Our schools fall short on ethnic studies

Christine Sleeter
Christine Sleeter

California has one of the largest and most diverse student populations in the nation; more than 70 percent are ethnic minorities, and more than half are Latino. There is concern about closing ethnic achievement gaps, and about building multiracial understanding.

What is often not understood is that ethnic studies helps address both concerns. Assembly Bill 101, on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would finally require the state school board to adopt a model curriculum for ethnic studies.

Over the past two decades, very little attention has gone into making our school curriculum more reflective of Californians. In 2002, I analyzed the history-social science framework and found that of the 96 Americans named for study, 77 percent were white, 18 percent African American, 4 percent Native American, 1 percent Latino, and 0 percent Asian American.

AB 101 specifically addresses this absence of ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos, in the state’s social science curriculum.

Textbooks marketed nationally mirror this imbalance. I and a team of graduate students just finished analyzing 20 textbooks for grades 3-10 published by large companies such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin. We found ethnic minorities underrepresented in the textbooks, 10 in reading/language arts and 10 in history/social science.

What’s important to realize is that while white students almost always see people like themselves 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 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 or personal empowerment.

Ethnic studies also has a positive impact on cross-racial understanding. In 2011, a review of studies in the Journal of Black Studies found that a multicultural curriculum has a more powerful positive impact on students’ racial attitudes than extracurricular cultural programming. In other words, building it into the regular curriculum, as AB 101 would do, can help build cross-racial understanding.

The research supports AB 101 for California.

Christine Sleeter is a former professor at California State University, Monterey Bay.