Can Ethnic Studies Courses Help Students Succeed in School? Evidence From San Francisco

July 31, 2017

Decades of highly influential, qualitative scholarship have examined how culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) and curricula can unlock the academic potential of historically underserved students. This research stresses the importance of aligning classroom content to students' out-of-school experiences, affirming students' cultural competencies and developing their social and political awareness. However, until recently, there has been relatively little quantitative evidence on the educational impact of culturally relevant practices. Furthermore, practitioners who have sought to introduce culturally relevant pedagogy into their schools and classrooms often face strong political headwinds. Perhaps the most prominent examples are the contentious debates over the adoption of "ethnic studies" courses and content materials.

Seeking promising avenues for supporting its diverse students, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) began an ethnic studies pilot program, explicitly referencing the promise of ethnic studies courses to support the academic potential of its students. Five high schools participated in the pilot, offering a year-long, ninth-grade ethnic studies course between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years. District leaders then looked for evidence about the effects of the program to inform their decisions about the program's future which we provided through the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership.

SFUSD's ethnic studies course stressed the use of culturally relevant pedagogy as a way to engage with students that had previously felt marginalized by the traditional curricula. It examined histories and political struggles from the perspectives of multiple race/ethnic groups. The course also encouraged students to explore their individual identities and required them to design and implement service-learning projects in their local community.