Ethnic Studies Raise Student Commitment and Graduation Rates

Racism, colonialism, global economic and political systems, ecological devastation, health degradation, cultural vitality, and our geographies of differentiation and discrimination are all issues that Ethnic Studies asks us to address. Ethnic Studies, at its most fundamental, urges us to think and act. To inquire and to listen. To love and be accountable to one another.

According to new data from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, enrolling 9th graders who are failing academically in an ethnic studies course increases the likelihood that those students will graduate from high school and enroll in college.

Sade Bonilla, assistant professor in the College of Education, along with Thomas S. Dee of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and Emily K. Penner of the University of California Irvine’s School of Education, conducted the study on the longer-term effects of ethnic studies requirements, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In one California school district, 9th graders with a GPA of 2.0 or lower were automatically enrolled in an ethnic studies course. According to the findings, enrolling in ethnic studies significantly enhanced high school graduation, attendance, and the likelihood of enrolling in college. Prior to this study, there was no evidence that ethnic studies had a good academic influence. “A major addition of our analysis is the causal evidence that anti-racist pedagogy and curricula enhanced student involvement and perseverance,” Bonilla stated.

Our findings indicate that this approach has a significant impact on students’ high school graduation and college enrollment, which is critical given the importance of educational attainment on economic success and other socially relevant outcomes like civic engagement and mental health.

Sade Bonilla

The researchers examined the records of over 1,400 pupils in San Francisco, California, where the school board authorized an ethnic studies requirement for academically challenged 9th graders in 2010. Following their academic journeys through local and state records, the team discovered that low-income students and students of color enrolled in the ethnic studies course performed better academically. Students were also more likely to enroll in college after graduating from high school, according to the researchers.

According to Bonilla, ethnic studies provided students with the “chance to see their community reflected in the curriculum.” Learning about their ancestors’ efforts made students feel proud, and it made school feel important, adding to their sense of belonging. Students were reminded that not every failure is the result of an individual’s fault after witnessing oppression and prejudices in action. Students completed research projects in the community and made connections between school and their own life.

Ethnic studies increases student engagement and high school graduation

Based on anti-racist ideas, ethnic studies curriculum are designed to be a rigorous, college-prep course that stresses culturally relevant and critically engaged topics relating to social justice, anti-racism, stereotypes, and contemporary social movements. Ethnic studies courses, in general, focus on the history of historically marginalized populations, increase students’ critical knowledge of social issues, and foster civic involvement and community-responsive social justice, according to Bonilla. It teaches kids about various ethnic histories as well as the contributions of non-white ethnic communities. Supporters argue that it provides pupils a greater sense of self and a sense of belonging in the larger American community.

“The current critical race theory debate is tragically dishonest and politically motivated,” Bonilla stated. “There is crossover between theory and ethnic studies in that the curricula takes a critical and historical view of earlier events and the systems in place today.”

While there is rising interest in anti-racist education, the researchers highlight that it has been politically contentious. Anti-racist curricula and teaching approaches, they add, constitute an opportunity for schools to promote a more equitable society while also improving educational performance for low-income and kids of color.

“Our findings indicate that this approach has a significant impact on students’ high school graduation and college enrollment, which is critical given the importance of educational attainment on economic success and other socially relevant outcomes like civic engagement and mental health,” Bonilla said.

One of our best opportunities for connection is through Ethnic Studies. It invites us to connect despite our differences. To see into the past and into the future, to see beyond the dominance of the present. While doing so, it necessitates that we consider each other’s complete humanity, seeking alignment where lines are drawn between us. It asks us to observe ourselves drawing lines. Then we must consider where and why these borders are formed, as well as who is injured and who is served by them. It inquires whether our lines can also serve as bridges.