How Ethnic Studies Programs Boost Academic Performance of At-Risk Youth

It's proven: Instead of focusing on the dominant culture, programs that reflect a more diverse world can help keep teens in school.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

What does it take to keep at-risk teenagers engaged in school? Sometimes it can be as straightforward as offering programs that reflect a more diverse, inclusive world back at them.

Such were the findings of a recent study out of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The study’s researchers looked at the outcomes of a set of struggling students who took part in pilot ethnic studies courses in San Francisco’s public high schools, and found that the students enrolled in these courses showed dramatic improvement in their performance at school—not only in their academic work, but in their rates of attendance and course completion.

The San Francisco Unified School District first offered ethnic studies as a pilot program in 2010, hoping to make school more relevant to the district’s student population, which is largely non-white. In 2014, the school board, believing the classes were having an impact, expanded them to all San Francisco high schools.

Ethnic studies courses, which critics call divisive and anti-American, emphasize students’ diverse experiences and identities and aim to enhance students’ social and political awareness. Proponents of the classes say they help to engage young people in school by reflecting their own histories and stories back at them, rather than merely focusing on stories of the dominant culture. Furthermore, supporters argue, the classes offer a more realistic view of the nation's history.

The Stanford study appears to support the proponents’ argument. Co-authored by Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, the study compares the outcomes of students in three area high schools who did take ethnic studies courses with the outcomes of students with similar academic records who did not take such courses. Dee and Penner said they were shocked by the significant gains made by the students enrolled in the classes, and were also surprised to see that those gains came not just in ethnic studies courses, but in other classes as well.

AlterNet spoke with Penner, a postdoctoral researcher at the Graduate School of Education, about the study’s findings, particularly the ripple effect the classes appear to have on students’ overall academic performance. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Wilson: SFUSD officials acknowledge that part of the reason they added ethnic studies classes to the curriculum was to make school more relevant to students. Do you think that’s what it did?

Emily Penner: Yes. I think the whole point of ethnic studies in general, and culturally relevant curriculum more broadly, is to try and focus the content on things that align with students’ out-of-school experiences, and find ways to help students discover their own identities and histories. And also to have content that draws from groups of people not necessarily represented in the standard curriculum. In ethnic studies, that often focuses on political experiences of underrepresented groups, and I think that’s the kind of curriculum students don’t always get to engage with in other courses.

EW: What sort of curriculum did they use in the courses?

EP: There’s a section [of the curriculum] that focus on students learning about their own identities and histories and giving students tools to develop an identity that affirms positive values. Learning about stereotypes and how to protect against some of those stereotypes is a powerful piece of the curriculum. A couple of units focus on students’ identity formation. Other units focus on histories and political struggles of underrepresented groups. They study things like the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers, the protest movement, and different political events like Japanese internment and resistance.

Then there’s a last piece where students go out into the community and talk with community leaders and members to try and identify issues that they are struggling with, and talk about how to address them. So there’s definitely an element of community activism and engagement happening in this class too.

EW: What were the specific gains you saw in the students who took these courses?

EP: The students enrolled in the courses were identified back in eighth grade as having a couple factors that the district thought made them at risk of dropping out in high school. The students taking the course had pretty large gains relatively to the students who didn’t. For example, they had GPAs that were 1.4 grade points higher. To translate that, the students who didn’t take the class were around the D margin and those who did, were closer to the C + margin.

There were other gains besides grades going up. Students taking the classes earned an additional 23 credits, and in San Francisco, that translates to about four additional courses. So again, these are students who were struggling and at the margins of some of their classes, and this course seemed to help push them over the edge. It’s pretty incredible that this kind of course could have ripple effects that impact the students outside of those classrooms.  One reason we think that happened is that it boosted attendance.

EW: For this study, you only looked at at-risk students. Do you think these classes would have similar impact on all students?

EP: We are able to identify the effects of our policy for kids near the 2.0 GPA margin, and that’s where we know the effects can be positive. In terms of thinking about students who are higher performing, we can’t speak to the kind of impacts this program would have on them because we don’t have that data. But besides grades, there are a lot of other impacts we’re not able to measure that people who designed the course think could happen. And they’re the kinds of things that people in the district are very keen to see students engage with—not just attachment to school, but intentions to move on to college and higher education, attitudes of empowerment, community engagement and self identity. Those were things we were not able to measure, but could be positive for students in general based on what I’ve heard about the curriculum. We’ve also heard students have really enjoyed being in the class, so that could apply to students more broadly, and not just our focused sample.

EW: What surprised you when you looked at the results?

EP: When we first saw the size or the magnitude of the results—that stood out the most. We don’t usually see impacts of this magnitude at all. There are so many different kinds of interventions that people have tried to put forward to try and support students who are at this margin of school disengagement from a lot of different urban school districts, and very, very few of them are successful—I’m struggling to come up with one that has been as successful as this one.

Actually, one thing even more surprising is that we found impacts that transferred into classes that had nothing to do with Ethnic Studies. We found large positive impacts on students’ math and science GPAs, for example. That suggests that something about this class got students to try harder, not just in ethnic studies class, but in most of the classes, and that’s pretty cool. I imagine that the pedagogy and something about the relationship the teacher has with the students, something about that interaction was particularly powerful.

EW: What conclusions can educators draw from your findings? What changes should this lead them to make in classrooms/curricula?

EP: Our results suggest that schools and educators should consider offering ethnic studies courses—although we are still not certain what their effects will be on a broader range of students. But we think the SFUSD course was so successful in part because it was implemented with a lot of careful planning, professional development, teacher collaboration, and it had room to grow before we evaluated it. As schools consider offering these types of courses, this level of teacher support and buy-in seems important, at least to launch the course.

Another element that we think is important is that the SFUSD course included pedagogical strategies and content that helped to affirm the identities of the students in the course. This is a key aspect of any culturally relevant curriculum, but this seems like an important thing for educators in other content areas to support as well.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer who teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

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