Diversity Toolkit

This online toolkit provides an introduction to the multiple facets of diversity. It offers basic information, a short list of strategies and tools, and suggestions for how to find out more. Neither the short list of topics in this toolkit nor the content within each topic is meant to be exhaustive. For more in-depth information, please visit the Web links listed under each topic.



Diversity can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. The dimensions of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status. The field of education includes diverse professional job categories ranging from classroom teachers to education support professionals to higher education faculty to retired professionals. While diversity itself is not a value-laden term, the way that people react to diversity is driven by values, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Full acceptance of diversity is a major principle of social justice.

The concept of diversity presents both extraordinary promise and daunting challenges for education employees. On the one hand, educators and students have more opportunities than ever to learn about different experiences, languages, and cultures, whether through classroom curriculum, the Internet, or a conversation with a peer or a neighbor. This learning enriches us and prepares us for life in our 21st century, global society.

On the other hand, the education community faces growing challenges related to diversity, such as the academic achievement gaps between students of diverse backgrounds; racial segregation and resegregation in our schools; gender inequalities and sex discrimination; bullying and harassment of students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; educating students with disabilities; staggering disparities in educational resources based on class or income; access to education for immigrants; respecting students of all religious backgrounds; and so forth. Institutional hurdles such as high-stakes testing and the lack of resources for “nonessential” subjects make addressing the issue of diversity even more challenging

Main Issues

  • The NEA position on diversity was spelled out by the NEA Representative Assembly:
  • The National Education Association believes that a diverse society enriches all individuals. Similarities and differences among race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language, geographic location, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, age, physical ability, size, occupation, and marital, parental or economic status form the fabric of a society.
  • The Association also believes that education should foster the values of appreciation and acceptance of the various qualities that pertain to people as individuals and as members of diverse populations.
  • The Association further believes in the importance of observances, programs, and curricula that accurately portray and recognize the roles, contributions, cultures, and history of these diverse groups and individuals.
  • The Association encourages affiliates and members to become part of programs and observances that may include cultural and heritage celebrations and/or history months. (1995, 2002)

—Resolution B-9. Diversity. NEA Handbook (2008)


Here are some basic strategies for your exploration of diversity:

  • Seize opportunities to learn about people of different backgrounds, cultures and experiences—whether through a book, a film, or a conversation
  • Examine your own attitudes and beliefs about people who are different from you
  • Foster discussion in your workplace about diversity
  • Assess the diversity in your school and how students of different backgrounds are faring
  • Pursue ways to create diversity awareness or to celebrate diversity in your school community.

We hope that you will gain useful information, inspiration, and energy from this resource.

Class and Income

education and money

Vast class and income differences exist in the U.S. today – and there is mounting evidence that differences are widening to an extent not seen since the 19th century. These class and income differences lead to differences in school funding across states and districts, which in turn, result in differences in school quality and, ultimately, in students’ learning.

Main Issues

Because 90 percent of K–12 education funding comes from state and local sources, students’ access to a quality education varies depending on the states and communities in which they live. For example, K–12 funding from state sources ranges from a high of 71 percent in Minnesota to a low of 30 percent in Illinois, and funding from local sources—primarily local property taxes—ranges from 96 percent in Connecticut and Rhode Island to 38 percent in Louisiana.

According to NEA Research, inequities in student funding ratios have been as high as 3-to-1 in many states—with property-rich districts having per-student expenditures three times as high as property-poor districts. The inequities have led to lawsuits on the grounds of equity and adequacy, which NEA Research defines as follows:

  • Equity is about fairness in per pupil spending; in the condition of school facilities; and in student outcomes. A funding system that is equitable does not provide equal dollars for all students, but instead promotes fairness by providing more dollars per student to districts with above average numbers of at-risk students, including English Language Learners; districts where the cost of living is higher than average so they can offer competitive employee salaries; and small districts that, on a per student basis, have larger administrative overheads.
  • Adequacy means the amount of per pupil resources needed to provide all students with a realistic opportunity of meeting state performance standards. This means providing students with the resources they need to obtain the knowledge and skills that are assessed by the standards.


