Equity & Diversity Commentary

Ethnic Studies and the Struggle in Tucson

By Christine Sleeter — February 15, 2012 3 min read

In January, the board of the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona voted to dismantle Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program to avoid losing much-needed state funding. Following that, books that had been used in the program were declared in violation of the state’s law banning ethnic studies and were removed from classrooms, in effect censoring Mexican-American knowledge. On Feb. 1, the Network of Teacher Activist Groups launched a national campaign to fight back.

What many Americans do not realize is that the program that was dismantled had been extraordinarily successful in graduating Latino students and sending them to college. Nationally, Latino students drop out of high school at a much higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group—about 18 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Among Latinos, aged 18 to 24, 27 percent have not graduated from high school, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Nationally, the college-enrollment rate of Latinos, while at an all-time high, is only 32 percent—lower than that of other racial and ethnic groups, according to the same study.

In contrast, students completing Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program graduate high school and enter college at a higher rate in a district that is 60 percent Latino.

Over a 13-year period, the program served 6,438 students (5,726 of whom were Latino, and 712 of whom were not Latino). On Arizona’s achievement tests in reading, writing, and math, its students also outscore students of all racial and ethnic groups in the same schools but not in that program—a remarkable record. As schools nationwide struggle to close racial achievement gaps, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be one from which we are learning.

The success of Tucson’s program is supported by social-psychology research documenting that black and Latino students who have a strong, positive ethnic identity and an understanding of racism and how it can be challenged tend to take education more seriously than those who do not. The National Education Association commissioned me to review data-based research on the impact of ethnic studies on students. Of the 16 studies I was able to locate, 15 found a positive impact on student learning.

Many people assume (incorrectly) that saying the word ‘racism’ creates racism, rather than creating conditions that enable us to understand and confront it."

Three studies documented high student engagement when literature by authors of those students’ ethnic backgrounds was used; five ethnic-studies literacy curricula produced significant growth in students’ reading and writing skills; two American Indian studies curricula improved math and science achievement for American Indian students; and five curricula in other subject areas (particularly social studies) improved their academic achievement and their sense of personal empowerment.

Then why was the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson terminated? And why did Arizona ban ethnic studies? I believe the core issue is fear of the knowledge Mexican-American students find precious and empowering. Ethnic studies names racism and helps students examine how racism works in their everyday lives, how it was constructed historically, and how it can be challenged. For students of color, ethnic studies draws on knowledge from within racially oppressed communities, and affirms what students know from everyday life, taking the concerns of students seriously and treating them as intellectuals. In so doing, well-designed programs (like Tucson’s), taught by well-prepared teachers who believe in their students, connect students’ ethnic identity with academic learning and a sense of purpose that takes racism into account.

Wait! I may have lost some of you by using the taboo words “racism” and “oppressed communities.” The problem is that these are realities students rarely study. Many people assume (incorrectly) that saying the word “racism” creates racism, rather than creating conditions that enable us to understand and confront it. My review of research found considerable evidence that ethnic studies benefits students of all racial backgrounds because, while young people see racial disparities in the world around them, they rarely encounter systematic instruction that helps them understand why disparities exist and what can be done to change them. Ethnic studies helps all of us examine racism, the elephant in the room many of us are afraid to name.

Dismantling a program that has demonstrated enormous academic benefits for Latino students because some people find it threatening feels to me like racism. So does censoring knowledge that resonates with conditions of life Mexican-American students experience every day. Censorship, which supports ignorance, flies in the face of education in a democracy. The banning of ethnic studies must be challenged, and Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be restored.


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