Stanford Study: ‘Culturally Relevant’ Teaching Boosts GPA, Attendance for At-Risk Youth, So Why Not Make It Universal?

East Carolina University
East Carolina University

If you don’t know about your past, you lack a blueprint for the future.  And a new study suggests just that.  Research in California found that high school students who were exposed to classes on race and ethnicity experienced better attendance and academic achievement.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Stanford University, revealed that an ethnic studies pilot program at three San Francisco high schools reaped benefits for at-risk ninth graders, as the Guardian reported.  Interestingly, those teens who enrolled in the class had substantially better outcomes than those who did not.  For example, attendance improved by 21 percent, grade-point averages jumped 1.4 points, and credits earned increased by 23 for those who participated in the course.

“These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students,” according to the authors.

Approximately 1,400 students took part in the pilot program. Enrollment in the class was voluntary for students with a GPA above 2.0 but mandatory for those with a GPA below 2.0.  The ethnic studies course covers the experiences and identities of minority groups, and employs cultural references with the goal to increase social and political awareness among the students.  In one example of a lesson in the class, students are instructed to examine the role of advertising in encouraging cultural stereotypes, and the notion that some people and values are “normal” or otherwise.

“Culturally relevant pedagogy embeds several features of interventions designed to reduce stereotype threat, such as explaining stereotypes and identifying external forces that contribute to academic challenges,” said Thomas S. Dee, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and director at the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.  Dee, who authored the report along with Emily Penner at Stanford, told the Guardian he was surprised such a course could have such dramatic effects on the academic outcomes of at-risk students.

“Ethnic studies may be effective because it is an unusually intensive and at-scale social-psychological intervention,” Dee added.

Further, although there were positive outcomes across gender and race/ethnicity (Asian and Latino), most of the improvements were found among boys and Latinos.  The sample size of Black and white students was too small to gauge the results.  In addition, there were significant GPA improvements in math and science, and to a lesser extent in English and language arts.

This research lends credence to the idea that ethnic studies should assume a much larger role in the education process and become an integrated part of school curricula. Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a statewide ethnic studies curriculum plan last year.  Cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles and Portland have witnessed moves towards ethnic studies offerings, while states such as Arizona enacted laws to ban ethnic studies instruction.

Texas — whose state board of education is dominated by right-wing white conservatives — has rewritten history by revising the textbooks. These books, in a state school system dominated by Brown and Black children, have erased the achievements of African-Americans, Latinos and others, removing references to slavery, the civil rights movement and other historical events of a racially charged nature.

And it is no accident that the ethnic studies movement grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s on college campuses across the nation.  This was about changing the narrative and struggling for one’s rights, a fight for empowerment that took place in voting booths, buses and at lunch counters but which also takes place in  books and in the classroom.

They say that history is told from the perspective of the conquerors.  And in this country, the history of white people has been rendered standardized and normalized — and the only interpretation of history.  How can those children who fail to see their own culture or people reflected in the history books develop high self-esteem?  Moreover, how can those whose history is reflected exclusively in the classroom setting learn to appreciate and respect those who are excluded and marginalized?

This is why the Stanford study is significant.  However, we should not merely stop with at-risk students — all students need this type of learning.  And we need to divest ourselves of a colonial system of education that excludes and degrades people of a darker hue.  Knowledge is power, and we must ensure that all of our children have access to that power.

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