New Research Finds Ethnic Studies Improve Overall Learning

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.

Isaac Nieblas took an even greater interest in his studies when the curriculum focused on people who share his heritage. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

Isaac Nieblas says he took an even greater interest in his studies when the curriculum focused on people who share his heritage. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

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.


  1. Duh…..
    I heartily agree…

    If required…İt could bring and end to the people who are constantly using ‘us and them’ to keep our population divided.

  2. “New research out of Stanford University shows clear academic benefits to ethnic studies”

    Nope – not even close.

    Professor Dee employed a perilous statistical technique (“fuzzy” regression discontinuity design). No independent corroboration and scant basis to claim ethnic studies will have a broader or repeatable benefit.

    Then there’s the cost. Curriculum changes cost millions. Are students better served by a separate ethnic studies program, changing social studies to be more culturally sensitive, raising teacher salaries, etc.? There’s abundant evidence that other approaches are more cost effective than introducing something like ethnic studies. Or salad bars touted by the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

    But practical considerations aren’t interesting to research academics, nor self-serving ethnic studies ones.

    • OK. Whom should we believe, the anonymous poster on a message board or a Stanford University professor whose research was vetted by editors of journals? You be the judge.

      • Exactly, judge for one’s self. Start with equal skepticism. Important to note the absence of independent corroboration of ethnic studies program results – not even anecdotal experience by teachers.

        No mention of scholastic achievement ranking improvement after ethnic studies were introduced. Or declining in the case of Los Altos’ abandonment of their ethnic studies program. The data is available, but inconveniently fails to supports Yoshiko Kandil’s ethnic study benefits premise.

        Let’s assume Dee’s study is perfectly fine. Does the study support wider deployment of ethnic studies? Not in the least. It’s an invention of writer Yoshiko Kandil supported by a cadre of employment-challenged ethnic studies grads.

        Dee does not credit results to ethnic studies, but 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.” Yup – been identified for decades. Also recall math teacher Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver”.

        If we want better results, we need better teachers. But teacher drop-out rate is very high. Particularly for non-white men as covered by NPR a few months ago. School districts generally seem loath to promote accountability such as climate surveys to pinpoint problems and root causes. Management is typically responsible for about 80% per Drs. Juran and Deming.

        But improving pedagogy is tough. Far easier to promote a miracle cure like Dr. Oz and Yoshiko Kandil.

  3. What is it that causes the minds of Mexican-American students to require a resuscitative dose of ancestral knowlege not required of others? This valley is bursting with accomplished people of various ethnic backgrounds who, as students, did not require (and were never offered) a self-celebrating course of study designed to soothe their psyches. How were these other hyphenation qualified Americans (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Arab, Polish, Hungarian, etc.) able to validate their emotional concerns, personal issues, and basic humanity without the government supplied comforting that was supplied to young Mr. Nieblas? In California, it’s a toss-up between the Chinese and Japanese as to which group endured more government-sanctioned repression during the 20th century, with Mexican-Americans not even having a legitimate claim to third, so what makes them so damn needy?

    For generation after generation of poor Californians the impetus for taking an interest in their education came from their own poverty — as conveyed to them by their parents and/or their own experiences in the labor market. No government intervention was needed, purveyors of ethnic BS were on the public dime, no á la carte crappola from Stanford. As it has always been with gang life, intoxicants, crime, manual labor, and idleness, education was there for the taking.

    Am I the only one whose suspicions as to Mr. Nieblas’s credibility were aroused by his ability to get into a fine university despite his lifelong disconnect with his classwork, as well as his remarkable level of knowledge about his kindergarten class? How does he know his classmates grew up unaware of the radicalized bimbo Angela Davis, the annually overhyped Cesar Chavez, or the famously fickle Malcolm X? And what young person, at college age, has any credible idea as to the academic fate of his 86 kindergarten classmates?

    Finally, let’s not pretend we need a Stanford snake oil salesman to illuminate us as to the cause of the high failure rate among Mexican-American students: it’s Mexican-Americans. Right now in California they are 0 for 50 years (of playing the blame game to win special treatment). Maybe the blame for their poor showing lies in their culture, parenting styles, genes, or some mix of all of the above; I don’t know, but I do know that when it comes to self-improvement, nothing beats taking a good hard look in the mirror.

    • Fin Fan wonders: “Am I the only one whose suspicions as to Mr. Nieblas’s credibility were aroused by his ability to get into a fine university despite his lifelong disconnect with his classwork…” Hey, Obama did it. Then he spent millions of dollars to prevent the American people from getting a look at his school transcripts. He certainly wouldn’t have spent all that money if his grades were good.

    • Ms. Kandil tells us that Mr. Nieblas is “the son of Mexican immigrants,” but fails to tell us if they came to the US legally. She goes on to tell us that “He never had the opportunity to learn about Mexican American history, politics or literature…” Are we to conclude there were no libraries where he grew up in Arizona or that they didn’t have a single volume on Mexican America history? Nielba is the Spanish word for fog. A coincidence? Nor does Ms. Kandil tell us how her poster boy, the educationally deprived Señor Nieblas, was able to gain admission to Santa Clara or how he and his “immigrant” parents are able to afford the high tuition fees at Santa Clara University.

