Education: The Diversity Quest in Little Rock and (Corporate) America

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas by nine black students. News reports documented the Little Rock Nine's warmly-welcomed return to the school -- a stark contrast from the jeering mobs that greeted them in 1957. The article about the anniversary that stood out most, though, was the Washington Post's profile of Ernest Green, the lone senior in the group, who graduated from Central in 1958. Green now lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as managing director of public finance for Lehman Brothers.

As anyone who's casually glanced at Supreme Court headlines over the years knows, the push towards integration in education has been reversed by changes in social and legal opinion. Yet in the business world, often criticized for its lack of diversity, initiatives to attract diverse workers remain in place. Green only exemplifies the progression of the drive for integration from education to business. And as he acknowledged in the Post article, his previous experiences in Little Rock gave him more than enough preparation for his current position at Lehman: "It made me a tougher negotiator, able to control my emotions and able to handle the ups and down of business and life."

Why has business succeeded in retaining its diversity initiatives while education has not? Perhaps because education has been the primary and older focus of affirmative action, it has also been the focus of more rigorous opposition and debate concerning diversity initiatives. Or perhaps business has simply gotten better at devising innovative approaches to diversity.

One of the recently named MacArthur Fellows, Deborah Bial, has been contributing some of that innovation to education since 1989. That's the year in which she founded the Posse Foundation, which seeks to prepare students from underrepresented populations for college. Reading Bial's profile on the MacArthur Foundation's Website, I was struck by the description of Posse Foundation's selection process for its participants. The foundation does not use test scores or grades but administers "a rigorous assessment process based on qualities such as leadership, teamwork, communication skills, and motivation" -- the same qualities that are valued in business.

Other facets of the Posse Foundation's approach seem to take cues from business as well. The students selected join "posses," or small teams, in which they gain college preparation while supporting each other to work toward the goal of higher education. And the foundation partners with college admission officers as well to help them find a more diverse pool of students, thus offering a corporate talent search model for the education world. Posse claims a 90 percent graduation rate for its students, an impressive accomplishment amid persistent reports in education of failure.

This week's reports on the Little Rock Nine have noted that Central High School, the battleground for the city's educational integration, is now 52 percent black -- only one example of how schools have become even less diverse than they were decades ago. Could business thinking about diversity present a solution for education?

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