Curriculum Opinion

Can Ethnic Studies Courses Help Students Succeed in School? Evidence From San Francisco

By Urban Education Contributor — July 31, 2017 5 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership (@StanfordSFUSD). This post is by Thomas S. Dee, Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (@StanfordEd) and Director of the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA @StanfordCEPA), and Emily K. Penner, Assistant Professor in the School of Education (@UCIEducation) at UC Irvine.

The Stanford-SFUSD Partnership previously blogged about the effects of Transitional Kindergarten in San Francisco and how these research findings impacted practice.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

Decades of highly influential, qualitative scholarship have examined how culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) and curricula can unlock the academic potential of historically underserved students. This research stresses the importance of aligning classroom content to students’ out-of-school experiences, affirming students’ cultural competencies and developing their social and political awareness. However, until recently, there has been relatively little quantitative evidence on the educational impact of culturally relevant practices. Furthermore, practitioners who have sought to introduce culturally relevant pedagogy into their schools and classrooms often face strong political headwinds. Perhaps the most prominent examples are the contentious debates over the adoption of “ethnic studies” courses and content materials.

Seeking promising avenues for supporting its diverse students, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) began an ethnic studies pilot program, explicitly referencing the promise of ethnic studies courses to support the academic potential of its students. Five high schools participated in the pilot, offering a year-long, ninth-grade ethnic studies course between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years. District leaders then looked for evidence about the effects of the program to inform their decisions about the program’s future which we provided through the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership.

SFUSD’s ethnic studies course stressed the use of culturally relevant pedagogy as a way to engage with students that had previously felt marginalized by the traditional curricula. It examined histories and political struggles from the perspectives of multiple race/ethnic groups. The course also encouraged students to explore their individual identities and required them to design and implement service-learning projects in their local community.

The Study

The ethnic studies pilot implementation allowed us to estimate the causal effects of the course on several grade-9 outcomes with clear relevance to school persistence (i.e., attendance, GPA, and credits earned). In five school-year cohorts of entering 9th graders (n=1405), students identified by an early warning indicator because they had an eighth grade GPA below 2.0 or an attendance rate below 87.5% were encouraged to take the ethnic studies course. In practice, virtually every student flagged by the early warning indicator had a GPA below 2.0, so we focus particularly on that margin.

Our research design, called a Regression Discontinuity Design, effectively compares those who were just eligible for encouragement to take the ethnic studies course (i.e., 8th GPA below 2.0) to those who were just ineligible for this assignment (i.e., 8th grade GPA at 2.0 or above). Regression Discontinuity Designs make the critical assumption that students just above and below the 2.0 threshold are the same on all features except their slightly-different GPAs and that their locations just above and below this threshold are conditionally random. Our tests suggest that these assumptions hold.


The ethnic studies course had dramatic effects on all of the outcomes we examined. Results indicate that taking ethnic studies increased attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23 credits (or roughly four courses). These effects are quite large for school-based interventions; however, some of these striking gains are likely to reflect reductions in dropping out as well as gains in the performance of enrolled students. In addition, our estimates are defined for students close to the 2.0 GPA threshold who are at considerable academic risk, so larger academic gains are possible.


The results of this study have helped to inform SFUSD policy, as well as district and state policy elsewhere. The district used these results to inform their decision to broaden the program to all SFUSD high schools. In 2016, Governor Brown of California signed a bill requiring the state to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum and encouraging all school districts and charters in the state to offer the course beginning in 2020.

As the SFUSD program matures, there is still much to be learned. For example, we hope to study the longer-term effects of this 9th grade course on later outcomes including high school graduation and college matriculation. We are also discussing with our SFUSD partners how to assess their efforts to engage the serious implementation challenges around replicating and scaling this effective pilot. We are also hopeful that the lessons from our partnership research will contribute meaningfully to policy debates nationwide.

Additionally, we believe that partnerships like ours have their greatest impact when they also contribute to generalizable knowledge. Our study led us to believe that there is a potentially compelling intellectual synthesis between culturally relevant pedagogy and the growing literature on how social-identity dynamics such as “stereotype threat” influence learning. Promising social-psychological interventions have varied active ingredients: forewarning about stereotypes, affirming students’ values, and external attribution for personal challenges. Ethnic studies courses appear to embed all of these features simultaneously (and do so in a year-long course rather than in a brief intervention). Growing the evidence base on how such culturally-relevant practices may relate to educationally-relevant psychological processes is an important goal.

Research-Practice Partnerships provide propitious settings for engaging such issues and advancing a research base that meaningfully informs the policies and practices of practitioners.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.