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Suddenly Diverse

How School Districts Manage Race and Inequality

Suddenly Diverse

How School Districts Manage Race and Inequality

For the past five years, American public schools have enrolled more students identified as Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Asian than white. At the same time, more than half of US school children now qualify for federally subsidized meals, a marker of poverty. The makeup of schools is rapidly changing, and many districts and school boards are at a loss as to how they can effectively and equitably handle these shifts.
Suddenly Diverse is an ethnographic account of two school districts in the Midwest responding to rapidly changing demographics at their schools. It is based on observations and in-depth interviews with school board members and superintendents, as well as staff, community members, and other stakeholders in each district: one serving “Lakeside,” a predominately working class, conservative community and the other serving “Fairview,” a more affluent, liberal community. Erica O. Turner looks at district leaders’ adoption of business-inspired policy tools and the ultimate successes and failures of such responses. Turner’s findings demonstrate that, despite their intentions to promote “diversity” or eliminate “achievement gaps,” district leaders adopted policies and practices that ultimately perpetuated existing inequalities and advanced new forms of racism.
While suggesting some ways forward, Suddenly Diverse shows that, without changes to these managerial policies and practices and larger transformations to the whole system, even district leaders’ best efforts will continue to undermine the promise of educational equity and the realization of more robust public schools.


“Conventional wisdom holds that the real action in education policy centers on state capitals and Washington, DC, while school districts simply implement tasks that are straightforward and mechanical. Turner puts the lie to that simplistic narrative, showing how even modestly sized districts must wrestle with powerful and contradictory pressures stemming from globalism, poverty, racism, and economic and demographic change. It’s not clear whether they’ll succeed or succumb, but it will take books like Suddenly Diverse to give us the understanding that success demands.”

Jeffrey R. Henig, author of Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics

“Suddenly Diverse presents an important and timely examination of how two school districts responded to demographic change and, perhaps most importantly, the leadership discourses and policy trajectories leaders advanced based on unchallenged assumptions associated with what it means to serve an increasingly diverse student population. This book makes an important and much needed contribution to the study and practice of educational leadership and policy. It will appeal to researchers, faculty, practitioners, aspiring school district leaders, policymakers, and advocates for racial equality and social justice in education, especially those who have become increasingly disillusioned by ‘colorblind’ attempts to promote educational equality and racial harmony without addressing the weightier matters of structural and institutional racism.”

Sonya Douglass Horsford, author of The Politics of Education Policy in an Era of Inequality: Possibilities for Democratic Schooling

“Regardless of how many walls are built, demographic change is inevitable in America. Schools are on the front lines of responding to the needs of our rapidly changing society. This important new book shows us how they are responding and what we can learn from it.”

Pedro A. Noguera, author of The Trouble with Black Boys . . . and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education

“Turner intricately maps how district leaders respond to demographic changes in their student populations. . . . She shines much-needed light on the promise and pitfalls of responses to demographic shifts if these changes are unanchored to equity commitments or if framed by culturally and racially deficient frames for students and families. The book offers promising directions for superintendents, board members, and district staff to learn how they might better shape policies and practices to improve schooling and learning for some of the nation’s most educationally vulnerable students.”

Janelle Scott, author of School Choice and Diversity: What the Evidence Says

"Suddenly Diverse shares the voices of thirty-seven mostly White public school district leaders from two Wisconsin school districts whom Turner interviewed in 2009–2010. In presenting them, Turner does not shy away from calling out the many contradictions and problems she noticed in these leaders’ attempts to make sense of diversity...Situating the two school districts as a 'part of larger demographic, economic, and political trajectories that remain relevant to school district equity today' (p. 161), Suddenly Diverse presents a valuable insight into how district leaders make sense of their evolving responsibilities and how their district-level decisions are shaped by broader sociocultural and political contexts."

Harvard Educational Review

Table of Contents


Introduction    Color-Blind Managerialism and the Contradictions of Public Schooling

Chapter 1    Globalization in the “Heartland”: Changing Contexts of US School Districts

Chapter 2    Becoming “Urban” School Districts

Chapter 3    Managing Accountability by Monitoring Achievement Gaps

Chapter 4    Managing Competition by Marketing Diversity

Conclusion    “How Well Do We Live the Reality?” and How Do We Live the Reality Well?

Methodological Appendix


American Educational Studies Association: AESA Critics' Choice Book Award

Center for Urban Ethnography at Penn GSE: Erickson and Hornberger Outstanding Ethnography in Education Book Award

ASA Section on Sociology of Education: Pierre Bourdieu Award
Honorable Mention

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