Why now is the time for schools to change how they teach about race and diversity
How will schools look on the other side of this, the largest social revolt in U.S. history that has laid bare disparities throughout American culture, from law enforcement and beyond?
Should new classes be added, history and social studies texts augmented? Or, in this moment, can the whole system be rebuilt in the name of a new awareness, the sudden realization by the majority population that what we have been taught wasn’t always the full story — starting with the myth that the Americas were not full-fledged societies with their own trade routes, currencies and governments. The Iroquois Confederacy Great Law of Peace, for example, is believed to have influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but that’s not a lesson in most American history books.
Because every child in this country in one form or another goes to school, the potential for profound change, if it is embraced, could be found there. And given the troubled history — from forced boarding schools for Indigenous children and the cultural genocide perpetuated there to English-only initiatives, to a whitewashing of U.S. history; really, the list could go long — the education system has to be ripe now for rebirth given the current climate.
In California, the State Board of Education approved ethnic studies curriculum guidelines for school districts in 2018. Schools here have seen significant, albeit sporadic and slow-going, changes such as the evolution of the statewide lesson on California history for fourth-graders. In years past, this included building a mission replica, but now the lessons have attempted a broader history, requiring students to consider cultural differences and how the missions played a role in the conquest and forced labor of Indigenous peoples.
In Anaheim, the Savanna High School mascot is still the Rebels, although the image of the Confederate soldier and flag were removed following a school board decision in 2017.
Several school districts in Seattle, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Houston, Boston and Providence, R.I., have added ethnic studies programs to their schools, and some have gone so far as to require the classes for graduation. But there’s a half-year requirement of African American studies here and some classes in Native American or Mexican American studies offered there. Nowhere, except in rare places, has this been incorporated as part of the total curriculum.
Textbooks follow the example of school districts, and school districts answer to parents and teachers unions. Will this be the time that real change gets incorporated into our schools so that we produce children who are culturally aware and educated about the contributions of all the significant citizens that formed this country?
With every step toward a new way of teaching about race and diversity in the nation, there is backlash. When educators in Tucson, Arizona, initiated Mexican American studies in the late 1990s, the superintendent of schools said the classes were in conflict with “American citizenship.” The classes were stopped there and books confiscated. School districts elsewhere — Boston, Houston, Fresno, New Haven, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, notably — adopted the classes, but Arizona schools are still not allowed to teach them. Schools in California have already begun adding ethnic studies to their offerings, and there is an urgent push to capitalize on this moment.
Santa Ana Unified School District recently approved an ethnic studies graduation requirement for its high school students. Parents, students and teachers in Anaheim and Fullerton have petitioned for more ethnic studies classes there, but it will take years to incorporate into the classroom, and some parents just can’t wait.
Marlha Sanchez of Santa Ana is one of multitudes of parents who have taken a look at their local schools and passed when it came time to enroll their children. She decided instead to start an alternative school that is both culturally sensitive and small, to give individual care to each student.
“I really wanted to give them what I didn’t get,” Sanchez said from the multi-generational home that serves as home base for Unidos Homeschool Cooperative. She attended both private and public schools in Santa Ana.
The curriculum for her 15 students, ranging in age from 12 months to 13 years, includes lessons in Spanish, English and Nahuatl. There are lessons in cultural traditions, including dance. Children read books that reaffirm the historical contributions of Indigenous and Latinx people, such as one they recently read on Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark court case that desegregated California schools a full seven years before Brown v. Board of Education did so nationwide.
For Sanchez, the school is small enough and lessons are paced so that no student will be left behind, something she believed happened to her when she was a student.
“All of our kids deserve a place where they are lifted and celebrated,” she said.
There’s growing evidence that incorporating ethnic studies into regular classrooms benefits all students, giving them a stronger foundational knowledge, and moves the focus away from the Eurocentric model most U.S. schools traditionally follow. In Tucson, for example, 48% of Latino students were dropping out of high school. Students who enrolled in the Mexican American studies classes all graduated, and more than 80% attended college.
For populations of students who have not done well in a traditional school setting, ethnic studies can give them that critical push they might be craving, said UC Irvine School of Education assistant professor Emily Penner.
Penner and Stanford’s Thomas Dee took a group of ninth-graders in San Francisco schools who had GPAs below 2.0 and gave them ethnic studies classes as well as traditional classes. They compared them at the end of the school year to students who had scores just above 2.0 but who had not taken the special classes. The students were chosen only on grade point average, not on any other factors such as ethnicity or socio-economic level.
What they found led the school district in 2014 to expand the ethnic studies classes to all its high schools. Students improved their GPAs, attendance and credits earned, Penner said. Their grades went up 1.4 points, from a D to a C+.
“It sounds like the courses did a lot to connect students to their own background,” Penner said. “They connected them to their own histories, and it was a transformative experience.”
The courses in general provided more opportunities for critical learning, which was key for keeping all students engaged regardless of race or ethnicity. The challenge to bringing these classes to more schools, Penner said, will be teacher training, because everyone brings their own biases. We are all products of our education system. There could be implicit biases that keep teachers from fully embracing ethnic studies.
So should schools bring on these classes? Should they simply increase the literature offerings from a wider group of authors, or should they dismantle the system that so many believe do not treat all students fairly?
Penner found that white students benefited just as much as students of color, which should answer any concerns about leaving white students out or lowering any standards.
Just as calls to “defund the police” have opened discussions to rethink how laws are enforced, calls for dismantling the traditional school structures, or at least for a rethinking of the traditional school model, have increased. One hurdle to conquer will be how teachers themselves are educated, Penner said.
There is much work to be done, school district by school district, textbook by textbook. In Irvine, the school district is evaluating training and policies for institutional bias; parents in Fullerton have asked the school board to take a deep dive into current policies to determine the racial impact on students and also asked that it recruit and retain more educators of color. The Anaheim Elementary School District is working to incorporate ethnic studies into its curriculum.
At every turn, there will be challenges to figure out how these classes should be taught and what material to include. It will take all hands on deck from parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and the community at large to determine what is taught and how, but we are in a moment unlike anything we have seen.
In the process, said UC Irvine assistant professor Brandy Gatlin, there will be a more student-centered and student-driven curriculum, with less focus on standardized testing.
When I was a reporter for a newspaper working in Costa Mesa in the early 1990s, I volunteered at a local middle school to help young Latinas improve their reading skills. There were matrices to complete, requirements to meet. I’d meet the students, a group of about eight, in the school library at lunchtime once a week.
After about the fourth week, I was greeted by a vice principal, who asked me, “Why do Mexican girls have their babies so young?”
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She later approached the group while we were helping one of the students struggling with the words. The others were helping her sound out each syllable, with giggles, as they sat next to her. The vice principal interrupted and said to me, “Don’t let them cheat. They’re cheating.” She quickly walked away.
The girls looked at each other and stopped reading. The bell rang and they went back to class. It seemed that this had not been their first encounter with this administrator.
I returned the next week and the week after that, but the students no longer showed up for tutoring. I have no idea whether they were able to finish those components or how they did in their classes. I often wondered what a different school culture and a curriculum that reflected their history would have looked like to them — one that embraced them as learners, as students with every right to roam the halls and libraries of their school, ask questions and receive full, honest answers.
The movement happening now — if it can bring on real change — is long overdue.