True Colors: How Ethnic Studies Courses Can Help Minority High School Students

The American public education system is failing a large number of its students. For example, Black and Hispanic students have fallen two to three years behind their white peers in Math. They are also more likely to be labeled as having learning disabilities and twice as likely to drop out of school. As the proportion of white students declines, our inability to serve racial minority students is a significant public policy priority.

Ethnic Studies (ES) courses are a potential avenue for improving outcomes for racial minority students. An ES course is a class focused on the historical struggles and social movements of ethnic minorities. The courses attempt to use student culture in classroom practices and increase “cultural competence and social and political awareness.” In states like Arizona, however, these programs have become contentious and are characterized as a promotion of “the overthrow of the US government,” “resentment towards a race or class of people,” and “ethnic solidarity.” Meanwhile, states like California and Texas have embraced these courses as a way to increase the success of their students of color.

It is in this context that Thomas Dee and Emily Penner have situated their current research evaluating the effectiveness of ES courses. Their NBER working paper, titled The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence From an Ethnic Studies Curriculum, looks at data from 1,405 students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). During the time of the study, the SFUSD was offering an ES course in ninth grade to students whose eighth grade GPA was below 2.0. Given this sharp cutoff, they were able to use individuals just above and below the cutoff, in lieu of random assignment. We therefore can compare the two groups in the same way we would compare a random assignment sample. In the SFUSD, the ES course focused on social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements in US history.

Importantly, students were not required to take the ES course. Students with a GPA below 2.0 were encouraged and automatically enrolled, but could opt out. Additionally, some students with a GPA above 2.0 requested to enroll in the course. Even with this imperfect program compliance, Dee and Penner found that the ES course increased attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned (courses taken) by 23 credits. Based on an analysis of program effects on demographic indicators, they also found that the program was most successful for male students and Hispanic students, and that impacts were only significant for those who were below the GPA threshold, indicating that those who requested to take the course were not greatly affected by it.

Though the researchers found the ES course to have a significant impact, it is worth noting that these findings cannot be expanded to a wider population of students. Because of the methodology used, the findings are only valid for students right along the GPA cutoff. Additionally, because the SFUSD implemented a very specific program, other programs in schools with significantly different student bodies may not be as effective. It is also possible that the program itself was not effective; rather, its success came from the ability to buffer students against stereotype threats, given the similarity between this course and methods for reducing the impact of stereotype threats on students. The argument behind stereotype threats and academic achievement is that a student’s fear of confirming negative stereotypes about his or her social group lowers intellectual performance, particularly in regards to standardized tests. The strategies for helping students overcome these threats are almost identical to the ES program.

This research provides a promising foundation for further inquiry into scaling up an ES curriculum. However, it is worth keeping in mind both the methodological limitations and the political constraints mentioned earlier. San Francisco might be a uniquely supportive environment for a program like this to flourish. Not every school district is located in a town, city, or state that might support this kind of differentiation in curriculum.

Article Source: Dee, Thomas, and Emily Penner. “The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers 21865, 2016.

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Mikia Manley
Mikia Manley is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in education policy.

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