Insufficient diversity impacts students’ global perspective, educational opportunities

Elsa Scott and Thomas Blackburn

Diversity is one of the most celebrated aspects of American culture. Throughout history, the American dream has inspired millions to come to America in search of a better life. This country was built by immigrants, and their different heritages, ideas, cultures and experiences have shaped the foundations of American society.

Though Americans like to celebrate our diversity, we have a history of discrimination and oppression in all aspects of society, from jobs to schooling. There has been an imbalance in access to education since the country’s inception. While schooling has always been available to white students, particularly men, education was originally not available to minority students. It was not until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that the court determined segregated schools to be unconstitutional; following this verdict, widespread access to equal education became increasingly commonplace. Even with this, many schools did not desegregate until the 1960s, with some desegregating well into the 1970s as local communities resisted the court’s decision.  

This led to systematic separation in the population. Towns remained separated into smaller subsections based on ethnic background and socioeconomic standing, and schools were part of this separation. Today, schools in neighborhoods that have a primarily minority population  generally continue to lag behind in standardized testing and graduation rates compared to schools with a primarily white population. This can be traced to inequalities in funding and resources. The low graduation rates contribute to a low socioeconomic standing, and thus the system remains intact.

Madison, along with every other school in Fairfax County, is part of this system. Madison is a predominantly white school, and has been for many years. Its student body today stands at 65 percent white; the Hispanic and Asian populations are the next largest at both 12 percent. Other schools like Oakton High School and Falls Church High School report a student body that is 56 percent white and 21 percent white, respectively.

Although the student body has increased in Asian and Hispanic students, this trend is not reflected in the diversity of teachers. The most recent U.S. Department of Education Schools and Staffing Survey, a national survey of teachers and principals, showed that 82 percent of public school teachers identified as white. This figure has hardly changed in more than 15 years.

The majority of applicants applying for teaching positions reflects the demographics in Vienna, a primarily white town. In accordance with federal law, the hiring process does not discriminate based on race; rather, it focuses on qualifications and what contributions applicants can bring to the job. First, applicants send in a resume; after this employers interview the applicants. Employers review prospective teachers’ varying skills and qualifications. Madison has a predominantly white staff due to a low number of minority applicants.

Fairfax County has historically hired employees later than other counties. This resulted in an even smaller applicant pool, one with fewer teachers from different ethnic backgrounds, as they had already been hired by other counties. Fairfax County is consistently less varied in terms of race, and as a result, it does not attract teachers of different ethnic backgrounds, resulting in a less diverse staff. Due to this, minority students do not have the same representation and role models as white students.

“I do think it’s very important for students to feel like they are reflected in the staff, that they see themselves in all types of roles, so that they can aspire and see possibilities for their future,” Spanish teacher Maria Sanchez said.  

Madison security guard Anthony Thomas grew up in Vienna and went to Madison during the mid-1970s. He experienced first-hand the importance of representation and acceptance, and how having a role model to relate to can be very influential.

“I didn’t see a black person teach me until middle school. So until middle school, the thought of being a teacher never crossed my mind…because I never saw a black person up there teaching,” Thomas said.

Fairfax County, however, is making efforts to remedy the situation. This year, the county is starting their hiring process much earlier — in March and April, rather than May or June — to compete with other counties for more diverse candidates.  Fairfax County is also recruiting teachers from colleges around the country and Puerto Rico.  

Although the county is working to relieve the problem, a variety of other factors still contribute to a lack of diversity in the applications.

Vienna encourages people who grew up here to return — partially because of its small-town, homey appeal and because of a natural tendency for people to return to what they are familiar with. However, Vienna is an expensive place to live, with a median household income of $140,012. For many prospective teachers, this expense is too high. Many of Madison’s current teachers do not live in Vienna, and, as a result, have a longer commute. This can discourage newer, younger teachers from working at Madison because it is more affordable and convenient to work and live somewhere else.

“I see much of the issues with diversity at Madison stemming from socioeconomic issues,” French teacher Valerie Howell said. “If the cost of living remains as high as it is, teachers will not be attracted to this area.”

Teachers are extremely influential in student’s lives; they are some of the adults that students see the most outside of their families. School presents opportunities that challenge students to grow as intellectuals and teaches students how to function in a professional manner. As such, school should reflect America’s evolving society, and with 82 percent of teachers identifying as white, it appears to be lacking in meeting that goal.

“I didn’t always have the confidence to speak up about being a minority, and I think that having teachers that could relate to my differences and my experiences firsthand helped me with that,” Shivani Das (’18), the daughter of first-generation immigrants, said.

Some see that promoting diversity is critical, because it is important to have different perspectives and points of view in the classroom. However, others place emphasis not on the diversity of ethnicity or race but rather diversity of thought also known as ‘intellectual diversity.’ This suggests one’s opinions are to be valued above all other attributes.

“Race should not have an impact on education. I see Madison as a diverse place where people come from many different backgrounds. Obviously, I hope nobody is treated differently or feels isolated, and I believe the emphasis given to race can contribute to further division,” said Nina Saadat (’18).

Diversity of intellect is extremely important to stimulating and meaningful discussions in classrooms. However, ethnic and racial diversity is what brings unique points of view and experiences into context.

“I think in every discussion, a multi-faceted approach is necessary. I think it’s imperative that you have different perspectives from people of different socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds,” Das said. “Because no matter how educated you are, you never know which group you’re going to overlook and which voice won’t be heard.”

Increasing diversity in the classroom will better prepare students for the reality in modern America. Diversity is increasing in the United States and schools needs to reflect changing times in order to better prepare students for a more inclusive, open-minded and accepting future that they will create.