Ethnic Studies Classes Benefit Underachieving Non-White Students
SCERTAIN CONSERVATIVES have been on a mission to remove critical race theory from classrooms. Described by these advocates as any course that tackles subjects through the prism of racial identities (which goes well beyond the original definition used by critical theorists themselves), they argue that this approach to pedagogy is source of division. Eight states have passed laws banning these discussions in classrooms. Six have proposed similar legislation, or plan to do so. Some teachers say they are now worried about discussing race with their students. But there is a trade-off here: according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suppressing discussion of race in the classroom could put some underachieving students at a disadvantage.
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The study shows that the San Francisco Ethnic Studies Program, a program for ninth grade students (who are around 14 years old) that is designed to focus on the history of underprivileged communities and encourages a focus on social issues, had benefits beyond what was learned in the classroom. Sade Bonilla of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and colleagues show that the program increased high school attendance by 6 to 7 percentage points, course credits earned up to 15 points (equivalent to approximately 3 courses) and l high school graduation 16 -19 percentage points.
The researchers were able to study the effect of the program on lower performing students by comparing children required to enroll (due to a GPA of less than 2.0 in the previous year) with those slightly equal or above. with a grade point average of 2.0 who were not required to enroll. The study follows an article published in 2017 (by two authors of this study) showing that the same program also improved short-term outcomes: ninth grade attendance, cumulative grade point average, and credits earned increased. are all improved.
The San Francisco School District began its ethnic studies pilot program in the 2010-11 school year, with faculty members from San Francisco State University. The majority of the students in the study (1,405 in total) were not white: 60% were Asian, 23% Hispanic, 6% black, and 5% white. Due to the small sample of black and white students, the researchers were unable to draw any conclusions about these groups.
The program focused on a variety of topics: race as a social construct, the history of eugenics, federal discrimination in housing and others. He also taught the students the practices to fight against racism and oppression: walking, voting, campaigning. Students were encouraged to think of ways to combat racism in their own communities.
The results are encouraging. Improving high school graduation is no small feat. Students who graduate from high school enjoy higher wages, greater accumulation of wealth, and better health outcomes. But these positive results are unlikely to influence everyone. The program improved the results of low-performing Asian and Hispanic students, but the study could not measure an effect on other students: top-performing students or white students, for example.
California has decided to require the graduation course for all, starting in 2030. But there are risks in expanding the pilot programs, and not just because the program has not yet proven to be effective. for everyone. There are also quality concerns. The San Francisco program was taught by teachers who chose to offer the program and received extensive training. Educators who reluctantly teach the program with less training would likely not have the same effect.
Yet the San Francisco program was clearly successful in motivating underachieving students who were otherwise uninterested in their schooling, says Bonilla. These at-risk students began to engage more deeply in their schoolwork and may even have attended college at higher rates. “The course seems to really engage them and get them to focus on school,” she explains. “And not just in their ethnic studies class, but in science, math[s] and everywhere. Unfortunately for underachieving students in the eight states now prohibiting Critical Race Theory, such instruction may not be permitted in their schools. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Race and class”