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Getting Rich in the Diversity Marketplace

Ethnic studies consultants ride a wave of profits across America’s schools and corporate workplaces

Sean Cooper
April 21, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The ideological battles over California’s ethnic studies curriculum are finally over, at least for now. The disputed model curriculum was approved by the state legislature in March, and soon the guidelines for mandated high school programs will be disseminated to local school boards across the state.

Last summer, though, when it was still too close to call, the cadre of ethnic studies professors and education bureaucrats, the ones who were the primary instigators of the new curriculum, were furious that there was any resistance at all. “I’m pissed,” said Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, an ethnic studies professor at San Francisco State and key architect of the controversial curriculum. She was addressing a Zoom meeting, joined by concerned colleagues throughout the state. They were up in arms over proposed revisions to their plan, which they felt would undermine the political essence of the program. “For them to slap us in the face! That’s not cool.”

The revisions were minimal, and the legislature was almost certain to pass the bill—a state law requiring every public high school to teach ethnic studies, using their curriculum as the model. They were on the verge of achieving their dream. So why the panic?

For all the talk of this being a movement for social good, a new dawn for American students, and a solution to oppression, ethnic studies is also, crucially, very much a nascent but nationwide white-collar industry. Indeed, while evidence for its educational or even social value is hotly debated, what’s not in dispute is that the business of flipping the public education establishment on its head is beginning to pay—and very well.

For all the talk of this being a solution to oppression, ethnic studies is also, crucially, a nascent white-collar industry.

In California, what this means is that the state’s Department of Education will be pouring tens of millions of dollars into the hiring of new ethnic studies teachers, new ethnic studies administrators, and, most significantly, an army of expert consultants who will install and supervise the new curriculum in thousands of California classrooms. Moreover, the movement’s biggest players already started monetizing their expertise, even ahead of the new curriculum’s ratification, by racking up consulting fees from California schools that were early adopters of ethnic studies programs.

Professor Tintiangco-Cubales herself co-runs a consultancy called Community Responsive Education Corp., which billed $11,000 for teacher training at Poway Unified School District, $65,000 for a keynote address and a professional development workshop series for the leadership team of Chula Vista Elementary, and $40,000 “to facilitate the development of Ethnic Studies units and lessons” at the Jefferson Elementary School District, south of San Francisco. Tintiangco-Cubales, who did not respond to Tablet’s request to discuss her consultancy, works outside California as well, notably as a lead trainer for a Boston consortium of educators in a project funded, in part, by Peter Buffett’s NoVo Foundation.

Today, all over the country it’s a buyer’s market for identity politics and “anti-racist” school curricula. In New York City, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs are thriving in elite private schools. Designed for schools and corporations, these programs are derived from the same mélange of critical race theory commingled with White Fragility-style marketing and buzzwords on which public school ethnic studies are based.

No wonder Tintiangco-Cubales seemed frustrated when the California Department of Education was threatening to slow down the approval process for the curriculum she championed. She and her colleagues had more than their reputations on the line.

“I look back on 2017 as a year filled with incredibly unsettling news,” said Casper Caldarola, an Upper East Side mother and founder of Pollyanna Inc., the leading DEI education consultancy in Manhattan. “It was also a time of big growth for Pollyanna. Something tells me the two are related,” she observed.

It would seem that Caldarola is quite right. Pollyanna’s revenues, according to the organization’s latest tax filings, nearly doubled in 2019 to more than $410,000, a figure that is likely to grow given the firm’s expansion during the pandemic. Caldarola did not respond to Tablet’s request for an interview.

Launched first as a part-time project in 2015 by Caldarola, Pollyanna now has 75 of America’s top private schools on its client roster, including schools in Manhattan, Cambridge, Providence, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, and Connecticut. Caldarola had been a longtime trustee of the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, where she led the board’s Community and Diversity Committee, while also working as director of communications at Allen-Stevenson, a private boys’ school, also on the Upper East Side. By 2018, Pollyanna was her full-time job.

Soon, according to pricing documents obtained by Tablet, Pollyanna was charging upwards of $1,750 per hour to schools that contractually committed to “incorporate racial literacy content in the classroom,” $6,000 for a half-day presentation on how to bring administrators up to speed on the basics of anti-racism, and $21,000 plus travel expenses for a three-day Internal Curriculum Review and Development for schools exploring the possibility of implementing a full-scale DEI overhaul of their entire administrative and classroom playbooks.

Once a school hires Pollyanna for a curriculum upgrade, teachers and school community members participate in Pollyanna’s bespoke 360-degree review of the school’s racism, looking for either blatantly or passively biased behaviors.

