The Ongoing Battle Over Ethnic Studies

A new study suggests that such courses can dramatically elevate the achievement of at-risk students. But is that enough proof that they’re worth the investment?

Ross D. Franklin / AP

In Tucson, Arizona, Che Guevara posters and Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed are the spark that set off a heated conflict over ethnic studies that has made national headlines for years. For critics, including two former state schools superintendents, the Mexican American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District is little more than divisive propaganda: “ethnic chauvinism” with a “very toxic effect … in an educational setting.” For supporters, reading literature on Chicano history in America and critical race theory is intended to close cultural gaps in the curriculum—and to close academic gaps for the district’s Hispanic students.

The intense controversy in Tucson over ethnic studies—best described as the study of the social, political, economic, and historical perspectives of America’s diverse racial and ethnic groups—might seem like a new debate, but it’s over a century in the making. The educator and historian W.E.B. DuBois as early as the 1900s called for teaching black history in U.S. schools to challenge the prevailing narrative of black inferiority. More than half a century later, Freedom Schools emerged out of the 1960s civil-rights movement as alternative schools with a curriculum steeped in black culture and lessons drawn from black students’ lived experiences. About the same time the discipline of ethnic studies ignited on college campuses, as students of color considered the Eurocentric dominance in textbooks and lessons, and demanded multicultural courses.

Eventually the concept trickled down to K-12 schools. In 1994, Berkeley High in California became one of the first high schools in the country to offer ethnic studies, the program facing opposition even in a town known to be a bastion of progressive thinking. More recently, Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, added an ethnic-studies course to its high-school graduation requirements. (Interestingly, the country’s higher-education pioneer in the field is now struggling to stay afloat as budget cuts threaten the small, iconic program at San Francisco State University.)

For more than 20 years ethnic studies in American public schools has slowly evolved and grown, with the value for students becoming clearer over time. Yet even as enthusiasts have called for more ethnic-studies programs—and the debate rages on over making the identities of black, Asian, Native American, and Latino students the centerpiece of class instruction—notably absent was data linking culturally relevant pedagogy specifically to measurable student gains. This changed this year with new research that shows ethnic-studies classes boost student attendance, GPAs, and high-school credits for a key student group—a pivotal finding that brings hard evidence to the dispute over adding these courses in public schools.

Stanford University researchers examined the impact of an ethnic-studies curriculum for struggling ninth-grade students who participated in a pilot program in San Francisco high schools from 2010 to 2014. The academic performance for these students, identified as being at high risk for dropping out, was compared with that of classmates who weren’t enrolled in such classes. The improvements were significant: Attendance jumped by 21 percentage points, grade-point average by 1.4 points, and students in ethnic-studies courses covering discrimination, stereotypes, and social-justice movements earned 23 more credits toward graduation. Overall, the largest gains were found among boys and Hispanic students, and in the subjects of math and science.

Thomas S. Dee, the study’s co-author and a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, says the notable growth attributed to ethnic studies is important, more so because of the age group studied. “The transition [from middle school to high school] can be a difficult one for disadvantaged children,” Dee said, explaining that low grades, poor attendance, and the failure to accumulate credits can derail them in the freshman year. “Taking ethnic studies not only improved the academic performance of students but also promoted their academic engagement and discouraged dropping out.”

Dee hopes the study will promote more interest in ethnic-studies offerings, though he admits that it can be difficult to replicate and scale up a pilot program without the “planning, professional development, and collaboration among teachers” that is crucial to its success. The effects of ethnic studies for the broader population of students—youth not classified as a dropout risk—also remain uncertain, he said.

But some scholars find no reason for that caveat. Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are distinct advantages to all students taking ethnic studies, regardless of whether they are academically at-risk. “For students of color, who often feel so alienated in school settings no matter their class backgrounds, I don’t think we should minimize the ‘feel good’ component,” she said, asserting that it’s vital for all children of color to see themselves “in the important parts of [American] history, as well as in the history being made right now.” Siobhan King Brooks, an assistant professor of African American studies at Cal State Fullerton, also points to far-reaching benefits for all students of color—inside and out of the classroom. “The critical-thinking skills and self-esteem they develop in ethnic studies helps them advance in their education, communities, and careers,” said Brooks, describing the feelings of empowerment that come from knowing the full extent of one’s involvement in U.S. history.

Indeed, today, school leaders and student activists, in communities of all sizes, are embracing ethnic-studies courses as a way to expand and diversify classroom content. Earlier this year members of the Providence Student Union, a youth-led organizing group, kicked off a new campaign advocating for ethnic studies for all high-school students. In making their case, student leaders called attention to the glaring disparity between the city’s public-school curriculum and the students it teaches; 90 percent of those enrolled in Providence schools are students of color. The student union’s review of a nearly 2,000-page history textbook found that less than 5 percent of the book was devoted to the contributions of people of color. "I’m Nigerian. I’m Muslim. I’m also an American,” the high-school student Latifat Odetunde told The Providence Journal, noting stories like his are what history books “leave out."

But both Brooks and Charles state that this shift in knowledge and understanding is equally important for white students. Ethnic-studies courses dispel myths, Brooks said, and build connections among students as opposed to divisions. “Similar to students of color, white students have been miseducated about the roles of both whites and people of color throughout history,” she said, and culturally relevant lessons allow white children to “not only learn about people of color, but also white people’s roles as oppressors and activists fighting for racial change. This is very important because often whites feel there is nothing [they] can do to change racism.”

Likewise, Charles is adamant that all students need ethnic studies to unlearn watered-down versions of historical events and learn America’s inconvenient and necessary truths. “The way that we teach our history and culture … the way that we exclude and minimize certain groups and their experiences, while privileging others, feeds prejudice and negative stereotypes,” said Charles. She insists that ethnic-studies classes, and rethinking traditional courses to be more accurate and inclusive, is the path to countering centuries of misinformation—what W.E.B. DuBois critiqued.

“I tell my students that prejudice and discrimination is in our cultural DNA, because the vast majority of American holidays and rituals, and our understanding of American history and culture, all of these things reinforce the superiority of Anglo-American or white American history and experience,” she said. “And we all suffer the consequences of that.”