• Irene Gómez, Ed.M. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2021 •
As a Latina raised in Texas, I come from a state where 52% of students are Latino and 12% are Black. These figures won’t reflect the full intricacies of ethnic-racial identity – youth who are both Black and Latino, for instance – but they do represent a majority who aren’t primarily of European descent (TEA, 2020).
I think back to my senior year of high school, when our English class read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I realize that in my 11 years of schooling, we had only covered U.S. racism through two books, both written by white women: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s fitting that my first school-assigned book authored by and centering a Black American and his perspective on racial justice focused on invisibility.
What is Ethnic Studies?
Ralph Ellison wrote, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free” (1995). Ethnic studies courses are vital resources that support students and their communities in this discovery, as IDRA has championed through research analyses, data collection, coalition-building and policy advocacy. Established at an institutional level out of student-led protests in the 1960s, ethnic studies is a field that analyzes power dynamics in the movements and contributions of historically excluded racial and ethnic groups in the United States. These classes, from kindergarten through college, teach students the hard parts of history, what has worked, and the new possibilities minoritized people are creating for themselves.
At the K-12 level, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington have implemented high school ethnic studies courses and continue to grapple with decisions over scope and content. As a field, ethnic studies defines high-quality courses as (1) place- and community-based; (2) focused on challenging racial and ethnic power dynamics; and (3) action-oriented. For instance, many ethnic studies curricula include a youth participatory action research project rooted in the district’s local context (Cuauhtin, et al., 2019; Sleeter & Zavala, 2020).
How Has Ethnic Studies Been Implemented?
Ethnic studies courses offer students many benefits, from social-emotional learning to college, career and community readiness. For example, in an oft-cited 2017 study, Stanford researchers found that a high school ethnic studies program in San Francisco Unified School District boosted the GPA and attendance of students at risk of being pushed out of school (Dee & Penner, 2017).
Several organizational structures aided student learning and district collaboration in the district, such as dual credit university partnerships, support from central office staff, five-year district funding commitments, and formal communities of practice (Beckham & Concordia, 2019; Sacramento, 2019; Tintiangco-Cubales, et al., 2015).
Buy-in from key decision-makers is critical for ethnic studies movements to grow and be sustainable. Thanks to grassroots movements that garnered local support, California leads the nation in the number of districts and universities that offer or require ethnic studies courses (Cuauhtin, et al., 2019).
Yet even in the state where programs are most popular, almost 30% of school board members had “limited to no understanding of ethnic studies.” In his analysis, Dr. Russell Castañeda Calleros found that California school board members worried some would perceive the classes as limiting and divisive. (Calleros, 2018)
Calleros reflected, “Since nearly one out of three policymakers are in a position to make policy without sufficient understanding of what ethnic studies is (or is not), the reality is that ignorance of ethnic studies is expensive” (Calleros, 2018; 2019). California found itself contending with this issue at a larger scale through a lengthy and heated adoption process of its statewide ethnic studies model curriculum, which left many experts and advocates dismayed with a final version that they argue glosses over critical elements of ethnic studies, including the perspectives of Arab Americans (Morrar, 2021). Pursuing meaningful implementation of K-12 ethnic studies continues to be a complex and worthwhile endeavor.
What the Future May Look Like
While Texas has adopted elective knowledge and skills standards for Mexican American Studies and African American Studies courses, much more can be done to expand ethnic studies content and access from initiating dialogue with school board members to developing stronger infrastructure through budget planning and professional development.
Through recently-proposed legislation, lawmakers could have enabled ethnic studies classes to count toward students’ social studies requirements and created an African American Studies advisory board to ensure courses contain high-quality content. Instead, a majority opted to pass the truly limiting and divisive HB 3979.
In this struggle, IDRA engages at the forefront of research and advocacy, with a special interest in state-funded grants for ethnic studies innovation at the district level, as well as teacher training and certification that centers the main tenets of ethnic studies pedagogy. When co-constructed with families and community organizations, ethnic studies promotes culturally sustaining content that can support students in transforming society, as educators critically reflect on how their own identities impact the families they work with (Craven, 2019; Tintiangco Cubales, et al., 2015; Valenzuela, 2016).
