It’s About Time for Ethnic Studies in Our K-12 Schools

Photograph Source: Melissa Minton – CC BY 2.0

“Why haven’t we been taught this history before?” Students have asked us this question countless times over the past twenty-five years of teaching Latin America Studies and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University. The emotions triggering this question are usually the same. Students feel lied to and cheated. Some are frustrated and downright angry that ethnic studies has been excluded from their schooling. They wonder what else they have been denied and how despite thirteen years in the K-12 educational system they have been taught so little about communities who form the base of the United States and whose presence is integral to California.

After fifty years of community struggle, in this historical moment, California’s elected officials must move forward and ensure that the curricular integrity of the AB2016 Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum remains intact. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Each day, California’s students and communities face the impact of growing economic inequality, gentrification, mass deportations and incarcerations, blatant acts of white supremacy, environmental degradation, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia. Now, more than ever, we need the knowledge that flourishes within ethnic studies and the spaces created within these classes.

The draft model curriculum draws on decades of established scholarship and the expertise of eighteen K-18 California educators who comprise the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee. The curriculum provides students with the critical and analytical tools for learning about navigating the complexities of U.S. society. It offers broad frameworks for understanding historic inequalities, racism, sexism, and heterosexism. With versions of lesson plans and a framework for teachers to create classes that are relevant to their school population, the model curriculum is invaluable for teachers, parents, and students.

While local colleges and universities offer a variety of ethnic studies courses, not all students attend college, and students should not have to wait years before enrolling in an ethnic studies class. Despite decades of struggle and changes in some school districts, there are still few K-12 schools offering ethnic studies. As a result, many students are left sitting in classrooms where their identities, communities, and histories are ignored or misrepresented. Other than very brief selections about U.S. slavery, the California Missions, the Gold Rush, and the Mexican American War, students often learn little else about Blacks, Asian Pacific Islanders Chicanas/os, Central Americans, and Indigenous populations. This is the case despite the fact that students of color are the numeric majority representing over 75% of California public schools.

Ethnic studies emerged as formal academic subject in U.S. colleges and universities over 50 years ago as a result of civil rights and power movements, but its roots are much deeper. The roots of ethnic studies are in Indigenous, African, Mexican, Central American, Asian, and other communities that have passed down knowledge and histories in the midst of colonialism, genocide, enslavement, and other forms of violence. The movements of the 1960s and 1970s forced open the doors of public colleges and universities and led to the creation of ethnic studies. This has resulted in a flourishing body of scholarship and thriving college departments, majors, professional organizations, and overall enhanced knowledge that has shaped understanding of the most pressing issues of our period.

Ethnic studies classes combine analyses of systems of power, privilege and inequality with multiple histories, literatures and contemporary issues. They encourage critical thinking and tackle the historical origins and contemporary patterns of racism, often combining analyses of race, class, nation, gender and sexuality. Pedagogically, they are known for challenging conventional ways of teaching that position students as passive receivers of knowledge. Instead, students are treated as knowledge producers and change agents, and classrooms often extend beyond the school gates where students learn from and work with various communities. These applied approaches to teaching and learning bring education to life and better position students to envision and work toward societal transformation.

Ethnic studies is one of the few places in schools where the daily struggles that students and communities face are placed into a broader historical and economic context. In ethnic studies classrooms students learn about histories of resistance to oppression and how communities have forged coalitions to create a more just society. Unlike traditional curriculum, ethnic studies courses are not Eurocentric nor based simply on a diversity model that touts cultural differences by celebrating holidays, food, and styles of dress. The centering of histories and perspectives of Blacks, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Chicanas/os, Central Americans, and Indigenous populations is especially key because of the still under and misrepresentation of these communities in books, lessons, and the mainstream media.

Years of research confirms what we have observed in the classroom, ethnic studies courses help students see themselves and their families in what they learn. They increase student understanding of how lives are interrelated and influenced by history, politics, and economics. Students learn best when their backgrounds are affirmed, and research on Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Department even found that students completing such courses performed better on standardized tests than their schoolmates who were not enrolled in ethnic studies. In San Francisco, research found that participation in ethnic studies led to improvements in student attendance, credits earned and grade point averages. Likewise, such courses encourage students to be active, critical, and engaged participants in schools and society. Students in these courses often feel inspired to continue their education or to improve communities. Students describe these classes as places where they feel validated, challenged and seen. They see this education as relevant, and they begin envisioning possibilities of change.

Given all that we know about the origins, approaches and benefits of ethnic studies, we call upon our California elected officials to do the right thing and maintain the curricular integrity of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. We cannot allow people far removed from the classroom and the knowledge of ethnic studies to try to incite fear or hatred or dictate the direction of the model curriculum. During this time of growing economic inequality and overt and violent racism, ethnic studies provides the analytical tools to understand too-often erased histories and works to change the larger processes of inequality. It is a relevant curriculum that reflects the histories, experiences, and knowledges of students and their families. It is a crucial step toward ensuring a better California, and delaying its progression yet again sends the wrong message.

Enrique C. Ochoa is Professor of Latin American Studies and History at California State University, Los Angeles and a previous holder of the Michi and Walter Weglyn Endowed Chair of Multicultural Studies at Cal Poly Pomona.

Gilda L. Ochoa is Professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies at Pomona College, and she has taught Chicanas/os-Latinas/os and Education to teacher educators at Claremont Graduate University for the past ten years. Her most recent book Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans and the Achievement Gap has been recognized with several national awards.