who are eager to promote their agenda. And they get strength from a chief diversity officer advocating on their behalf.

Blair: It sounds like what you're saying is a lot of these chief diversity officers come in and say, “We have a problem with racism,” or something like that, and on sort of the leftist orthodoxy here, “we're going to do these things to fix it.” But the achievement gap itself is not closing, it's getting wider as a result of some of these policies.

Greene: Right. Many of their ideas may actually be harmful to minority student achievement, which is perhaps why the gaps are growing larger. But yes, they focus quite a lot on bringing in trainings that communicate particular visions of the good for those districts to promote and they tend to include ideas that are really antithetical to traditional liberal democratic ideals.

So traditional democratic liberal ideas include the idea that everyone is equal and should be treated equally. And instead, I think one of the central ideas that is being advanced by chief diversity officers is that people belong in different groups, the oppressor group or the oppressed group, and that your treatment should be different depending upon which group you're placed in. The oppressors should be given less generous treatment than those in the oppressed group.

And then there's a scramble for which groups of people should be placed in these oppressor or oppressed groups. And all of this is very, very contrary to traditional American values about people being equal under the law.

Now, look, America has fallen short of its ideal, but we have been clear about what we're striving for and we've made great progress toward achieving that kind of political equality. This really pushes us in a different direction by switching the goal. Instead of striving to have people be treated the same, we're striving to have people be treated differently because they deserve different treatment, is the argument.

Blair: Given that this seems to be that the program here is that we're going to institute initiatives that are based explicitly on race or based explicitly on oppressor versus oppressed classes, what are some of the programs that are being pushed by the diversity officers? Are we talking like trainings by Ibram X. Kendi, or Robin DiAngelo hasn't been relevant for a little bit, but like sort of that sort of thing?

Greene: Exactly. They're bringing in training consultants as well as materials that either use people like Ibram Kendi or use his ideas or [are] informed by his ideas. And this might be a set of ideas that we might call critical race theory, but it gets slippery once we start using these terms because people endlessly change what they claim those terms encompass.

So I don't know if we have to use those terms, but I'll just mention critical base theory is included in what these chief diversity officers promote just because our listeners here probably would recognize that term. But the diversity staff themselves might deny that that's what they're doing. Nonetheless, it's the ideas that folks would recognize as critical race theory.

Blair: One of the things that The Heritage Foundation has actually done to document some of these cases of K-12 public schools introducing these chief diversity officers into the system is we've created a new database that allows them to track which school districts have these officers. What are some of the things that you believe people could be doing with this resource?

Greene: Right. So the data visualization people here at Heritage have made this really cool website and people should check it out. You can find it on the heritage.org website. And it allows you to look up any of these 554 school districts and it'll show you if they have a chief diversity officer or not. It'll provide you with the title of that chief diversity officer.

These titles, by the way, are very grandiose. And I find it, for people who might want to organize against these positions, knowing the exact title and knowing kind of how pompous those titles often sound can be helpful.

And then also, we provide data on the achievement gap in each of those districts between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, and poor and non-poor students. And we also compare those achievement gaps to the average nationwide for districts with a chief diversity officer versus those without, so you could see how each of those districts stack up.

What you'll find on average is that the districts with chief diversity officers have larger gaps than the districts without. And you can find out the exact gap for your own district by using this website.

Blair: Now, by achievement gap, are we defining this in terms of academic capabilities, like the ability to read or to do math? What are we defining as the gap here?

Greene: Sure. The gaps are performance on standardized tests in reading and math. These are administered universal in grades three through eight. So it's that kind of information that we're looking at.

The test core data that we're presenting has actually been compiled by researchers at Stanford. So we didn't collect that ourselves. We're using already collected data on achievement gaps. And the gaps, by the way, are presented in grade levels.

So it's easy to understand, this is how many grade levels apart the average white student is from the average black student in that district. That average, by the way, is almost two grade levels.

Blair: So we're saying maybe if a black student was supposed to be at a fourth grade reading level, they might be at a second grade reading level compared to a white student.

Greene: That's right.

Blair: Wow.

Greene: Right.

