A new study of failing students has provided “compelling and causally credible evidence” that a curriculum including ethnic studies has the power to “change students’ life trajectories” for the better.
A report based on the success of students enrolled at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” on Monday. The study’s co-author and Stanford University researcher Thomas Dee told The Post the findings demonstrate “classrooms that make historically marginalized students feel valued and welcome can unlock their academic motivation and engagement.”
The findings come as educators, parents, politicians and critics alike debate on the value of so-called critical race theory (CRT), a historically based discourse that calls into question the supremacy of white people by insisting they recognize the ways they have systematically oppressed people of color to gain power — a highly politicized notion as of late.
Co-authors Dee and Emily Penner of the University of California, Irvine launched their study with groups of ninth graders at SFUSD beginning in 2010, all of whom had GPAs at or below 2.0. On average, 90% of them were students of color.
By the end of their nine grade years, many showed improvements in the area of attendance, GPAs and class credits, culminating in a 2017 report by Dee and Penner sharing the academic gains. Yet, they lacked the hindsight at the time that would prove those effects to be long-lasting.
Until now. “Our findings show that the ethnic studies curriculum was able to narrow significant disparities in high school graduation that have long vexxed education systems,” said Sade Bonilla, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst researcher involved with the study. Overall, more than 90% of students involved graduated within five years versus 75% of their peers. Students of ethnic studies were also 15% more likely to enroll in college within six years of ninth grade.
Moreover, regardless of the students’ own ethnicity, “this curriculum emphasizes critical thinking skills and content that has traditionally been ignored in K-12 curricula,” Bonilla emphasized.
Yet some — namely, white parents and lawmakers — have taken schools to task over a belief that programs that include race-based critique have no place in the classroom. But many teachers agree their lessons are based on well-documented facts.
Recently, the two largest teachers’ unions in the US, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers, announced their support of the lessons surrounding critical race theory. At its annual meeting in July, the NEA upheld a proposal stating that it is “reasonable and appropriate for curriculum to be informed by academic frameworks for understanding and interpreting the impact of the past on current society, including critical race theory” and they will create a study plan which “critiques of empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society” are included.
Dee points out the fundamental distinctions when discussing ethnic studies curriculum and CRT. “Both share a posture of frank, critical engagement with US history and institutions,” he told The Post. “However, the ethnic studies course we study emphasized individual as well as institutional dynamics,” such as lessons on stereotyping. Community engagement was also a strong focus of the course.
Bonilla added that “exposing white students” to statistics and policies regarding housing, segregation and civil movements shouldn’t make them feel “unwelcome”; rather these lessons “would seem to serve all students,” according to their research.
In a statement to Stanford University, SFUSD’s assistant superintendent Bill Sanderson said, “The biggest thing that happens in an ethnic studies course, I believe, is that students get to approach an academic course from the perspective of their own experience.
“Everything is approached in the course from the experience of the students,” he observed during the study. Sanderson explained that instructors leading the course aim to tailor discussions to their current students, “to bring relevant curriculum that these students can identify with.”
In tandem with the release of the study, SFUSD also announced that the ethnic studies course would be permanently added to the curriculum, writing in a statement on their website that they are “proud” to offer the course.
“We are committed to teaching the contributions of all people and to ensuring all of our graduates have a strong sense of self,” superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews said.