Stanford’s Distorted Research Behind California’s New Ethnic Studies Requirement
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 101, a bill requiring high school students in California to take an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school.
It’s been a controversial idea in California for a long time. Newsom’s predecessor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar measure in 2015; in 2020, Newsom himself vetoed an earlier version of AB 101 after Jewish groups said the law contained anti-Semitic elements.
So why was AB 101 successful this time around? On Friday, October 8, when the bill was signed, Gov. Newsom’s office cited research conducted by Thomas Dee, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Dee’s work claims to show that ethnic studies classes “help expand educational opportunities in schools, teach students about the diverse communities that make up California, and stimulate academic engagement and achievement.”
These are noble claims for any scientific study, and I was immediately skeptical. In recent years, “scientific” studies have been used to justify everything from critical race theory to the elimination of advanced math lessons in high school. There is a dangerous conveyor belt transporting questionable “social science” academic studies straight from universities to legislative bodies.
But Dee’s article was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which is one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. So I decided to read the study with an open mind.
What I found disappointed me. The conclusions of the study are narrow and only apply to a very specific subset of students. In 2010, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) started an Ethnic Studies pilot project that automatically assigned a group of underachieving Grade 9 students to an ethnic studies class. Students were placed in this category if their grade 8 GPA was less than 2.0.
Dee and his colleagues have followed this group, which is obviously not representative of the average high school population in California. As a result, although the study found a statistically significant association between participation in grade 9 ethnic studies and improved high school graduation, this finding may only apply to close students. of the 2.0 GPA threshold. Additionally, the demographics of the student sample in Dee’s study were very skewed, especially when it came to ethnicity. Sixty percent of the students in the sample were Asian. For context, the latest data shows that statewide, only about 9.3% of public school students in California are Asian.
It makes no sense to use these limited results to justify an ethnic education requirement for all California high school students. But don’t take my word for it: the authors themselves qualify their findings, writing that “because this research design takes advantage of the course’s targeting to academically at-risk students, our inferences may not generalize to students. students who have obtained an average above the 8th year. . ”
They continue: “Require large-scale availability of ES [ethnic studies] through policy without thoughtful curriculum development and teacher training may not replicate the educational gains we document here. For anyone who has followed the drama surrounding the development of California’s ethnic studies curriculum, the process has been anything but thoughtful. Previous versions of the proposed curriculum were widely criticized for being anti-Semitic, and students were required to memorize terms such as “cicheteropatriarchy” and “hxrstory,” while learning that capitalism is a form of power and oppression.
The program has been revised, but the latest version is not much better. The list of sample lessons published by the California Department of Education, which includes titles such as “Native American Mascots” and “Afrofuturism: Reimagining Black Futures and Science Fiction,” looks more like a Christmas wish list. critical race theorist than to a carefully crafted academic plan. .
Despite the obvious limitations of Dee’s study, Governor Newsom, other Democratic lawmakers in California, and a whole phalanx of education policy researchers quickly grasped the passage of AB 101 and describe as a victory for evidence-based research. The bill is in fact the opposite of evidence-based research that informs politics: it represents a crude interpretation of academic results intended to lend scientific legitimacy to a political project. Dee’s study clearly focused on underachieving and predominantly Asian students. While these students may have benefited from the programs in his study, using this research to justify a statewide requirement is a serious stretch, especially in light of the ridiculous program the state is planning. actually to use.
The American public is right to be wary of politicians who call indiscriminately on our class of experts to develop “objective” justifications for their ideas. So the next time you see policy justified by academic research – especially in the social sciences and humanities – think twice about what the research actually says and decide for yourself whether the findings warrant the proposed intervention. . In too many cases, it’s easy to see that they don’t.