The Time for Ethnic Studies is Now
California has one of the largest and most diverse student populations in the nation. Over 71 percent of California’s students are ethnic minority; over half are Latino. There is ongoing concern about closing racial/ethnic achievement gaps, and about building cross-racial understanding. What is often not understood is that ethnic studies helps to address both concerns.
Over the past two decades, very little attention done into making California’s curriculum more reflective of Californians. In 2002, I analyzed the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools for its racial/ethnic representation. I found the 96 Americans named for study were 77% White, 18% African American, 4% Native American, 1% Latino, and 0% Asian American. All Latino and all but one Native American names appeared at the elementary level. AB 101 specifically addresses this absence of racial/ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos, in the state’s social science curriculum.
Textbooks marketed nationally mirror the pattern of racial/ethnic imbalance. I and a team of graduate students just finished analyzing 20 textbooks (ten in reading/language arts and ten in history/social science) for grades 3-10 published by large companies (such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin). In reading/language arts, we found pictorial representation of Whites to range from 37-73%, African Americans from 9-33%, Latinos from 1-12 %, American Indians from 0-13%, and Asian Americans from 2-11%. In history/social science, representation of Whites ranged from 41-80%, African Americans from 2-28%, Latinos from 0-4%, American Indians from 1-10%, and Asian Americans from 0-8%. What is important to realize is that while White students almost always see people like themselves in the majority and depicted in a wide variety of positive roles – especially in the social sciences – students of color may not see people like themselves at all, and when they do, representations are much less varied and sometimes stereotyped. Students of color, especially the older they get, notice and react to gaps, absences, and silences, often by viewing school as boring, sometimes by protesting.
Research finds ethnic studies to have a positive impact on students. In 2011, the National Education Association commissioned me to review the research on the impact of ethnic studies on students. I gathered all studies I could locate that reported data. Studies of 15 out of 16 programs (which ranged from single lessons to full semesters) produced a positive impact in at least one of the following areas: academic engagement, academic achievement, and personal empowerment.
Ethnic studies also has a positive impact on cross-racial understanding. In 2011, Ogo Okoye-Johnson reported in the Journal of Black Studies a meta-analysis of 30 studies of the impact of a multicultural curriculum on racial attitudes of PreK-12 students. She found that multicultural curriculum that is part of the school’s regular programming has a more powerful positive impact on students’ racial attitudes, with large effect sizes, than extracurricular cultural programming. In other words, building it into the regular curriculum, as AB 101 would do, can help build cross-racial understanding.
On January 8, 2015, Assembly Member Luis Alejo introduced Assembly bill AB 101. It passed the Assembly June 3, and is now on its way to the Senate. AB 101 would require the state Superintendent “to oversee the development of, and the state board to adopt, a model curriculum to ensure quality courses in ethnic studies. . . .[and] authorize each school district maintaining any of grades 7 to 12, inclusive, to offer, as an elective course in the social sciences, a course of study in ethnic studies based on the model curriculum.” What does research say about the significance of this bill?
Christine Sleeter is a former professor at California State University, Monterey Bay.
The bill passed the Assembly and the Senate. It was vetoed by Governor Brown.
The effort to change the History/Social Science Framework continues.
An edited version of this opinion piece was published in the Sacramento Bee http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/soapbox/article37838244.html
The title was: The Time for Ethnic Studies is Now.