New research shows broad academic benefits for students taking ethnic studies classes

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Public school districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Long Beach and about a dozen others have started ethnic studies classes in recent years.

But they’ve done so without a key ingredient: academic research that shows how students are benefitting from those programs.

Now, a new study of an ethnic studies program in San Francisco public schools is shedding light on how the new classes may be helping students. 

“There’s no research out there that has looked at this kind of analysis, doing this kind of research in California at all,” said U.C. Irvine education professor Emily Penner, the lead researcher of the ethnic studies program.

Penner studied the effect of ethnic studies classes on 1,400 struggling students in San Francisco schools over four years.

“The effect of that program was a positive and large increase in GPA and credits and attendance by the end of the year,” she said.

The way San Francisco educators taught topics in Latino, African American and the history of other cultures connected with the diverse student body, she said.

She completed the paper based on the research this fall, she said, and it is set to be published by the American Educational Research Journal later this year.

The research comes at a critical moment for ethnic studies courses in California public schools.

Advocates have failed to pass a statewide ethnic studies requirement, but a new law does compel state officials to create a model ethnic studies curriculum within two years that any school in California can adopt. Input from current ethnic studies instructors and experts in the field, along with research such as Penner’s, will help shape what that curriculum will look like.

Penner’s research is “going to give a spark to the movement of ethnic studies across the state of California and beyond,” said L.A. Unified high school teacher Jose Lara, who’s also a coordinator for the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition.

Penner said she embarked on the research to inform school administrators of best practices.

Administrators at Santa Ana Unified, a school district with 93 percent Latino student enrollment, added ethnic studies classes at its middle and high schools this year after going out on their own and asking other school districts what was working.

“There’s a whole lot of people trying a whole lot of things out there,” said Santa Ana Deputy Superintendent Dave Haglund. “When we can get into a situation in which the researchers at the university level are pumping information back towards us that gives us an idea of what works best it helps us be more thoughtful in our implementation.”

He said his school district adopted ethnic studies classes as a way to help kids make connections to themselves and value their own heritage, which wasn't appearing enough in their textbooks.

Ethnic studies in public schools became a national flash point in 2010 when the Arizona legislature banned Mexican American studies classes in Tucson public schools. Opponents of the classes said the classes taught separatism.

There has been similar but more muted criticism in California. Teacher Lara said Penner’s research and the state’s creation of a model curriculum “gives legitimacy to a curriculum that a lot of people don’t understand because they may not have taken ethnic studies themselves or they’re still skeptical,” he said.

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