As Los Angeles schools add ethnic studies courses, researchers report students who participate in Mexican American Studies increased their chances of graduating and passing state tests.
More than 100 Los Angeles Unified high schools will soon offer ethnic studies courses, such as Asian Literature, Mexican American History and African American Literature.
By 2019, every LAUSD student will have to take a one-semester ethnic studies course to graduate.
The University of Arizona study, published in the American Educational Research Journal's December issue, found students’ chances of earning a cap and gown increased by nearly 10 percent when they took Mexican American Studies.
Struggling students showed an increased probability of passing the state reading test by about 9 percent after the course.
University of Arizona education professor Nolan Cabrera, an author of the study, said the results are even more promising when the demographics of the classes are considered: students are more likely to be Latino, low-income and lower-achieving.
“I think the future is looking very bright,” Cabrera said.
In 2008, the course increased the probability of graduation by more than 16 percent, but in subsequent years that figure petered off to less than 7 percent. While struggling students were more likely to pass state tests some years, other years they faired no better.
Nevertheless, ethnic studies courses are quickly catching the attention of California school board members eager to improve student engagement.
EL Rancho Unified in Pico Rivera was the first to require students to take classes in ethnic studies. LAUSD followed suit in November and, less than a month later, San Francisco Unified pledged to offer ethnic studies at every high school.
But Cabrera’s research indicates expansion of the program could face opposition. He traces recent Arizona legislation prohibiting courses promoting “resentment toward a race or class of people” or “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”
“Ethnic studies isn’t dangerous, it isn’t subversive, it’s just different,” Cabrera said.
Concerns surrounding LAUSD’s ethnic studies requirement center on logistics.
School board member Tamar Galatzan feared the mandate would squeeze students' schedules, and she expressed concerns about the cost of adding the new classes.
Some in LAUSD high schools already offer ethnic studies courses. Teacher Jose Lara advocated for expansion of ethnic studies after seeing previously disinterested students flourish in his African-American and Mexican American history courses at Santee Education Complex in South L.A.
"If it’s not about them, they aren't interested,” Lara said.
But, there's still work to be done. Principals must find and recruit teachers. Superintendent Ramon Cortines is tasked with creating professional development opportunities and support systems to ensure quality learning across the district.
By the end of June 2015, the superintendent is scheduled to present a plan of key actions, challenges and budget requirements.