Ethnic studies: How K-12 schools are introducing multicultural curricula

Educators need to consider numerous issues when trying to implement ethnic studies, including the lack of funding and professional development, and the debate over what content is appropriate to include

California’s yearslong attempt to pass legislation requiring ethnic studies in all schools will be up for debate again in 2021, after local ethnic and religious organizations raised concerns about which groups the proposed lessons included and omitted.

“Ethnic studies can be an important tool to improve school climate and increase our understanding of one another,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, said in an August statement about the proposed curriculum. “A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state. … The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

California’s experience highlights many of the difficulties states encounter when trying to implement ethnic studies—the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity through the perspective of underrepresented racial groups—including the lack of funding and professional development, and the debate over what content is appropriate to include.

What are the benefits and challenges?

A 2016 study from Stanford University found that ninth-grade San Francisco USD students who participated in a pilot ethnic studies class saw gains in attendance, grades and credits earned over their peers who enrolled in other courses—including those at risk of dropping out.

“Ethnic studies is not just about children of color; it’s about improving all students’ understanding of the cultures that they interact with in their local communities,” says Harry Lawson, director of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights department. “Ethnic studies is a center point for a lot of the goals that we have for public education. It isn’t only about academics; it’s about social and emotional learning, interaction, and being culturally competent, and recognizing and celebrating diversity.” 

Vermont and Oregon are the only states to pass legislation requiring ethnic studies classes. In Oregon, lessons approved by a 2017 law won’t go into effect until 2026. Vermont’s law, passed in March, establishes a task force to create standards for ethnic studies by 2022, though curriculum will be determined at the local level.

Vermont saw little public pushback to the law, says Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the state Agency of Education. However, funding its implementation will be a challenge. “Most policy initiatives have been mandated with little funding, and our local entities are struggling,” Bouchey says. “We’re mindful of that, and that’s why we’re taking the time to make this a planful process.”

How to implement ethnic studies in your K-12 district

In the absence of state legislation, individual districts can still incorporate ethnic studies into curricula, Lawson says.

For example, educators could revise their book lists to include more writers of color and have discussions about those writers’ perspectives. Organizations such as Teaching Tolerance and the Center for Civic Education offer full lessons.

To determine which groups should receive more emphasis in any lessons, districts should research their communities and find out what kinds of resources and tools are available to include, Lawson says.

Many teachers are eager to implement ethnic studies lessons, but are seeking PD on how to do so, says Bouchey.

“I think many more states will be embarking on potential legislation,” Bouchey says. “It would behoove any education leader in today’s context to be aware and prepared to think about how they are ensuring that ethnic studies and/or social justice are captured in what they are offering to students.”

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