The idea that education is the great equalizer of society predates the founding of America’s modern education system, with the first public school requirement for a state coming into effect in 1852 (Watson, 2008). According to American philosopher Horace Mann, public education would raise future generations without the prejudices and shortcomings of the current generations (Duncan, 2018). However, what Mann did not take into consideration is that schools are directly affected by the happenings of the current society. The very definition of public schools shifts depending on the majority political presence at the time. Thus, American history is a history of a continuously shifting public education system, with groups fighting to gain more representation within its curriculums and others working to keep them out, all to establish schools that pave the way for their version of an improved American society.
At its base, ethnic studies help students learn about and discuss topics of divide in U.S society such as race, power, and social status, the systems set in place to create the current situation of these topics, and how to work within or outside these systems to create a more inclusive and equitable society. If schools are to ever be the “great equalizers” of society, they must incorporate the diversity of the American population and enact curriculums that allow for the kind of collective learning that ethnic studies provide. This is now more important than ever, as the American political system grows into a sharp divide that prohibits meaningful discussion and a global pandemic exposes the vast inequalities our society must still overcome.
The History/ National Response
Grassroots organizing has been the key to advance the ethnic studies movement nationwide. Though the fight for representation in American curriculums has been ongoing since public schools were first established in the nation, the history of the current movement begins with the Cold War. With the landing of the Soviet Union’ Sputnik on the moon in 1957 came an American panic that our education system was falling behind. This panic pushed education reform efforts into high gear. The next year, the National Education Defense Act increased funding for education at all levels to advance science and technology curriculums (Powell, 2007). The 1950s also happened to be a time of civil unrest, with African Americans fighting against decades of oppression and second-class citizenship. As both movements progressed, they became intertwined. Public education began to be viewed as a tool for the advancement of African Americans through representation in curriculum and culturally relevant pedagogy, which is teaching grounded in the students’/location’s cultural context.
To incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy in schools, students believed ethnic studies courses were needed. These courses would serve as interdisciplinary courses designed to explore the themes of social justice, social responsibility, and social issues through the exploration of power structures throughout history and the history of marginalized groups in the U.S. After the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which established accountability standards for schools and served as a commitment from the American government to offer every child equal access to a great education, it seemed like a perfect time to fight for ethnic studies courses (Paul, 2016). At first, the movement was focused on higher education. In 1968, the Black Student Union and a collation of other student groups known as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) held a five-month strike at San Francisco State University. They demanded equal access to public higher education, more senior faculty of color, and a new curriculum that would embrace the history and culture of all people. Other student protests demanding ethnic studies continued at the University after the strike. As a result, the college of ethnic studies was launched in 1968 and UC Berkley opened an ethnic studies department the next year (Diaz, 2020). The movement continued to gain traction throughout the state and spilled into schools. In 1994, Berkley high school became one of the first public high schools in the nation to offer ethnic studies courses (Anderson, 2016). With the success of ethnic studies in California, the movement surpassed state lines. In 1998, the Tuscon Unified School District (TUSD) created a Mexican American Studies (MAS) program for elementary, middle, and high school students (Diaz, 2020). Unfortunately, the movement began to feel more intense pushback shortly after.
In 2001, the movement hit a major roadblock when No Child Left Behind (NCLB), an updated version of ESEA, was passed due to the lack of academic achievement gains expected under the original ESEA. NCLB set the standard of assessing a school’s success through student performance on standardized tests in core subjects. Schools that failed to meet certain performance standards faced reduced funding and even closures. With the focus now on high stakes testing, the spread of culturally relevant teaching was put on hold as it was believed to take away from the focus of preparing for these tests. NCLB quickly proved to be ineffective, forcing states to lower standards to meet academic achievement requirements and pushing children to learn with strict testing dates, which quickly increased the gap between student achievement (Paul, 2016). Realizing the standardized testing approach was ineffective, districts turned back to more holistic approaches to teaching such as culturally relevant teaching. The MAS courses continued, and similar programs spread throughout the nation.
Though there has been pushback, the movement appears to be on a steady and quickly progressing march forward. In 2011, a bill was passed by Governor Jan Brewer that banned TUSD’s MAS program on the claim that it was radicalizing students. After intense pushback from students, parents, and teachers, MAS was replaced with MASS (Mexican American Student Services), a series of programs to help struggling Latinx students. Back in California, the movement continued with full force (Mata, 2012). In 2014, El Rancho Unified School District became the first district in California to require students to pass an ethnic studies course to graduate (Diaz, 2020). Similar initiatives have spread to other states such as Oregan, Vermont, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Texas. In 2016, a law was passed in California to create a guide to teaching ethnic studies as well as a model curriculum to be applied statewide in the upcoming years (Kai-Hwa Wang, 2016). That same year, the Standford Graduate School of Education released a study that documented the benefits for students taking these courses. The study looked at ethnic studies classes in pilot programs in San Francisco high schools. The research found that students who took the courses made gains in attendance, grades, and the number of credits they earned to graduate. One of the researchers, pressor Thomas S. Dee, attributes this growth due to the fact that “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” (Donald. 2016). In other words, these courses empower students and give them the knowledge necessary to not fall victim to stereotypes. For those that believe ethnic studies courses take away from test preparation time, other studies have found that students with access to these courses tend to score higher than their peers and go on to higher education (Hill, 2020).