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Promoting Intersectionality in Education Through Policy

September 21, 2023

People in the US have many different identities. For example, the number of people who self-identified as multiracial increased by 276 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to census data. Race is just one facet of identity. Individuals also self-identify in terms of gender, disability, sexuality, class, and many other characteristics and life experiences. 

Considering all the elements of an individual’s identity simultaneously is at the heart of the concept of intersectionality. This concept is particularly important in education, a field that serves a diverse array of students whose identities give them unique perspectives. Recognizing and promoting intersectionality in education can enrich students’ educational experiences and help create inclusive learning environments.

Anyone who may be considering enrolling in an online Master of Education (MEd) program can benefit from learning more about incorporating intersectionality into education, as well as related policy implications.

Exploring the Concept: What Is Intersectionality in Education? 

The concept of intersectionality recognizes that each person self-identifies in numerous ways. For example, an individual can self-identify as a member of a racial group, as a person with a disability, as an English language learner, and as someone who’s experienced trauma. Viewing that individual through the perspective of intersectionality entails consideration of how the individual’s multiple social identities converge and affect that individual’s experiences in the world. Recognizing the multiple ways in which people self-identify offers important insight into the various types of discrimination, privilege, and opportunity they can experience.

Intersectionality in an Educational Environment

Classrooms contain a diverse array of students, each with a unique set of social identities and experiences. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between fall 2010 and fall 2021, the number of public school students who self-identified as belonging to two or more racial groups almost doubled, from 1.2 million to 2.3 million. 

Students also self-identify in a host of other ways. They can form identities based on factors such as:

  • Age
  • Body size
  • Housing status
  • Immigration status
  • Language
  • Mental health
  • Religion
  • Traumatic experiences

To promote equity in the classroom, it’s critical to take the intersection of these identities into account when carrying out responsibilities such as crafting a curriculum, creating course materials, and developing class assignments. When students’ identities are acknowledged by a teacher’s approach to education, students are more likely to engage in the educational process and classrooms can become more inclusive.

Approaches to Intersectionality

UN Women, a UN agency dedicated to gender equality, collaborated with several nonprofit organizations to develop approaches (or “intersectionality enablers”) that can help ensure that community members, professionals, and policymakers consider intersectionality in education and other fields. Those approaches include the following:

  • Reflexivity. To help promote intersectionality, examining one’s own unconscious biases and beliefs is important.
  • Respect. Consideration of intersectionality in any situation entails respecting the dignity, choices, and autonomy of all people.
  • Accessibility. An important aspect of intersectionality is ensuring accessibility and reasonable accommodation for all people.
  • Learning. Attempting to learn from the diverse knowledge of all people can help promote intersectionality.
  • Observing the interaction of identities. In promoting intersectionality, considering how the complex identities of diverse people interact, along with how that interaction affects society, is critical.
  • Remaining aware of relational power. An important component of striving for intersectionality is observing who holds power and/or privilege under various circumstances.
  • Recognizing changes in space and time. Variations in location or across generations can alter the ways that people experience disadvantage or privilege, and knowledge of those variations can help promote intersectionality. 

The Benefits of Intersectionality in Education 

Students can derive a range of benefits from educational practices that are informed by intersectionality. For example, a consideration of intersectionality in education can:

  • Foster students’ sense of belonging and self-worth
  • Give students visibility and reduce their need to fight to be heard and seen
  • Create classrooms in which students feel welcome and safe
  • Show students how their identities can be a source of pride
  • Help students understand how people of different identities can be excluded from communities
  • Encourage students to express all their identities
  • Strengthen students’ mental health

The benefits of intersectionality in education also extend to educators. Specifically, incorporating intersectionality into education can enable educators to:

  • Build strong relationships with students
  • Promote effective classroom management
  • Build trust with students and parents
  • Engender mutual respect with students
  • Better support fellow educators who are in marginalized groups

Facilitating Intersectionality in Education Through Policy 

It’s important to remember that education policy plays a role in influencing the degree to which education incorporates intersectionality. Whether individuals are working as educators in schools, in administrative positions at school districts, or in careers at the US Department of Education, they can be responsible for crafting or executing policies regarding intersectionality in education.

In a 2022 report on the marginalization of children of color with disabilities by nonprofit organizations, Bellwether and Easterseals offered examples of policy approaches to facilitating intersectionality in education:

  • Providing training to educators and other school staff that can help them engage in culturally responsive education practices
  • Increasing research to identify new pedagogical approaches to incorporating intersectionality in education
  • Expanding diversity within the teacher ranks
  • Implementing initiatives to promote engagement with the parents of students who are in multiple marginalized groups
  • Increasing funding for resources that provide services and support to students who are in multiple marginalized groups

In 2023, a group of nine nonprofit educational organizations submitted a joint letter to the Education Department advocating for educational policies related to intersectional student supports. For example, the organizations recommended:

  • Ensuring that state and local education agencies offer schools recommendations for tailoring federal program services to the needs of students who qualify for multiple services
  • Making intersectionality a priority in the research and development projects that the Education Department funds
  • Enhancing public access to cross-tabulated data (data that can reflect the multiple ways that students self-identify)
  • Encouraging state and local education agencies to use cross-tabulated data to allocate resources and plan programs

Enhancing Education Through an Intersectional Approach 

Recognizing the many converging identities of students is the first step in incorporating intersectionality in education. Approaching education with an intersectional perspective has the potential to enhance student engagement and make the classroom a more inclusive environment. 

Individuals who are interested in a career in education policy can explore American University’s online MEd in Education Policy and Leadership degree program to learn how it can help them achieve their career goals. Offering students the expertise necessary to enhance educational programs and policies, the program can serve as a stepping stone to a rewarding career. Take the first step on the journey to a fulfilling career in educational policy and leadership today.