Social Studies

Ethnic Studies Classes Gain Steam in Calif., Beyond

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 04, 2016 3 min read
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More of California’s school districts are beginning to offer ethnic studies courses in high school, despite the fact that a law that would have required all districts in the state to offer the course was vetoed last fall, according to EdSource California.

The school district in Portland, Ore., will also begin offering ethnic studies starting in 2018, after the district’s school board voted to approve the course last night.

The West Coast efforts are the latest evidence of a growing push around the country to teach academic subjects with a focus on the contributions of ethnic communities.

Ethnic studies courses in the United States first started taking off in universities during the civil rights movement, when college students started pushing for history and other subjects to be taught with the perspectives of nonwhite students in mind.

The high school courses are also often created as a result of student and community activism: In the Portland school district, a student organization, Asian Pacific Islander Leaders for the Liberation of Youth, or ALLY, pushed for the changes. And in California, Ethnic Studies Now! has pushed for and tracked the progress of the courses.

There’s been some dispute about whether the subject has a place in public schools. Supporters of ethnic studies courses in California were dealt a blow late last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have required districts to teach the course in the fall of 2015.

In Arizona, the legislature banned ethnic studies courses, and the topic has remained controversial. Last summer, the state’s education superintendent Diane Douglas said in a statement that she supported the state law: “As the country gets excited about the Confederate flag on the capitol in South Carolina, I don’t see why they also would not want to do away with academic segregation and teaching people by their ethnicity rather than as children under the laws of the land and in the sight of God.”

But advocates for ethnic studies were bolstered by a Stanford study of ethnic studies classes in San Francisco released earlier this year, which indicated that the courses had a strong positive impact on the students who took them.

It’s unclear exactly how many districts and states are teaching ethnic studies, according to Ravi Perry, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies. Some districts and individual schools have offered courses in topics like Mexican studies or African-American studies for decades, but no one organization has tracked where the courses are offered.

The courses also tend to look different from city to city, with local areas tending to focus on the contributions of local communities, Perry said. Even in Los Angeles, where the district’s board voted in 2014 to require high schools to offer ethnic studies, most courses have so far focused on just one ethnic or racial group and different schools have offered different courses. Los Angeles is planning to offer a standard survey course in ethnic studies starting in the fall, according to EdSource.

Perry said that curricular diversity is a strength of ethnic studies. But the Stanford researchers have suggested that districts start small and create small programs with curricular integrity.

The National Association for Ethnic Studies plans to survey where programs have been established and what’s being taught in the coming months, Perry said.

Just a fraction of districts in California (17 out of nearly 1,000) offer ethnic studies courses, and even fewer (seven) require the subject. But it seems clear that the programs will be at least considered in more states and schools across the country: Kansas’ legislature considered adding an ethnic studies requirement earlier this year, though the bill did not pass. A bill being considered in Colorado would require U.S. history classes to touch on the contribution of American Indians, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. And California’s state’s legislature is considering a new bill that would require high schools to teach ethnic studies by 2020-21.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.