On the path to expand ethnic studies, IDRA offers guidance to districts through the IDRA EAC-South, one of four federally-funded equity assistance centers that provide training, technical assistance, and other supports to schools, education agencies, and related groups.
We also recommend the following resources for districts and coalitions to explore what elements or lessons may be relevant to their efforts:
- We Don’t Want to Just Study the World, We Want to Change It: Ethnic Studies and the Development of Transformative Students and Educators (Beckham & Concordia, 2019)
- The Power of Ethnic Studies to Dismantle Institutionalized Oppression in K-12 Education (Valenzuela, 2020).
- Strategic Leadership: Building Collaboration in the Establishment of Ethnic Studies Courses in Texas (Scott & Pérez-Díaz, 2020)
- Is Your U.S History Text Racist? Five Topics Often Whitewashed (CARE, 2021)
- The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement (Ginwright, 2018)
By the time I took an ethnic studies class in college, I’d spent two decades ashamed of my roots. My parents tried to foster pride, but what my schools did and didn’t value weighed heavier. I want to live in a future that sees, celebrates and supports the community cultural wealth of young people and their families. Through intentional design of ethnic studies programs, let us lay the foundation for our students to build that better future.
Beckham, K., & Concordia, A. (2019). “We Don’t Want to Just Study the World, We Want to Change It: Ethnic Studies and the Development of Transformative Students and Educators,” In Cuauhtin, R., Zavala, M., Sleeter, C., & Au, W. (Eds). Rethinking Ethnic Studies (pp. 319-27). Milwaukee, Wisc.: Rethinking Schools.
Calleros, R.C. (2018). The Intersection of Ethnic Studies and Public Policy: A Study of California High School Board Members’ Perspectives, doctoral dissertation).
Calleros, R.C. (2019). Ethnic Studies: School Board Member Attitudes and Recommendations for Implementation. California School Boards Association.
Center for Anti-Racist Education. (2021). Is Your U.S History Text Racist? Five Topics Often Whitewashed, webpage.
Craven, M. (November 13, 2019). African American Studies Course Will Have a Significant and Positive Impact on Students Across Texas, testimony. IDRA.
Cuauhtin, R., Zavala, M., Sleeter, C., & Au, W. (Eds). (2019). Rethinking Ethnic Studies (First ed.) Milwaukee, Wisc.: Rethinking Schools.
Dee, T.S., & Penner, E.K. (2017). The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127-166.
Ellison, R. (1995). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International.
Ginwright, S. (May 31, 2018). The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement, Shawn Ginwright blog. https://ginwright.medium.com/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c
Morrar, S. (February 4, 2021). Writers of California’s Ethnic Studies Draft Ask State to Remove Their Names from Curriculum. The Sacramento Bee.
Sacramento, J. (2019). Critical Collective Consciousness: Ethnic Studies Teachers and Professional Development. Equity & Excellence in Education, 52(2-3), 167-184.
Scott, L.L. (December 2020). Strategic Leadership: Building Collaboration in the Establishment of Ethnic Studies Courses in Texas. Challenges to Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs in Organizations. IGI Global. pp.215-229.
Sleeter, C., & Zavala, M. (2020). Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.
Texas Education Agency. (2020). Pocket edition: 2018-19 Texas Public School Statistics. Austin: TEA.
Tintiangco-Cubales, A., Kohli, R., Sacramento, J., Henning, N., Agarwal-Rangnath, R., Sleeter, C. (2015). Toward an Ethnic Studies Pedagogy: Implications for K-12 Schools from the Research. The Urban Review, 47(1), 104-125.
Valenzuela, A. (2016). Growing Critically Conscious Teachers: A Social Justice Curriculum for Educators Oof Latino/a Youth. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Valenzuela, A. (September 29, 2020). The Power of Ethnic Studies to Dismantle Institutionalized Oppression in K-12 Education. Educational Equity, Politics & Policy in Texas.
Irene Gómez, Ed.M., coordinates IDRA’s research on culturally sustaining practices. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]