For example, faculty are asked if they agree or disagree that “we talk about Diversity and Equity and Inclusion too much at [our school]?” Staffers are also asked if the school had been successful in its previous efforts to fully “commit to anti-racism … [naming] how white supremacy culture shows up in our practices and behaviors?”

A school’s staff may begin to notice communications about upcoming meetings and events from administrators that identify participants not by department or grade but rather by race, as in, “for our white-identified community members.” Parents too see a change in the tone of the messaging coming from their children’s school, receiving private invites to join one another at Pollyanna’s Intro to White Parents workshop, a Zoom session where parents and Pollyanna instructors collaborate on writing and retooling the new version of the school’s “anti-racism mission.”

Also available is Pollyanna’s marquee, proprietary Racial Literacy Curriculum: a soup-to-nuts K-12 intervention that, according to a recent version reviewed by Tablet, “incorporates history, language arts, geography, science, and sociology to better understand the social construction of race and ethnicity in the United States.”

The Racial Literacy Curriculum begins in kindergarten with 5- and 6-year-olds using Pantone Color Charts to match their skin tone so that they might start to see themselves and one another by skin color. “Recognizing and categorizing color is a foundational skill for early grades, and will be used as a platform for upcoming lessons that discuss skin color.”

This curriculum includes a unique view of nearly every educational discipline, such as in sixth grade history where children discover that the essence of Nazism was not the destruction of European Jewry but the rise of “whiteness.” Pollyanna’s main coverage of the Jewish experience is reduced to an odd and passing reference to the “Eastern European Hebrew” race.

By eighth grade, the curriculum’s goal is to create “social justice” action plans that address how “systemic racism provided social, economic, political, and legal advantages to White Americans.” Students devise plans and launch campaigns that seek to overturn white privilege in the “community or city of the student body, or may reach broader, such as to the national level and beyond.”

Across New York private schools, well-paid consultants have been implementing DEI programs by training faculty and students, while at leading Fortune 500 corporations, DEI firms like Collective and HRDQ offer unconscious bias training, with little opposition. The pandemic has accelerated the spread of such programs. Since last March, concern for schools has understandably been absorbed by debates on the resumption of in-person classes. But the nationwide focus on reopening schools and the economy has overshadowed the remodeling of a significant number of private schools and workplaces by DEI consultants with minimal publicity.

All this is happening without any real evidence that DEI training actually works. Just as with ethnic studies in public schools, the results for DEI in private schools are unimpressive. The widespread implementation of DEI across the corporate sphere, according to company performance studies, have found that DEI is turning offices into hostile environments, driving down worker productivity, and in some cases making employees more biased and prejudiced toward their colleagues.

DEI consultants in education often deflect criticism by claiming that the value of their presence is not so much measurable student achievement or improved faculty relationships as evidence of the school’s commitment to equity and inclusion. The same goes for corporate environments, which want proof of their commitment to inclusivity initiatives; DEI consultants are there to help them demonstrate an expression of benevolence on the part of shareholders and executives who want to create a more just, free, and corporately wholesome society. It’s not lost on parents paying $65,000 a year for private school that their seventh-grader moving rapidly through a DEI curriculum will be properly steeped at a young age in the language and socialized mannerisms necessary to fit in at an Ivy League university, which will also presumably have undergone a DEI makeover by then.

Does any of this make a difference? Do such ethnic studies or diversity programs improve student outcomes or faculty relationships? In California, critics of the ethnic studies movement have pointed to a lack of evidence, efficacy studies, or quantitative analysis that examines the social and academic performance outcomes for students who have been immersed in ethnic studies pedagogy.

Leaders of the movement argue that the evidence all points to the overwhelming success of students in ethnic studies programs. One of the movement’s more visible figures, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, an ethnic studies teacher and activist organizer, sent the California State Board of Education a letter last year outlining the facts that she claimed support the immediate and widespread implementation of the state’s high school ethnic studies curriculum.

“We humbly remind you that Ethnic Studies has been demonstrated to increase: a) student attendance, b) student engagement with school, c) socioemotional sense of belonging, d) GPA across disciplines, e) high school graduation rates, f) college-going rates, and even, g) high stakes standardized test scores,” she wrote. “It is evident that Ethnic Studies works when done correctly.” Cardona points to three academic studies that she and other proponents claim demonstrate the positive measurable effects of ethnic studies curriculum.

But in January 2021, a group of scientists from 31 universities including UCLA, McGill University, and Connecticut College wrote a critical letter condemning the state of California for accepting the three studies at face value. The researchers, “with decades of experience designing and carrying out empirical research … [were] deeply concerned with the misrepresentation of social science research that is used to support claims of the benefits of ethnic studies courses.”

