Isaac Nieblas’ world changed when he signed up for a Chicano Studies class at Santa Clara University. The son of Mexican immigrants, Nieblas grew up for a time in Arizona, where ethnic studies were banned from the public school curriculum during his sophomore year of high school. He never had the opportunity to learn about Mexican American history, politics or literature, creating a disconnect he felt for his course material until attending college. It was the first time in his life that he was learning about his own people.
“I felt I was studying who I was as a human,” says Nieblas, now a junior. “Learning about the Chicano revolution in the 1960s made me feel as though my concerns, my issues, my humanity were legitimate.
“I felt more enthused and I was having more conversations, because I knew that my people were just as smart as anyone else,” he continues. “Having that understanding revamped my perception of who I was as a person and as an intellectual being.”
Nieblas’ experience with ethnic studies is far from unique, but for the first time it’s being quantified. New research out of Stanford University shows clear academic benefits to ethnic studies.
Thomas Dee, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, recently tracked more than 1,400 ninth-graders enrolled in a pilot ethnic studies program in the San Francisco Unified School District. The students were enrolled in the course if they had a GPA below 2.0 the year before, meaning they were considered at-risk for dropping out.
“The way they rolled out the pilot made it highly amenable to credible quantitative research design,” Dee explains. “It essentially says, ‘Let’s compare the kids at 1.99 GPA and the kids at 2.01.’ They’re fundamentally the same kid, and we can test by that.”
Dee found that the students who took the ethnic studies courses, which focused on issues such as social justice, discrimination, stereotypes and social movements in U.S. history, saw a boost in overall academic performance—not just in the ethnic studies course itself—compared to their peers. Ethnic studies students increased their attendance by 21 percent, credits earned by 23 and cumulative GPA by 1.4 points, elevating them from failing grades to the B-minus/C-plus range. Some of the highest GPA gains were made in math and science.
While there have been many qualitative studies on the value of culturally relevant pedagogy, this is the first quantitative study of its kind.
“I’ll confess that when we first generated these results, I was incredulous,” Dee says. “If I was reading a study saying that taking the course increases GPA by 1.4 points, I would not believe that.”
While the results seem clear, the reason for the benefits may be less so. Dee attributes the value of ethnic studies to pedagogy. “It’s about having instruction that corresponds with the out-of-school experience of these kids,” he says. “It’s simply going to fit them better and promote academic engagement.”
Another explanation is what’s known as the stereotype threat, which theorizes that minority students underperform in the classroom because of anxiety stemming from the expectation of negative stereotypes. But through buffering, either by forewarning against stereotypes or providing external examples of the challenges people of color face, students can overcome the stereotype threat.
“When I look at the ethnic studies curriculum,” Dee says, “it has many of the active ingredients of these light-touch psychological interventions.”
Anna Sampaio, director of ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, notes that Dee’s research matches what she sees everyday in her college students.
“The idea that their own personal histories resonate within the academic environment, the idea that their family’s history—even if it didn’t begin on Plymouth Rock—has validity, is profound,” she says. “It gives them the sense that they belong here, and it means they can walk into any other academic environment and feel confident instead of feeling vulnerable, unsure and marginalized.”
Despite the newly identified advantages to ethnic studies, the field has faced political challenges since its inception in the 1960s. Even though Santa Clara has one of the oldest ethnic studies programs in the country, Sampaio says, it still hasn’t been granted departmental status, and it still can’t offer a standalone major to undergraduates.
“We have been in existence for 45 years. We have made formal proposals to become a department eight times and have asked for a standalone major since the first ethnic studies program was established here, but we haven’t gotten it,” she says. “That tells you there’s a huge mismatch on a social justice campus like ours in terms of what they say about diversity and where they are willing to invest their resources.”
The opposition to embracing ethnic studies is not entirely surprising. “Ethnic studies completely shifts the learning rubric,” Sampaio explains. “It says the center of the universe isn’t just rich, white, well-educated men. It can also be poor, working-class communities of color or women of color, and their voices have validity.”
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required the California Department of Education to develop an ethnic studies curriculum for public schools. Still, some California school districts are working to implement ethnic studies on their own. In 2014, Los Angeles approved plans to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, and San Francisco and Oakland school boards voted to mandate that all high schools offer ethnic studies.
For the San Jose Unified School District, the largest public school district in Santa Clara County, ethnic studies are neither required nor uniformly offered, according to assistant superintendent Jason Willis. Only three of its six high schools feature a Hispanic Studies class.
Up the peninsula, Los Altos High School once boasted a diverse course offering, including Latino American history and African American history, but it has since dropped the classes. “A lot of what we used to have was a casualty to STAR Testing,” Derek Miyahara, department head of social studies, explains of the standardized testing regime that was implemented in 1999. “We moved to classes that shored up our performance on those tests, which came at the cost of elective classes.”
Now that the STAR Testing program has expired, Los Altos has the opportunity to go beyond Modern European and U.S. History and add ethnic studies classes back into the curriculum, says Miyahara, who pushed for Asian American Studies classes at Stanford when he was a student in the mid-’80s.
Nieblas argues that, given his own experiences, ethnic studies should be required starting in elementary school.
“I’m one out of 87 in my kindergarten class to make it to university,” he says. “If those other 86 could have seen themselves in the books—if they knew there was an Angela Davis, a Malcolm X, a Cesar Chavez—I think it could have made a ton of difference.
“I could be at this university with all of my childhood friends.”
Corrections: A previous version of this story provided an incorrect name for San Jose Unified School District’s Jason Willis. A cutline also implied the main photograph was of Anna Sampaio, instead of Dr. Jesica Fernandez. San Jose Inside regrets the errors.