Ethnic Studies Promotes Understanding, Higher Academic Achievement

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Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, as understood through the perspectives of major underrepresented racial groups. It draws upon many disciplines to foster cross-cultural understanding -- and help students to value their own cultural identity while appreciating the differences around them. From campaigns to require schools to offer ethnic studies courses, to efforts to change the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders, students and educators around the country are mobilizing to include voices and stories of the diverse ethnicities that have contributed to the history and culture of the United States.

Educators push back locally against invisibility of Native Americans in schools

February 25, 2020

By Félix Pérez, photo above of Alaska Native teacher Kristi McEwen with Native dance paraphernalia.

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Information about Native Americans is either completely absent from public schools or relegated to brief mentions, inaccurate portrayals or negative stereotypes, concludes a groundbreaking analysis of state efforts to deliver high quality, contemporary and tribally specific educational content about Native peoples into K-12 classrooms.

“The invisibility of Native peoples and the erasure of contemporary Native Americans’ contributions, innovations, and accomplishments in K-12 education fuels harmful biases in generation after generation of Americans who grow up learning a false, distorted narrative about Native Americans in most schools,” according to the report by the National Congress of American Indians.



Ed Dept. Threat to Middle Eastern Studies Program Deprives Educators, Students, Says Teacher

October 4, 2019

By Félix Pérez

In what is being described as an “overly ideological” overreach that could stifle academic freedom, the U.S. Education Department has threatened to strip the funding of the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies.

Tinisha Shaw, a member of the first cohort of teachers to go through the yearlong program, says the criticism by Betsy DeVos’ department that the consortium didn’t present enough “positive aspects” of Christianity, Judaism and other religions reflects a lack of understanding of the program.

“Never in one conversation or in any of the sessions – because I am a Christian and my grandmother’s a preacher and my momma’s a preacher — never, not once, was there anything said against Christianity or Judaism,” says Shaw, a 13-year teacher granted a consortium fellowship during the 2016-17 school year along with 20 other teachers from North Carolina. “A lot of times there were even discussions about how Christianity and Judaism and Islam work together,” adds the Greensboro educator.


Community Campaign Key to Passage of Bill Requiring Ethnic Studies Curriculum in CT High Schools

August 5, 2019
By Michael Blain

All Connecticut high schools will be required to offer an elective course in African American, Puerto Rican and Latino history by 2022 under a bill passed by the state General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont in June.

Passage of the bill follows months of organizing and mobilizing by students, educators and advocacy groups, including impassioned testimony by more than 200 people at a public hearing in March. The hearing featured testimony from dozens of students; no one testified in opposition.

“This bill is important to me because knowing your history gives importance and a sense of identity and self worth,” testified Shane Brooks, a student at the Science & Technology Magnet High School and New London High School in New London, CT. “Going to a public school with a lack of African American studies being taught in the school system made me feel irrelevant and unheard.”



What's in a school name?

More than 100 schools across the country are still named after Confederate leaders, and over a quarter of those have predominately African American student bodies. In many communities, students, educators, parents and community activists are increasingly challenging whether Americans should continue to honor in public places people who fought to perpetuate human slavery.

These efforts gained momentum in the summer of 2017, as pressure mounted in state after state to remove Confederate monuments. Many students and educators took inspiration from these efforts, and began to look at the names of their schools.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a mother and daughter sparked an effort to change a school name from honoring the president of the Confederacy; students voted overwhelmingly to name the school after Barack Obama. In Minneapolis, students are driving an effort to rename Patrick Henry High School, after learning that the school’s namesake and revolutionary leader was also a slave owner.

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In some instances, rather than re-naming an existing school, activists have organized to influence the process for naming a new school. In April 2018, the Montgomery County, Md., Board of Education voted to name a new elementary school after Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., making the school the first in the state to be named after an openly gay person.


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Students, Educators Mobilize in Support of Ethnic Studies Programs

Irregardless of geography, state-level politics, or opponents who seek to stoke race-based fears, educators and students around the country are finding ways to organize, build strong coalitions, and help establish new ethnic studies programs, or pass legislation requiring schools to offer some ethnic studies courses.

In Arizona, years of hard work by faculty, staff, students and community members paid off in 2017 when Pima Community College launched its Department of Ethnic, Gender & Transborder Studies. The opening of the department coincided with the reversal of a 2012 court ruling which essentially banned as unconstitutional the teaching of Mexican-American Studies in Arizona K-12 classrooms. The federal judge who reversed the ruling found that it violated students’ constitutional rights and that those who worked to end Mexican American Studies were “motivated by racial animus” and “by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.”

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In Indiana, the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) worked closely with the NAACP in supporting a law requiring Indiana high schools to offer ethnic and racial studies as an elective course at least once a year. Its surprising passage by the very conservative Indiana state legislatures was the culmination of a four-year, multi-racial campaign.

In California, social studies teacher and NEA member Jose Lara and a coalition of activists spearheaded the fight for the state’s game-changing ethnic studies bill. The first of its kind in the country, the landmark bill ordered the creation of a model ethnic studies course for high school students statewide.

And in Seattle, the NAACP, inspired by the adoption of ethnic studies programs for the city of Portland and the entire state of California, worked closely with students and a broad coalition of Washington educators to craft a similar resolution for Seattle’s schools. The proposal aims to make ethnic studies a mandatory part of curriculum by 2020.

Advocates point to a Stanford University study which found that attendance increased by 21%, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and earned credits by 23 for San Francisco high school students enrolled in ethnic studies courses.


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By Kate Snyder

One of the great opportunities in education is to find a way to challenge students to critically think about their own experiences and about the experiences of others. One of the main tenets of Ethnic Studies curriculum is to have students understand different systems of oppression, not just race.

“Ethnic Studies and social justice are a critical lens through which we can get a new perspective on history, so we are not doomed to repeat it,” said Ivan Viray Santos, who, with his colleagues from the New Haven Unified School District in California, was instrumental in developing high school curriculum for Ethnic Studies Departments, including an Ethnic Studies/Social Justice pathway with some classes available as early as the 7th grade.

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Ethnic Studies Toolkit

Check out the resource toolkit at that was helpful in campaigns to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement at two of the largest school districts in California.

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Research Review

A comprehensive review of research on ethnic studies programs by the NEA Research Department found that diversity courses boost critical thinking, academic achievement and problem-solving skills.

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This series by James W. Loewen, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, tackles problems in history that we often teach wrong — and how these are barriers to racial justice.

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