One of those papers cited relied heavily on several other studies, the “large majority [of] which were small-scale qualitative studies that did not include [experimental conditions], making it impossible to generalize their results in a reliable way,” the scientists explained. They also complained that ethnic studies supporters often cited this paper as evidence that it improves various student metrics. Yet, when the scientists examined the paper’s actual results, they found that none of the conclusions made by the researchers “provide sufficient support to justify the claim’s inclusion in the [curriculum].”

Drilling deeper, the 31 scientists unpacked the 2007 study run by the academic Julio Cammarota. Examining a two-year ethnic studies project called the Social Justice Education Project, Cammarota studied the progress of 17 Latino students who were about to graduate high school and apply to college. He reported that the 17 program participants had achieved a higher rate of graduation and college enrollment compared to the national average for Latino students, which he attributed to the success of the curriculum.

But as the authors of the letter point out, Cammarota’s own study doesn’t support his findings. “Because of the descriptive, non-empirical nature of the reported study, it is impossible to say that the curricular content of the program was responsible for this disparity,” they wrote, adding that such increases could likely be attributed to several other factors, including “simply providing ‘at risk’ students with increased, individualized teacher attention.” The 31 scientists added that ethnic studies advocates incorrectly claim that the “program led to [increases] … in both attendance and standardized test scores.” In fact, neither student attendance nor test performance were addressed in the study.

“There’s no proof that any of this is efficacious, in any way, shape, or form,” Southern Connecticut State University professor Corrine Blackmer, a signatory of the letter, told me. “The contempt for fact and evidence can only be described as breathtaking.”

Despite a growing body of unflattering evaluations of the effectiveness of ethnic studies in the classroom, its rapid implementation across the country continues. Virginia, Minnesota, and Texas all have ethnic studies legislation in the works. Indiana has enacted its own recently passed ethnic studies requirement, as did New Jersey legislators. Last month, Oregon satisfied legislators’ new ethnic studies requirement by completing a curriculum guide that instructs teachers to teach first graders to “examine social construction as it relates” not only to race and ethnicity, heady topics for 6-year-olds, but also their “sexual orientation.”

Workplace DEI practices, on the other hand, have been studied by a variety of researchers, who have found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that employees who spend their mornings in a conference room calling each other racist and oppressive often struggle to return to work as colleagues.

Indeed, rather than reducing bias, improving morale, increasing opportunity for minority groups, or boosting productivity and workplace satisfaction, DEI training initiatives are frequently ineffective and, despite intentions, counterproductive. A growing body of quantitative research has shown that DEI training can make workplaces more biased, atomized, discriminatory, and hostile, even or especially for the very minority groups it’s intended to help.

One group of researchers from Arizona State University and Columbia University investigated the efficacy of bias-reduction training and found that after workplace hiring managers were taught to combat various stereotypes, they were more likely to apply those stereotypes in hiring practices. Another recent study determined that “white privilege” training increased hostility towards a variety of groups, including a significant decrease in sympathy for the plight of “poor white people,” as they had failed to properly leverage their inherent privilege. A 2018 experiment concluded that exposure to DEI practices strengthened stereotypical views, concluding that “well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them.”

DEI may also be enflaming gender tensions. Another review of corporate workplaces found that female employees “were less supportive of sexism litigation when the company offered diversity training,” because the training itself increased the false belief that the workplace had become less biased.

As for DEI education consulting firms like Pollyanna, they haven’t yet been subjected to quantitative examination of their impact on scholastic performance. So why are these programs proliferating if they are at best untested, or worse, evidently ineffective—and in any case, expensive? One possibility is that parents, educators, business professionals, and corporate employees have learned that properly branding their work and children in DEI language helps them stay competitive.

In the final year of the curriculum, 88% of students failed to demonstrate proficiency on California English exams, and 98% failed to pass the proficiency threshold for math.

Given that the ethnic studies trend is so closely associated with San Francisco, it would seem inevitable that it would ensnare Silicon Valley too. Chan Zuckerberg, Mark’s wife, cut a check for $750,000 to an experimental ethnic studies charter school project called Roses in Concrete in 2016, and another $685,000 last year.

As one of the more high-profile ethnic studies stories in California, Roses in Concrete is an interesting case study. It began as a curriculum in an Oakland charter school founded by a rising ethnic studies superstar, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a San Francisco State professor who deployed a kind of backpack rapper, spoken word poetry style to argue for the exemption of urban children who have been exposed to traumatic conditions from test scores and language proficiency metrics. Featured in a New York Times “Visionaries” profile in November 2019, Duncan-Andrade was poised to become a prominent, forward-facing representative of the movement’s future.