Blair: That's pretty stark.

Greene: Right. They might be in third grade and the white student might be a little ahead in fourth and the black student might be a little behind in second grade. And then on average, what we're talking about is something close to a two-grade level gap. And it's bigger. It could be two and a half grade levels apart when we're talking about districts with chief diversity officers.

Blair: OK. So, as you were saying, the chief diversity officer sort of exacerbates that problem—

Greene: Well, I mean, it's associated with a larger gap. Now, we don't know. There's some possibility that districts with more serious gaps seek out a chief diversity officer and that the causal arrow goes in the other direction. And we can't fully disentangle that, but we're starting to address that knot by first looking at trends in the gap over time.

And we see the trends are getting wider in the districts with a chief diversity officer and that tells us that the CDO, or chief diversity officer, is likely counterproductive and then we control for other characteristics, that helps us narrow in on what is causing what. And then we plan on revisiting this annually going forward, and we could see where chief diversity officers pop up and we could see the direction of their gaps and how they change over time.

Blair: Is this something that has been studied previously or is this something that's sort of coming up now as these questions of equity and inclusion and diversity are starting to kind of become more mainstream?

Greene: As far as I know, no one has compiled the information that we've collected and that was a big part of why we wanted to do it, was to make this information widely available and understood that this is a thing. There's such a thing as a chief diversity officer in K-12 schools and that they are there ostensibly to help close achievement gaps.

Now, this is a little bit different than in higher education where diversity staff often are about recruiting diverse students or recruiting diverse faculty. That is not the responsibility of CDOs in K-12 schools because the students they have are assigned to them geographically. So they're not recruiting students and so they're not trying to alter the racial mix of their student population. That's not their goal. Instead, their goal is to help close the gaps in achievement among the students they do have.

Blair: I actually want to hammer on that one a little bit more. So, in terms of what these offices are doing, it does seem like there is a difference between what a higher education at a college will be doing—recruiting: “we need more black students,” “we need more Hispanic students,” “we need more Asian students”—versus at a lower level of education, where again, like you said, they're determined based on geographic location. Is there any other semblance of kind of like, well, this is a difference here and a difference in lower education versus higher education?

Greene: Well, so, they also can't do too much in the K-12 space at altering their recruiting of teachers. They can do a little bit. They're constrained geographically as well. Most school districts are not recruiting their teachers nationwide. They recruit them mostly locally, unlike universities that do recruit faculty nationwide.

And so that is a difference, but a commonality is they're both interested in what's called culturally responsive education or culturally responsive pedagogy. And there's a belief among these diversity staff, both in higher education and in K-12, that students learn better when taught a certain way or with certain content that speaks to their cultural experience and their racial and ethnic background.

Blair: … Would that be like, oh, a black teacher would teach a black student or would this say something like, “You need to learn about black history if you're black and you need to learn about white history if you're white”? Is that kind of what we're talking about here?

Greene: Right. So, they have legal constraints and they probably can't separate their students to be matched racially with teachers, although that does actually occur. And it's something that's called affinity groups where students are separated in K-12 schools by race and receive different experiences based on their racial grouping.

And this practice has occurred, lawsuits have been filed because it appears likely that this is inappropriate. But those lawsuits have not been resolved yet, but it is nonetheless a common practice to have affinity groups.

But the pedagogical difference, the culturally responsive pedagogy mostly has to do with content. So the idea that we should be teaching more about black history and teach it in a certain way that, for example, understands the entire history of America to be built on slavery.

That is one of the central features of the 1619 Project, which is a K-12 pedagogy. That would be a curriculum that might be advocated by a chief diversity officer. They might be the kind of people who would try to bring that curriculum into a K-12 school system.

Blair: The 1619 Project is obviously something that The Heritage Foundation has written extensively about. But maybe for our listeners who are looking at their students' curriculum and are looking at what their students are learning, are there any other kind of warning signs or red flags that they should be looking for?

Greene: First, I think it's important to be able to see the materials that your children are being taught. School systems have been resistant to this. This has been a bit of a fight so there's a big push for transparency in curriculum and instructional materials. And it's one of the things that parents have been organizing around lately, is pushing for this transparency. And there have been some legal efforts, some state laws to force transparency on the part of schools.

