Why Ethnic Studies Classes Improve Performance of At-Risk Students

Stanford Study Finds Reduction of Stereotype Threat Among Enrolled Students

The murals of East Los Angeles are often included in ethnic studies courses in the city, which are proven to raise academic performance and engagement among students of color.
One of the many murals of East Los Angeles, California. David Peevers/Getty Images

For decades, teachers, parents, counselors, and activists have struggled to figure out how to raise the academic performance of high school students at risk of failing or dropping out, many of whom are Black, Latino, and Hispanic students in inner-city schools across the nation. In many school districts, emphasis has been placed on preparation for standardized tests, tutoring, and on discipline and punishment, but none of these methods seem to work.

A new study by education experts at Stanford University offers a simple solution to this problem: include ethnic studies courses in educational curricula. The study, published by The National Bureau of Economic Research in January 2016, reports results from research into the effect of ethnic studies courses on student performance in San Francisco schools participating in a pilot ethnic studies program. The researchers, Drs. Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, compared academic performance and engagement between students enrolled in an ethnic studies course and those not and found a clear and strong causal effect between ethnic studies courses and academic improvement.

How Ethnic Studies Improves Performance

The ethnic studies course in question focused on how race, nationality, and culture shape our experiences and identities, with special emphasis on racial and ethnic minorities. The course included contemporary cultural references relevant to these populations, like a lesson in analyzing advertising for cultural stereotypes, and critical address of which ideas and people are considered "normal," which are not, and why. (Which is another way of saying that the course examines ​the problem of white privilege.)

To measure the effect of the course on academic performance, the researchers examined attendance rates, grades, and number of course credits completed before graduation for two different groups of students. They compiled their data from student records for 2010 through 2014, and focused on a population of 1,405 ninth graders who had GPAs in the range of 1.99 to 2.01, some of whom participated in an ethnic studies pilot program in the San Francisco Unified School District. The students with GPAs below 2.0 were automatically enrolled in the course, while those with 2.0 or higher had the option to enroll but were not required to do so. Thus, the population studied had very similar academic records, but were effectively split into two trial groups by school policy, making them perfect for this kind of study.

Dee and Penner found that those enrolled in the ethnic studies course improved on all accounts. Specifically, they found that attendance for those enrolled increased by 21 percent, GPA increased by 1.4 points, and credits earned by graduation date increased by 23 units.

Combatting Stereotype Threat

Penner remarked in a Stanford press release that the study shows that "making school relevant and engaging to struggling students can really pay off." Dee explained that ethnic studies courses like this are effective because they combat the problem of "stereotype threat" experienced by the majority of non-white students in the nation's public schools. Stereotype threat refers to the experience of fearing that one will confirm negative stereotypes about the group to which one is perceived to belong.

For Black and Latino students, harmful stereotypes that manifest in the educational setting include the misguided notion that they are not as intelligent as white and Asian-American students, and that they are overly aggressive, badly behaved and in need of punishment. These stereotypes manifest in widespread social problems like tracking Black and Latino students into remedial classes and out of college prep classes, and in the handing out of more frequent and more severe punishments and suspensions than are given to white students for the same (or even worse) behavior. (For more on these problems see Punished by Dr. Victor Rios and Academic Profiling by Dr. Gilda Ochoa.)

It seems that the ethnic studies courses in SFUSD are having their intended effect of reducing stereotype threat, as the researchers found particular improvement in GPA in math and science.

The findings of this research are very important, given the still very racist nature of cultural, political, and educational contexts of the U.S. In some areas, notably in Arizona, fear of relinquishing white supremacy has led school boards and administrators to ban ethnic studies programs and courses, calling them "un-American" and "hostile" because they disrupt dominant historical narratives that prop up white supremacy by broadening history to include that of marginalized and oppressed populations.

Ethnic studies courses are key to empowerment, positive self-identity, and academic achievement for many of America's youth of color, and can only benefit white students too, by encouraging inclusion and discouraging racism. This research suggests that ethnic studies courses are a benefit to society at large, and should be implemented at all levels of education across the nation.