Realizing that adequacy can never be achieved by focusing on school funding in isolation from other economic realities, NEA Research developed NEA’s TEF Strategic Goal. TEF integrates three concepts: 1) Tax structures; 2) Economic development policies; and 3) Funding for public education. TEF’s central premise is that a fair and equitable tax system; a level economic development playing field for business; and adequate and equitable funding of public education will provide public schools with the resources they need to do what is asked of them.

To address class/income differences in their states and communities, NEA Research recommends that NEA affiliates and members:

  • Argue for tax structures that are fair, broad-based, stable, and in sync with our economy. Taxes for the poorest 20 percent of Americans are twice as high as for the richest 1 percent. On average, the richest pay about $5 of every $100 of income in state and local taxes while the poorest pay about $11.
  • Advocate for adequate and equitable school funding, the first step toward building schools’ capacity to do their job. No state currently provides adequate or equitable funding for its public schools.
  • Seek state and local economic development policies that level the playing field for business. Currently, big business enjoys tax subsidies, without accountability or regard to the impact on schools and children, while small businesses struggle to compete. All businesses should have a fair chance to compete in the new economy.

Related Links

  • Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education – Economic research on the benefits and costs of alternative educational policies and interventions. (Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Educational Policy Institute – Policy analyses of the consequences of government action (or inaction) related to addressing class/income differences and other issues; offers alternatives.

Cultural Competence for Educators

school culture

Cultural competence is the key to thriving in culturally diverse classrooms and schools – and it can be learned, practiced, and institutionalized to better serve diverse students, their families, and their communities. Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.

Cultural competence doesn’t occur as a result of a single day of training, or reading a book, or taking a course. Educators become culturally competent over time, but researchers suggest some places to start.

Main Issues

We all have a culture that shapes us personally and professionally. According to NEA’s C.A.R.E. Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gaps, “Culture is the sum total of experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests represented by the diversity of students and adults in our schools. While culture is often defined and perceived by schools as the celebration of important people, religions, traditions, and holidays, as well as an appreciation of the customs of different groups, it is also more than that. Culture is as much, or as little, as the everyday experiences, people, events, smells, sounds, and habits of behavior that characterize students’ and educators’ lives. Culture shapes a person’s sense of who he or she is and where he or she fits in the family, community, and society.”

Understanding our culture is important so that we understand how we interact with individuals from cultures that are different from ours. This understanding helps us see our students and their families more clearly, and shape policies and practice in ways that will help our students to succeed.

There are five basic cultural competence skill areas. They apply to individual educators as well as the schools they work in and the educational system as a whole. Growth in one area tends to support growth in another (Adapted from Diller and Moule, Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators, Thomson Wadsworth 2005):

  • Valuing Diversity. Accepting and respecting differences—different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.
  • Being Culturally Self-Aware. Culture—the sum total of an individual’s experiences, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests—shapes educators’ sense of who they are and where they fit in their family, school, community, and society.
  • Dynamics of Difference. Knowing what can go wrong in cross-cultural communication and how to respond to these situations.
  • Knowledge of Students’ Culture. Educators must have some base knowledge of their students’ culture so that student behaviors can be understood in their proper cultural context.
  • Institutionalizing Cultural Knowledge and Adapting to Diversity. Culturally competent educators, and the institutions they work in, can take a step further by institutionalizing cultural knowledge so they can adapt to diversity and better serve diverse populations.


Culturally responsive teaching is how instructional staff (and schools) demonstrate—or implement—their cultural competence. Geneva Gaye, in her essential text, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice, published by Teachers College Press in 2000, defines culturally responsive teaching as using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through students’ strengths.

According to researchers at Brown University, culturally responsive teaching is characterized by:

  • Communicating high expectations
  • Learning within the context of culture
  • Culturally-responsive curriculum
  • Teachers as facilitators
  • Student-centered instruction
  • Positive perspectives on parents and families.

English Language Learners (ELLs)

The term English Language Learner (ELL) indicates a person who is in the process of acquiring the English language and whose first language is not English. The government sometimes refers to ELL students as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.

Found in: Teaching Strategies

Main Issues

Achievement gaps between ELLs and non-ELL students are deeply rooted, pervasive, complex, and challenging for the National Education Association affiliates and members. The good news is that NEA is actively addressing the complex issues by engaging in research and advocacy and proposing strategies that we can pursue individually and collectively to help eliminate those gaps.


