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Can Ethnic Studies Education Change Academic Outcomes for Minority Students?

Pilot programs in the Bay Area and beyond show promising signs, but implementing ethnic studies curriculum into classes is just one piece of the puzzle.

By Ellen Lee


(Photo: Sandia Labs/Flickr)

“Name 10 significant American historical figures.”

That’s the question Christopher Chatmon posed to his 10th grade history students on the first day of school several years ago. Each student jotted down a list. Then they teamed up in small groups to refine it. Finally, they shared their top 10 with the class.

His students at the San Francisco public high school where he previously taught were mostly African-American, Latino and Asian-American teenagers. Yet when the class stood back to examine the 40 historical figures on the board, they found that all but one were white men. This happened in more than one class. The only people of color who made the cut were either Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.

Chatmon felt frustrated that, up until then, the students had been taught such a narrow scope of history. “I told them to throw their textbooks out the window,” he says.

Our classrooms have become increasingly diverse, but has our curriculum kept up with it? In most places, the answer is no. A systematic review of K-12 textbooks published in 2011 found that whites dominated the story lines. African Americans played a smaller, secondary role, usually as slaves. Latinos and Asian Americans appeared “mainly as figures on the landscape.” Native Americans mainly existed in the past.

But what if high school students had the opportunity to learn about literature, history, art, and music in a way that applied to them? What if students of color studied the contributions and histories of people from their background? And what if all students had a space where they could safely discuss identity, race, ethnicity, gender, and other issues of equity?

“I told them to throw their textbooks out the window.”

Two diverse San Francisco Bay Area school districts tried just that. While their approaches and strategies differed, both found the same result: The students performed better in school.

The earliest ethnic studies programs were established in the San Francisco Bay Area, following the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Students and faculty at San Francisco State University and the University of California–Berkeley went on strike, demanding that the universities establish an academic space to study the role of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans in society—a space that, until then, had been largely overlooked. College campuses around the country soon followed suit.

More recently, ethnic studies classes have begun to emerge on the high school level, including the lauded but controversial Mexican-American studies courses in the Tucson Unified School District. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, ethnic studies has become a required course for graduation. Student activists in Portland, Oregon, and Providence, Rhode Island, have called for their high schools to start offering ethnic studies courses. Last year, California lawmakers passed legislation to create a high school ethnic studies curriculum, which schools could introduce within the next few years. Among the reasons cited: Ninety-two languages other than English are spoken in the state, a reflection of how the minority has become the majority in California.

Another reason? Studies have found that ethnic studies classes have helped close the achievement gap among black and Latino students.

The most recent research came last year from Stanford University. The study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, tracked 1,405 ninth grade students who were enrolled in a pilot ethnic studies class in the San Francisco Unified School District. San Francisco’s student population is diverse: 27 percent Latino, 13 percent white, 36 percent Asian, and 8 percent African American.

The students had been identified as “at-risk” for dropping out of school based on their grade point average (GPA), and the goal was to catch them as they made the treacherous transition from middle school to high school. The ethnic studies class proved to be a success. By the end of the year, the students’ attendance had improved, they were earning more credits, and their GPA had increased by 1.4 points. They even earned better grades in math and science. Latino students and boys showed the most marked improvement. “They were more engaged with school in general,” says Emily Penner, co-author of the report and an assistant professor at the University of California–Irvine.

One theory to explain the ethnic studies classes’ success is that they help students fight back against “stereotype threat,” in which students behave the way they believe they’re expected to behave: Girls aren’t good at math. African Americans don’t do well on standardized tests. Latinos don’t speak English.

Indeed, one of the assignments this semester in David Ko’s ethnic studies class at San Francisco’s Washington High School was to analyze advertisements, song lyrics, and films for biases and the messages, both intended and unintended, that they send.

“Students are constantly surrounded by media and those things influence the way they view the world, without them realizing it,” he says. “The more we can help them see the biases, the more they can resist against it.”

During the second half of the year, students also take on a community engagement project. One group of students tackled the stigma of free and reduced lunch at their high school, getting in touch with the school’s food provider to discuss the issue. Another group studied food insecurity in their neighborhoods. Somewhere during the year-long class — with a space to safely discuss race and identity, and the opportunity to get to know their communities better and learn about the contributions made by people like them — the students gain the confidence to see that they have a rightful place in schools.

Across the bay, high schools in the Oakland Unified School District are also starting to offer ethnic studies classes. And, in addition to state curriculum, the school district has taken a radical approach to help its most vulnerable students.

Chatmon, the former San Francisco high school history teacher, now heads the district’s new Office of Equity. In 2010, he spearheaded the launch of the African American Male Achievement Program, a class for its African-American male students, taught by an African-American male teacher. The course, now offered at 24 high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, incorporates African-American history, as well as leadership, character development, and community building.

African-American male students face some of the greatest challenges in school. In Oakland, at the time the program started, one out of three black male middle school students, and one out of six black male high school students, had been suspended. Since the program started, the suspension rate for African-American male students has dropped 47 percent, and the students who participate in the program have boosted their GPA by 1.14 points.

In a study on the program, Vajra Watson, the director of research and policy for equity at the University of California–Davis, also saw a shift in the students’ own self-perceptions. In the early days of the program, the students were asked to describe being a young black male in the United States. They used words like “scared,” “underestimated,” “dangerous,” “feared,” and “stereotyped.” That changed later on, with one student writing, “I am a Diamond in the Rough. I am a Miracle in Disguise.”

Chatmon says the African American Male Achievement Program is just the beginning. This fall, the Oakland school’s Office of Equity also established a similar space for its African-American female students. In a nod to Oakland’s diverse student population — 26 percent African American, 15 percent Asian, 40 percent Latino, and 11 percent white — Chatmon also plans to hire directors to oversee programs for its Latino and Asian-American students next spring.

Other school officials have taken notice. The Minneapolis public schools, for instance, created an Office for African American Male Achievement, modeled after the one in Oakland, and school officials from Seattle are also looking to replicate it.

But ethnic studies is not a panacea for closing the achievement gap or eradicating the persistent problems in our schools. Changing the curriculum has simply been a starting point.

The concern — now that we’ve seen how ethnic studies can benefit students of color — is that schools will expect similar results merely by offering an ethnic studies class.

The authors of the Stanford study cautioned that duplicating the success of San Francisco’s ethnic studies class wasn’t guaranteed. The high school teachers, some who had ethnic studies backgrounds from college, spent nearly 10 years developing and refining the curriculum, with the support from the school board. “I worry that, as other high schools replicate this, if they can’t similarly support their teachers, they may not see similar benefits,” says Thomas S. Dee, co-author of the study and director of the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Chatmon has similar reservations. “This is not going to solve everything,” he says. Outside of the class, students of color still face obstacles, including microaggressions and lowered expectations from other teachers or administrators.

Ultimately, closing the achievement gap is a worthy, ambitious goal, but introducing ethnic studies could have greater implications as well: It could help students of all backgrounds better understand the circumstances and contributions made by their peers, and help bridge relationships among a diverse student body. And with the nation’s many racial rifts, that may be more necessary than ever.