Incubated at San Francisco State’s Ethnic Studies Lab, the Roses in Concrete project began piloting a new K-8 ethnic studies curriculum implemented by the Oakland School Board in its district in 2015. But in 2019, when Duncan-Andrade’s top deputies appeared before the school board on the matter of a charter renewal for Roses in Concrete, the district staff explained to the board that Roses in Concrete should not receive a three-year contract renewal because of the continued occurrence of “significant negative outcomes.” In the final year of the curriculum, in fact, 88% of students failed to demonstrate proficiency on California English exams, a number eclipsed by the 98% of students who failed to pass the proficiency threshold for math. The new program had also sent families fleeing, with more than 100 students leaving before the 2018 academic year.

Supporters of the program were quick to critique the critics. As one school community member said, the school “is flipping the paradigm, and it makes sense that it’s a little uncomfortable.” Another parent added, “this is all new ground we’re breaking. So it’s natural to expect a learning curve.” Despite some parents’ comfort with the school’s shockingly poor performance, the California Department of Education designated Roses in Concrete “closed” last June, folding it into a traditional elementary public school nearby. Duncan-Andrade did not respond to Tablet’s request for comment.

Another case of ideology and money colliding with education is Linda Darling-Hammond, who leads the California State Board of Education overseeing the state’s new ethnic studies curriculum. She also ran the education division of President Biden’s transition team, and was considered a front runner for his secretary of education, until she took herself out of the running.

Darling-Hammond previously served as the leader for a group of Stanford education professors who launched East Palo Alto Academy, a K-12 charter school that sought to “provide state-of-the-art instruction, preparing students to become global citizens,” according to The New York Times. But it lost its charter in 2010 after a decade of poor performance, ranking in the lowest 20% of all California schools, even after spending, on average, $3,000 more per student. Darling-Hammond, who did not reply to Tablet’s request for an interview, “was angered by the state’s categorization of the charter as a persistently worst-performing school,” the Times said, noting that the metrics used to measure the school’s success are “not the most accurate measure of student achievement.”

In addition to her work on the new ethnic studies curriculum in California, Darling-Hammond now serves as president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that received $5 million in seed funding from various Silicon Valley area philanthropies. In 2019, her institute issued a report on what it called the phenomenal success of Darling-Hammond’s Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), which “changed the paradigm for teacher learning in California.” “In lieu of outside consultants or vendors,” the report says, “the ILC entrusts professional learning to local professionals who have the training and support to lead ongoing learning within their own districts—and, in many cases, to carry that learning to other schools and districts in their regions.”

In 2019, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, Cecily Myart-Cruz, co-authored an article with Tolteka Cuahtin, a movement leader and Darling-Hammond’s collaborator, writing to her 30,000 UTLA members that “Ethnic Studies is not a privilege—it is a right for every student … across our nation.” Now that California’s Board of Education has voted to approve the model ethnic studies curriculum for its public schools, it seems proponents of the ethnic studies movement can train their sights on other states, and eventually the whole country.

As part of the ongoing effort to bring ethnic studies to every American school, Myart-Cruz chaired a 2020 committee of the National Education Association, a professional organization that offers guidance to some 3 million teachers nationwide, where her committee passed a resolution “mandating that Ethnic Studies be taught in pre-K-12 schools.” At a meeting last June, Myart-Cruz responded to teachers who expressed concern about the partisan nature of ethnic studies and the presence of too much politics in the classroom. “I’m going to challenge every single educator to say, ‘you have a responsibility to break the system and cycle for our babies,’” Myart-Cruz said. “This is the time to do that and teaching is a revolutionary act. ... It is about time we have not only a revolution in the streets but a revolution in our classrooms.”

The Biden administration is likely to pick up where the Obama administration left off in supporting the nationwide expansion of the kind of ethnic studies programs that advocates like Myart-Cruz support. In 2011, Obama’s Department of Education began including school equity programming as part of its “discretionary grant programs,” a move to support nascent ethnic studies efforts. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education rolled out grant competitions worth millions in federal funding for school districts that integrated diversity programs and similarly “theme-based educational programming.”

Another $6.5 million went to fund Equity Assistance Centers, a loosely defined network that would provide resources and training on “implicit bias [and] racial prejudice.” And an additional $1.6 million went to Intercultural Development Research Association, which hosted programs like a summer boot camp series where teachers were instructed in a “heightened awareness” of the racial and ethnic oppression they might not have known existed. They returned to the classroom that year with “a greater sense of employment, purpose, and clarity.”

In 2018, Biden himself wrote a letter to Casper Caldarola in New York, “to congratulate you on your work with Pollyanna,” which he said represented the interests of the American public. “Thank you for your commitment to growth,” Biden signed off. “I wish you the best of luck in all that you pursue in coming years.”

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.

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