Ethnic Studies Classes Growing in Popularity

ethnic studiesWhen Indiana teacher Joe Gamble attended the high school where he now works, he didn’t have the option of taking an ethnic-studies class that might explore the history of African-Americans, like him, or Native Americans, or other racial and ethnic groups.

Now, he teaches that class.

Over the past few years, at the urging of NEA members and students, an increasing number of school districts and states, including Indiana, are requiring that ethnic-studies courses or curriculum be developed and available to students. Educators see it as a way to boost student achievement, especially among students of color, and to broaden curriculum that too often overlooks the rich history of ethnic-minority groups.

“I’ve taken more of a historical approach, and it’s really opened my eyes to how much kids don’t know,” says Gamble, who designed his own curriculum in consultation with social-studies colleagues across Indiana. Over a semester, Gamble pivots from a unit on identity, which dives into ethnocentrism and personal bias, to units that explore the history of ethnic groups, including Native Americans and European immigrants.

“Ultimately, I want the kids to walk away with new eyes, to have a different perspective and appreciation for the uniqueness that is America. I want them to better understand the world that we live in,” says Gamble, who has taught for six years at Lafayette’s Jefferson High School, where the student body is about 13 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, and 54 percent white.

When Gamble was a student, he didn’t have this opportunity. But, in 2017, Indiana lawmakers passed a law requiring all Indiana high schools to offer racial and ethnic studies courses at least once a year. It was an astonishing victory, considering the state’s history of racism and Ku Klux Klan activity, said Indiana teacher Hilda Kendrick. The law’s proponents, which included the Indiana State Teachers Association, leaned heavily on research that links ethnic studies to improved academic performance by students of color.

In 2016, a Stanford University study found that taking an ethnic-studies course led to better grades, especially in math and science, and also increased attendance among high school students at risk of dropping out. “Schools have tried a number of approaches to support struggling students, and few have been as effective [as this],” researcher Emily Penner told Stanford News. “It’s a novel approach that suggests that making school relevant and engaging to students can really pay off.”

But the reasons for ethnic-studies courses aren’t just academic. The courses also promote social-emotional learning, and help students and communities to recognize and celebrate their diversity. They’re about pride and dignity, mutual respect and understanding, and collaboration across cultures.

Ethnic Studies: Coming to a School Near You?

A decade ago, early efforts around ethnic studies often met with opposition. Most famously, in 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed a state law banning classes that promote “ethnic solidarity.” Their target was a popular Mexican-American studies program in a Tucson high school, which they said was “indoctrinating students.” NEA strongly disagreed—and in 2017, a federal judge found the law violated students’ constitutional rights.

In recent years, the ethnic-studies movement has grown more muscle. In 2016, at the urging of the California Teachers Association, state legislatures passed a law requiring model curriculum for ethnic-studies courses in high schools. In 2017-18, more than 17,000 California students—almost twice as many as the school year before—took ethnic-studies classes.

Oregon followed suit in 2017 with a law that requires ethnic-studies curriculum to be part of Oregon elementary and high school education. In 2019, Vermont and Washington passed similar laws. “We know that when students see themselves, and their experiences and cultures in the classroom, they are more engaged in learning, which translates to academic success,” said Washington Education Association President Kim Mead.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a new law requires high schools to offer an ethnic-studies class by 2022. “This bill is important to me because knowing your history gives importance and a sense of identity and self-worth,” testified New London, Conn., high-school student Shane Brooks to Connecticut lawmakers last year. “Going to a public school with a lack of African American studies being taught in the school system made me feel irrelevant and unheard.”

Other ethnic-studies efforts are more localized—for example, all high schools in Albuquerque, N.M., high schools have had ethnic-studies courses since 2016, and in Portland, Ore., since 2018. In Denver, about two-thirds of high schools have an ethnic-studies course, but school officials say they aim to increase that number.

“It [makes] me feel like I’m noticed,” Denver high-school senior Isaiah Acosta told Chalkbeat.