Ethnic Studies Programs Dramatically Improve Outcomes for Students of Color

EDUC 510 | By: Erin Champion

It is one thing to read articles like The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies and to look at the quantitative evidence of the effects of ethnic studies programs, such as students’ increased graduation rates and better test scores. It is another thing to watch a documentary like Precious Knowledge and be able to see the impacts that these programs can have on the lives of the students and how deeply the students care about them.

I have seen the documentary before but after spending so much time in this class focusing on the education of the Chicanx population, it was especially impactful. It was also frustrating to watch for a second time because I knew how it ended, and I desperately wanted it to end differently for the kids in the Tucson Unified School District.

The part of the documentary that makes me the angriest is hearing the misconceptions about the programs that were held by the people in power such as Mr. Horne and Mr. Huppenthal. Mr. Horne stated that he was against the La Raza program because “there are a lot better ways to energize children than dividing them up by racial groups to teach.” The problem with this statement is that the research proves him wrong. Sleeter cited countless studies that found that children responded quite well to this method commonly used in ethnic studies programs. It’s infuriating that Mr. Horne never stepped foot inside of these classrooms and thinks that he knows what is best for these students. He said that he was worried that the curriculum was divisive, but Sleeter observed that “curricula that teach directly about racism have a stronger positive impact than curricula that portray diverse groups but ignore racism.” Mr. Huppenthal, the politician that did visit the classroom, was so preoccupied with the poster of Che Guevara on the wall and the absence of Benjamin Franklin, that he immediately wrote off the program and Mr. Acosta’s class that he observed. He was concerned that the ethnic studies program promoted “hate speech, sedition and anti-American values.” He didn’t like the fact that students were being taught that they were oppressed, but Sleeter’s research showed that “students’ familiarity with individual and collective struggle did not curtail their academic success, but rather contributed to their sense of agency and facilitated their academic motivation.”

Ethnic studies programs acknowledge American history for what it truly is and hope to empower students to break through glass ceilings and barriers that have historically held others like them back. It is not the La Raza program’s responsibility to help Mr. Horne and Mr. Huppenthal come to terms with the fact that there are deeply rooted systems of oppression in the United States. These politicians are what is standing in the way of a meaningful education for thousands of students in the Tucson Unified School District, and that is extremely unsettling.