Ethnic Studies Courses Engage Students and Improve Outcomes

By Daniel Martinez-Krams

A federal judge ruled that when the Tucson Unified School District eliminated the Mexican American studies (MAS) program, it violated the constitutional rights of its students guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The students’ First Amendment rights were violated when they were denied the “right to receive information and ideas,” while their Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated because the decision discriminated against Latinos. 

Beyond the legal argument for why these classes should be allowed to exist, however, is a much more enticing justification that explains why many school districts and entire states are saying ethnic studies classes must exist: they work.

An ethnic studies course is one in which students analyze the social, political, economic, and historical context of America’s diverse racial and ethnic groups. There are two main styles of studies courses: those designed for the student whose history is being taught, and those for the general consumption of the student body.

According to Christine Sleeter, a California State University professor and ethnic studies expert, when students take courses that they can connect with, engagement, literacy skills, overall achievement, and attitudes toward learning all improve. 

In Tucson, the school district tracked the graduation and attendance rates, test scores, and discipline of the participants in the MAS program, and found that compared to their peers, all were higher. Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Education looked at pilot ethnic studies programs in San Francisco high schools, and found the same results. The idea is that when students of color take courses that are relevant to them, meaningful, and affirming of their identities, they develop a sense of agency because they are interacting with the curriculum. Otherwise, when minority students are inundated with Euro-American perspectives, they disengage from academic learning.

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that in settings lacking ethnic studies courses, students are indoctrinated with the “American Dream,” believing that dedication naturally leads to success, and causing traditionally marginalized youth to exhibit a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors. 

When students of color notice the achievement, education, and socioeconomic status gaps, instead of attributing them to institutional discrimination, they are perceiving the chasms as a result of effort. 

Essentially, if the system – American Dream meritocracy – is fair, yet outcomes are not, then the group must be responsible, and in that way the system is legitimized while stereotypes are perpetuated. Teachers of ethnic studies astutely point out that these courses provide students a mechanism to disrupt these cycles of poverty, violence, and incarceration. Not only do these classes educate students on the systemic barriers that precipitate those fissures, but they help minority students contextualize their situation, decreasing the likelihood that they feel to blame for what is out of their control. 

Unsurprisingly, Berkeley High School was at the forefront of the movement when in 1994 it became one of the first high schools to offer ethnic studies courses. Currently, the school boasts a robust ethnic studies department. 

Students can take advantage of a Chicano Latino Literature class, in addition to the fifteen offered in the one-of-a-kind African American Studies Department. Moreover, as part of the school redesign, an ethnic studies course will be included in the freshman core curriculum.

In my sophomore year English class, Ms. Zapata played the documentary Precious Knowledge, which detailed the goals of the MAS program, student success stories, and the lucha to preserve the curriculum before it was demolished by racist politicians. 

Without a doubt, Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, the politicians, are racist; the judge went so far as to state that they were “motivated by racial animus.” Horne and Huppenthal attempted to condemn, including a comparison to Hitler, a group which recited “In Lak Ech,” an incredibly moving, inspiring, and loving poem, at the beginning of each class. Their story is the epitome of an ethnic studies class. 

A curriculum which improves student outcomes, in both the classroom and the community, is opposed by privileged individuals who are proving exactly why ethnic studies are all too necessary.