Diversity and Equity: Why We Learn Better Together

. . . I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, young, old, gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love.
— President Barack Obama, July 2016

Addressing the DNC, President Obama recently called attention to the power of our American dream. That togetherness makes us stronger lies at the foundation of this democratic country. An equitable democracy only exists when we all come to the table. But what does this look like day to day? While the president called us to vote to make our voices heard, making space at the table for everyone needs to start much earlier.

At UAGC, we work hard to ensure that everyone has a voice at the table. President Obama continued, 

. . . for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other and see ourselves in each other, and fight for our principles, but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may sometimes seem.

How can we, as parents, educators, and communities, make sure that there are structures in place that allow us to "listen to each other." Where are the spaces for students to learn to interact?


We learn better together. Sounds nice - but what do we mean by that? And how serious are we about diversity in the classroom? Sure, we "have" integrated public schools, but how many opportunities really exist for very different students to interact?

This brings up the question of tracking. In the vast majority of schools students of varying backgrounds and ability levels may attend, but in most of their classes they are tracked.

A student teacher at our school spoke recently of her tracked experience at an NYCDOE school from 2008-2012. She spoke of how she was in the top track of her high school, which was very competitive and drove students to neglect social-emotional growth in favor of teacher-defined academic growth. They met in the main building of the campus, in the nicest classrooms, and each lower track moved progressively down, resulting in most special education students housed in temporary classrooms (trailers) in the schoolyard.

At UAGC, she was struck by the mission of inclusion - that every student should have the opportunity to interact regularly and systematically with others who are different from them. Rather than separate students, we believe in fostering classroom diversity as much as possible. Jeannie Oakes, an educational researcher and author of "Keeping Track, How Schools Structure Inequality," provides some insight into why we detracked our classrooms as much as possible, both by age and ability level:

"Cognitive psychologists are now saying that intellectual capacity is learned as children interact with other human beings and with the environment—that, in fact, in this way human beings are far more alike than they are different . . .
I've been interested recently in the reports that have come out from the National Center for Gifted and Talented Education about how bright students are languishing in regular classrooms, and I think they're absolutely right. I think all students are languishing in most regular classrooms. What's so exciting to me about these efforts to create heterogenous classrooms is that in order to do so, the curriculum has to be much richer, more problem-oriented, and more engaging than even the curriculum of the high track . . .
Students need a lot of opportunities to construct knowledge together as a group, to make meaning out of their experiences to make sense of what they're learning, to make connections. Frankly, I'm convinced that that's the best kind of curriculum for all students."

Through Learning Cultures, we have restructured our curriculum so that each student is challenged at their zone of proximal development, breaching at their own point of confusion, and constructing knowledge together as a group. Students are coached and supported to differentiate as needed, challenging themselves to achieve their own potential in relation to the same rigorous standards.

This is not a new idea, but one that is emerging globally. Reformers in Finland often credit much of that nation’s educational success to the fact that it doesn’t group students by ability. In a recent article in the NY Times, "Make School a Democracy," David Kirp draws attention to the importance of this work, which he saw evidenced in a de-tracked one-room schoolhouse in Colombia, 

There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.


When you have such a mix of students in the same room, how does that affect achievement? John Hattie, who conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies of ability grouping that included all grade levels and areas of curriculum concluded that, “tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes.” The scholarship is clear - students learn better when able to learn with and through those who are different from themselves. In a study of a de-tracked school in New York State, scores echoed that of the majority of research, as seen in figure 1. The achievement gap significantly decreased and, contrary to popular belief, the higher students also experienced growth.

This trend is emblematic of what happens when students are given the opportunity to learn from one another.

Additionally, a 2004 report from the NRC and the Institute of Medicine recommended, “that both formal and informal tracking by ability be eliminated. Alternative strategies should be used to ensure appropriately challenging instruction for students who vary widely in their skill levels."

At UAGC, we continue to explore and pioneer these alternative strategies through the dynamic formats of Learning Cultures. It isn't always easy - it challenges students and teachers alike to rethink their perceptions of teaching, learning, and listening to each other. However, this learning to collaborate, learning to learn together, is the most important work in which public schools will engage in our democracy. It is the antidote to fear and the foundation of our hope for the future.

We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.
— President Barack Obama, July 2016