In San Francisco high schools, students taking an ethnic studies course improved attendance and overall grades. Students identified as “at risk” – in this case, not a code word for race or poverty, but rather a designation for entering high school students with an eighth grade GPA below 2.0 — were automatically enrolled in the course, according to the Stanford researchers who studied 1,405 students in three high schools from 2010 to 2014.
Here’s how the Stanford news release described the ethnic studies course:
“The ethnic studies course offered in San Francisco focuses on the experiences and identities of racial and ethnic minorities, uses cultural references in teaching and aims to enhance social and political awareness. In one lesson, for example, teachers ask students to look at the role of advertising in reinforcing cultural stereotypes and the idea that some values and people are ‘normal’ while others are not.”
The abstract of the study (the study itself is behind a paywall) concludes:
“Our results indicate that assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students.”
Ethnic studies course have been targeted for attack in Tucson and other places across the country. The Stanford researchers – Thomas Dee and Emily Penner – describe them as a form of “culturally relevant pedagogy,” and their paper explores several reasons that might help at-risk students to achieve. One example is that culturally relevant pedagogy reduces stereotype threat – “the anxiety created by the expectation of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype.” Other factors include affirming “belongingness in school,” affirming student identities, drawing on students’ already-existing cultural competencies, and promoting engagement with both curriculum and community.
Penner and Dee trace the history of culturally relevant pedagogy back to the Freedom Schools of the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement and forward to the current denunciations of ethnic studies programs as divisive and un-American. The San Francisco ethnic studies course runs for a year. Here’s how the research paper describes it:
“Units focused on themes of social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements from U.S. history spanning the late 18th century until the 1970s. The course also encouraged students ‘to explore their individual identity, their family history, and their community history’ and required students to design and implement service learning projects based on their study of their local community.” (p. 11)
The students in the sample group were 60 percent of Asian descent, 23 percent Hispanic and only 6 percent black. While students who were not “at-risk” (low GPA) also enrolled in the ethnic studies course, the study measured the results for at-risk students. The reduced drop-out rate and improved performance and credit completion rates were especially noticeable in male students and Hispanics, though Asian students also showed improvement.
This ethnic studies program was well-designed and carefully implemented, with “a core group of dedicated teachers, engaging in a regular professional learning community, with outside support from experts in the subject to create and sustain the program.” (p. 25) While results might not be so dramatic in all programs, the researchers conclude that “culturally relevant pedagogy can be extraordinarily effective in supporting the academic progression of struggling students.”