And when you look at it, you will see if it's emphasizing an approach to America where people should be treated differently based on their background as opposed to the same under the law. That's, I think, the clearest kind of rule of thumb that you might be able to use to recognize whether ideas of critical race theory or ideas of the 1619 curriculum are making their way in.

It is perfectly appropriate and desirable for students to be taught the full and true history of America, which includes the history of slavery and includes the history of discrimination. But that should be taught within the context of how ultimately this is contrary to our ideals and how we've been fighting against those shortcomings in our past and aspiring to be better. I think that is the story of America, and it's a good story. And it's the story that I think most people want their children taught.

Blair: Before we wrap-up, I'd like to approach a topic that I thought was very interesting. You and the American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, recently had a debate on the topic of school choice in the post-pandemic world. What did that reveal to you about where the teachers unions stand on issues like school choice and chief diversity officers and this sort of critical pedagogy that we've been talking about?

Greene: The teachers unions have gone all in on critical race theory, although they're slippery about this. So occasionally you'll get folks from the unions or their friends saying, “Well, this isn't even taught in schools,” but then turn around and say, “It's good if it were taught.” “It's not happening” and “it's good” is the basic line there.

But, just to make it clear, Ibram Kendi was actually brought as a keynote speaker at the recent AFT—that's the American Federation of Teachers, the teachers union that Randi Weingarten heads. He was their keynote speaker at a recent conference.

So these ideas are quite popular among the leadership of that union. And they've been fighting for these curricula to be adopted. They just present these as teaching history accurately or teaching the history of slavery, which of course, no sensible person is against.

What I think sensible people are against is being taught a very un-American take on these that include violations of our basic values about equal treatment under the law. But as to the debate, I think one of the main things that we're trying to do at Heritage to promote school choice is to communicate to parents that, ultimately, they should be in control of the education of their own children.

Education is an extension of child-rearing. It's just part of what we do to raise our children to be the kind of adults we want them to be. Parents should raise their children. They should also be in control of educating their children. And that's why they need school choice.

They need school choice to make sure they have that control so that they, and not the teachers union or some ed school professor, decide what their kid is taught, because they should decide how their kid is raised. They should also be able to decide that in their own local public schools.

And I think part of what we're seeing in this broader parent rebellion is it has to do with this desire to control. And also, this has been driving a huge expansion in school choice. Last year, we've had the largest expansion in private school choice of any year ever.

There have been, in 18 states, 24 new or expanded programs, and that's been driven largely because the public school system failed to deliver what parents really wanted. They didn't offer in-person instruction like most parents wanted. The unions were very resistant, put a lot of roadblocks in the way of in-person instruction. And when parents could see what their children were being taught remotely, they could see that it was filled with a lot of nonsense, a lot of values that they didn't like, and this motivated parents to want to take back control.

So there's really a connection here between this work we're doing on diversity and the problem with promoting bad values in the guise of diversity and the push for school choice. These are connected things because it's choice that allows people to regain control over the kinds of values their children are taught.

Blair: As one final note here, I wanted to ask if your debate with Weingarten gave you any insight on maybe how better conservatives can be delivering this message of both school choice as a positive force and diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives as a negative force. How do we better convey that message to the American public?

Greene: Well, I think what we have to do is begin to organize parents. It's become clear during the pandemic that parents are a very powerful force here. They can organize in their communities, they can push their local school board to make sure that they can see the educational materials that are being used, make sure that those materials are consistent with the values and preferences that they hold.

And I think the parents will do the job for us. Our job is to equip the parents with this information, help them organize so that they can be empowered and get the kind of education they want for their own children.

Look, all we're doing is saying parents should be in charge of their own kids. And I think that's an idea that is widely popular. And to suggest that some distant union boss ought to be in charge of your kid is a very weird and unpopular idea.

Blair: Good stuff. Well, that was Jay Greene, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Center for Education Policy. Jay, it's a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

Greene: Thank you.

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