Schools need the following to effectively address ELL students:

  • A research-based process for the effective teaching of ELLs
  • Curriculum design and lesson planning based on sound pedagogical principles, practices, and high standards
  • Strategic methods to employ for making grade-level materials and resources comprehensible for ELLs
  • Research-based training on theory, culture, diversity, social status, and policy of language acquisition
  • Training, technical assistance, and/or funding for programs and services for ELL students
  • Advocacy that will increase awareness as to the coalitions that support educators who work with ELLs
  • Resources that will help educators learn more about effective, differentiated teaching strategies specifically addressing ELLs.

NEA’s English Language Learners: Culture, Equity & Language Training Module for Closing the Achievement Gaps is a resource with research-based and classroom-focused instructional and advocacy strategies to help educators:

  • Engage English Language Learners in academic learning and English language development
  • Recognize and build on cultural and equity assumptions and culturally relevant instruction
  • Create classroom and school environments that facilitate language learning
  • Absorb, understand and capitalize on language acquisition theory
  • Recognize language development stages and promising instructional practices for teaching in the classroom and school
  • Identify appropriate ELL instructional strategies aligned and differentiated to lessons, objectives, and goals
  • Find innovative ways to motivate ELLs to practice academic language skills that are carefully structured and require students to demonstrate growing proficiency.


students and gender

Gender, often used interchangeably with sex, refers to differences between boys and girls or between men and women. Gender, however, is broader than sex in that it encompasses not only biological sex but personal and societal identity, feelings, appearance, expressions, and behavior that collectively define what is male or female.

Main Issues

Gender is an important issue in schools. Since 1972, Title IX (20 U.S.C. §1681) has mandated equal treatment on the basis of sex in schools receiving federal assistance. Title IX has been invoked to create parity in sports programs for girls and women and to address sex discrimination.

Disparities exist between boys and girls in achievement and graduation. Girls and boys often perform differently depending on the subject, and scholars have noted that stereotypes and bias may inform how boys and girls are taught. Opinions differ on whether boys or girls may benefit from single sex as opposed to coed education. In recent years, girls have outpaced boys in matriculation at postsecondary schools. Bullying and sexual harassment affect both girls and boys in school. Both girls and boys may also be harassed because their gender expression does not conform to societal norms of what is feminine or masculine. Sex bias and discrimination may also play a role in the composition and salaries of male and female teachers in K-12 classrooms, administrative and higher education positions.


  • Reduce sexual harassment and bullying in schools through curriculum and intervention
  • Protect gender-nonconforming youth from harm
  • Monitor disparities between boys and girls in academic achievement
  • Encourage equal treatment of boys and girls in the classroom
  • Organize to achieve equal hiring, salaries, and promotion based on sex.

Related Links

Race and Ethnicity

students; race

Teaching about race and racism in the United States is a complex and emotional process. While many of us think of race as fixed categories – Asian, Black, and White, for example – many scholars have noted that race is not a biological category, but an idea, a social construction, that people use to interpret human differences and justify socioeconomic arrangements in ways that benefit one social group over another (Adams, Bell, Griffin 2007). For data collection purposes, the U.S. federal government defines Hispanic as a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

In contrast, ethnicity describes a grouping of people based on geographical region, nationality, or culture (e.g., Afro-Caribbean, Japanese, Hmong, Kurdish).

Racism is a system of advantage based on race and supported by institutions, policies and practices that benefit dominant groups and disadvantage subdominant groups. Racism is a social expression of power and privilege.

Main Issues

Race and ethnicity drive many debates and policies in public education:

Public policies such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s limitations on postsecondary institutions’ use of race-conscious measures in admitting racial minorities (“affirmative action”) is just one example of race and ethnicity based policies that support a system that benefits one group and disadvantages another. This systemic support of racism is often reflected at both the institutional and individual/group level. At the individual/group level, schools are faced with increased incidents of race-related bullying, harassment and violence. At the institutional level, schools may consciously or unconsciously engage in racial bias in decisions on academic tracking, assignment to special education classes and promotion, and suspension or expulsion. Many school districts have few minority education employees relative to the racial makeup of the student population. Similarly, some districts lack culturally competent educators who are attuned to the cultural or linguistic needs of their students.


