Ray Carter | October 19, 2021

School diversity officers associated with worse achievement

Ray Carter

Nationwide, K-12 schools are hiring chief diversity officers (CDOs) to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals, typically in the name of reducing racial achievement gaps.

But a new study by the Heritage Foundation shows that racial achievement gaps are worse—and growing more so—in school districts that employ chief diversity officers.

“The results show that the existence of CDOs may actually exacerbate achievement gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, and wealthier and poor students,” the report stated. “These findings are consistent with the observation that CDOs have more to do with political activism than with improving education outcomes—or narrowing achievement gaps between students.”

The Heritage Foundation report, “Equity Elementary: ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ Staff in Public Schools,” examined 554 districts that each had at least 15,000 students enrolled as of 2017 to determine if they employed some version of a chief diversity officer. Those schools collectively served 22.5 million students, which was 44 percent of all students in public schools that year.

Researchers then examined student test-score data for those school districts via the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University to determine if racial achievement gaps were lower at schools that employ CDOs.

In total, 39 percent of the 554 districts reviewed employed a chief diversity officer. Among the largest districts, CDO positions were much more common with 79 percent of districts with more than 100,000 students having a CDO or its equivalent. The review showed that 59 percent of schools that have between 50,000 and 100,000 students also have a CDO.

But many other districts now employ a chief diversity officer as well. Among schools with 30,000 to 50,000 students, Heritage found that 33 percent employ a CDO. The rate of CDO employment was nearly the same at school districts with 20,000 to 30,000 students, of which 34 percent employed a CDO. At districts with 15,000 to 20,000 students, 32 percent had CDOs.

The review included eight Oklahoma school districts: Broken Arrow, Edmond, Moore, Norman, Oklahoma City, Putnam City, Tulsa, and Union. Of those eight, Heritage determined that three employ some version of a chief diversity officer: Norman, Oklahoma City, and Putnam City.

The report noted public records show Norman also spent $22,750 on equity consultants during the 2020-2021 academic year, even as the district was losing students.

At a recent forum, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister acknowledged that racial academic achievement gaps are common in Oklahoma schools even after adjusting for factors such as economic disadvantage or disability.

“They’re not economically disadvantaged. Now, they’re not battling disability. They’re not an English learner,” Hofmeister said. “So then why is an African American student group 18 points below the other ethnic groups of that particular school or, in our case, of our state?”

According to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test data for the 2019-2020 school year, 82 percent of black 4th-grade students in Oklahoma were below grade level in math compared to 58 percent of white students. In 4th grade English, NAEP found 87 percent of black students in Oklahoma scored below grade level compared to 65 percent of white students.

Most school-district websites say the purpose of a chief diversity officer is to “help to reduce achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds.” The Heritage report noted that differences in standardized test scores between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, and wealthier and poor students “have been large and persistent for decades.”

However, Heritage researchers found no correlation between the hiring of a CDO and improved outcomes.

“The analyses presented here suggest that the existence of CDOs in school districts may actually exacerbate achievement gaps,” the report said. “In other words, CDOs may be implementing counterproductive educational interventions.”

When schools with a chief diversity officer were compared to those without a CDO, the report found that academic gaps “are larger in districts that employ CDOs.” In districts without a CDO, the average black student was 1.9 grade levels behind the average white student. But in districts with CDOs, the achievement gap was 2.4 grade levels.

Similar patterns were found when examining white–Hispanic and non-poor–poor achievement gaps.

The Heritage report noted that supporters of chief diversity officer positions may argue that districts with the largest achievement gaps are also those most likely to employ a CDO. But Heritage’s analysis found that achievement gaps are also “growing wider over time in districts with CDOs.”

Heritage researchers also controlled their analysis to compare schools of “the same size, in the same political environment” with “similar racial compositions,” “similar student needs,” “similar resources to address those needs,” and similar overall levels of student achievement and academic progress.

“Yet, even when districts are the same on these dimensions, a CDO remains significantly and negatively related to both the level and change in white-black achievement gaps,” the report stated. “The white-Hispanic achievement gap and the rate of change in that gap, at least for math test scores, continues to be negatively associated with a district employing a CDO even when all of these other factors are controlled.”

Since chief diversity officers have no apparent positive impact on reducing racial achievement gaps, the report suggests the main purpose of CDO hires is to inject politics into the education system, noting news accounts from across the nation indicate that chief diversity officers “may be best understood as political activists who articulate and enforce an ideological orthodoxy within school districts.”

“CDOs do not and cannot promote equality in student outcomes; instead, they create inequities in political power by using taxpayer funds to aid one side in two-sided debates over controversial issues,” the Heritage report stated. “Opponents of critical race theory and other illiberal ideas need to make the case to their local school boards that CDO positions should not be created or expanded in their districts. State legislatures could also guide districts away from creating these types of positions.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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