  • Learn more about the social construction of race and racism in the United States, including how race provides systems of advantage and disadvantage
  • Reflect on your own racial identity and how it has shaped your life experiences—personal inquiry is a necessary prerequisite to facilitating inquiry among others
  • Foster a sense of safety around conversations on race by encouraging participants to take responsibility for their own learning and interactions, to respect each other, to avoid blame and snap judgments, and to allow for mistakes
  • Create a meaningful blueprint that includes sustained inquiry, examination of challenges, and a plan to meet the needs of colleagues or students as they explore the emotional territory of race.

In addition, in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge 2007), Adams, Bell and Griffin offer the following “logical” or “psychological” sequence of learning activities to introduce students to concepts on race and ethnicity in a safe and effective manner:

  • Begin with low-risk activities. Learners need to feel safe in order to express and examine deep feeling. Begin with activities moving from individual reflection to discussion in pairs or small groups before engaging in whole group discussions.
  • Move from concrete to abstract. For students to understand the concepts of race and oppression, they must first see examples of these concepts that are rooted in concrete experiences.
  • Move from personal to institutional/societal. Before examining how race affects institutions or society, students should first explore the impact of race on a personal level.
  • Move from difference to dominance. Allow students to talk about their own experiences as members of a racial or ethnic group and listen to others talk about their experiences before introducing concepts of societal dominance, social power and privilege.

Related Links

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

students and Sexual orientation and gender identity

Sexual orientation is an identity based on whether someone is attracted to people of a sex different from their own, the same sex, or both sexes (i.e., heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual). Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or somewhere else along the gender spectrum. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from their biological sex or the sex they were assigned at birth. The acronym GLBT stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

While progress has been made since the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City (1969)widely – considered to be a pivotal moment in the GLBT rights movement – GLBT individuals still face discrimination and intolerance based on pervasive stereotypes and myths about GLBT people.

Main Issues

LGBT-related issues often arise in schools. These include bullying or harassment against students (and sometimes school personnel) who are or are perceived as GLBT; the high rates of truancy, dropout, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide among GLBT youth; controversy surrounding GLBT school events and student clubs; the right of school personnel to “come out” or identify as GLBT in school; and other issues. In many jurisdictions, GLBT school personnel still lack legal or contractual employment benefits, rights and protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.


To address GLBT issues effectively, NEA members may consider taking one or more of the following steps in their schools or communities:

  • Educate yourself about facts vs. myths surrounding GLBT people, especially the facts related to health and safety of GLBT students Find ways to support your GLBT students and colleagues
  • Prevent bullying and harassment of GLBT students and colleagues through programs, training, and events
  • Advocate for staff development on GLBT issues, diversity, safe schools and social justice in your school
  • Establish policies, rights, benefits and protections that support GLBT students and employees
  • Partner with parents, guardians and community organizations to address GLBT issues in schools or in the community
  • Stay in close communication with your administration, your building representative, your Uniserv director, and your local and state affiliate offices

Related Links

Social Justice

Social Justice

Social justice refers to a concept in which equity or justice is achieved in every aspect of society rather than in only some aspects or for some people. A world organized around social justice principles affords individuals and groups fair treatment as well as an impartial share or distribution of the advantages and disadvantages within a society.

Social justice includes a vision of a society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. Social justice involves social actors who have a sense of their own agency as well as a sense of social responsibility toward and with others and the society as a whole. (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Adams, Bell, Griffin, 2nd ed., Routledge 2007)

Main Issues

The absence of social justice results in social oppression. Racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism are some forms of social oppression in society. Societies and individuals form hierarchies of oppression in which certain types of oppression are addressed and others are not. Oppression of certain groups or individuals can result in social or legal exclusion, discrimination, inequitable distribution of resources, and emotional and physical consequences.


  • Focus on diversity—awareness of the diversity in communities is critical to fostering social justice
  • Address real consequences of oppression—when discussing social justice in lessons or staff meetings, it is important to acknowledge the real social and economic disadvantages that oppressed people face in society, not simply the psychic harm of oppression
  • Understand the mechanisms that perpetuate oppression—i.e., those attitudes and behaviors (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism) from a position of privilege
  • Resist hierarchies of oppression—form strategies to foster justice with an inclusive mindset: who is being left out?
  • Seek to address social justice on three levels—personal (self), institutional (school) and societal (community).