  4. Ethnic Studies gives the students false sense of hope. Knowing about your ancestors and your culture is nice but does not drive the economy. I wonder how many universities around the world especially Mexico provide ethnic studies. I see Asians are productive people without taking Ethnic Studies. To be honest if you want to get an A and raise your GPA then take Ethnic Studies as most of these people are not to going get high grades taking Calculus or Physics.

  5. Expanding on some points…
    I spent several hours reading about the statistical technique Professor Dee employed (was math major, industrial statistician, developed sampling designs to predict elections) and his research study. Dee’s analysis is dubious. It’s primarily limited to educational research academics and not employed by mainstream statisticians facing similar research study challenges. But even if Dee’s premise is correct, the business case for ethnic studies boosting “at risk” drop-out candidates performance is missing.

    Bottom line: It’s easy to torture data to produce desired outcomes, publish rubbish, apply for more funding. And if charismatic, do the talk show and lecture circuit. Without other independent corroboration, it looks like junk science.

    Mr. Nibbles asserts that only 1 in his kindergarten class of 87 made it to college. Assuming no kids died, then only 1% versus the US average of 41% (2012 data) did so. Meanwhile, DoEd data show a significant increase of Hispanic college enrollment from 4% (1976) to 15% (2012).

    The ‘we’re suffering from the absence of role models’ argument is laughable. Two presidential candidates have Hispanic roots, a SCOTUS justice, numerous executives and officials including the last two SJPD chiefs. Also interesting aspect is the relatively recent ascension of Indian executives (e.g., president of Google) and entrepreneurs. Another testament to hard work and education – not “white privilege”.

    But these and abundant other counter arguments don’t seem to trouble critical thinking challenged Ms. Yoshiko Kandil. To her credit, she never lets facts get in the way of propaganda.

  6. > New Research Finds Ethnic Studies Improve Overall Learning

    Oh! Gee! An academic study.

    Colleges and universities offering “ethnic studies” and “gender studies” degrees are committing consumer fraud.

    The degrees they are offering a worthless, and the employment opportunities related to the degrees are nil.

    It is outrageous that universities are allowed to hype these degrees, charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, allow students to borrow up the hilt to pay for them, and then push them out the door burdened by crushing debt.

    I will strongly encourage President Trump to send in the SWAT teams to the executive offices at Stanford, Berkeley, Santa Clara U., etc. etc. and arrest the academic fraudsters and perp walk them out to federal paddy wagons.

    Congress needs to pass legislation retroactively rescinding ALL tuition and fees charged for “ethnic/gender/vanity studies” and making the academic providers liable for ALL student debt incurred for these bogus programs.

    Lock em up!

  7. > New Research Finds Ethnic Studies Improve Overall Learning

    “New Research”?

    If you haven’t figured it out by now, you need to realize that dishonesty, fraud, and fakery exist in academia.

    Sad to say, but “research” and “studies” have to be taken with the same skepticism as sales pitches by people selling Rollex watches from gym bags at transit stations.

    Exhibit A: East Anglia University Climate Research Unit (CRU) and their “global warming” studies.

    “Ethnic studies and gender studies” are nothing more than “vanity” studies. They should be lumped together in in the University Recreation and Entertainment Department and renamed “Narcissism Studies”.

    But the tragic reality is that “ethnic studies” and “gender studies” are tawdry, money grubbing schemes on the part of universities and colleges to make work for faculty members by loading down unsuspecting students with huge tuition bills and crushing, unrepayable student loans.

    Con men. Shysters. Vermin.

    If Big Government wants to do something useful, it should make colleges and universities refund all tuition paid for these placebo, fake vanity courses, and forgive all student loans for the misguided, gullible students who were “counseled” to take these sham classes.

  8. “Ethnic Studies” improve overall learning??? Maybe I missed something. Here is part of what I learned in an “ethnic studies” class that I attended at San Jose State years ago:

    White people are the source and perpetuators of all racism, oppression, and injustice.

    Injustice in America against “people of color” (White being the absence of color) began the minute that Columbus landed in the New World and gave venereal disease to the Native Americans.

    Throughout history White people (Greeks, Romans, but only the light complexioned Egyptians) have been practicing slavery but slavery as we know it was invented by the Founding Fathers and white Southerners.

    Only White people can be racists. All others are just reacting to and pushing-back against the mistreatment and oppression they have received by White people and White institutions.

    Recent (dark complexioned) immigrants from the African continent do not actually do better academically, economically and in small businesses, it is just portrayed that way by the manipulation of statistics by the White man.

    Blacks with light complexions are proof positive that slave owners raped their slaves. Voluntary interracial marriage and the Moorish invasion of Europe in the Middle Ages account for less than one percent of light complexioned Blacks.

    While they were aware of the plot, the FBI did nothing to stop White supremacists from arranging the assassination of Malcolm X and then tried to blame the assassination on the Nation of Islam and the Black Muslims in order to start a race war that would stop the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, and for the same reasons, an FBI informant induced James Earl Ray to assassinate Martin Luther King. While not provably complicit, the FBI was aware of the specifics of the plot but did nothing to stop it.

    We read “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver. I learned that the killing of police officers and the raping of white women (“an insurrectionary act”) are legitimate forms of social protest. (Read the book)

    What I learned from the “ethnic studies” class I attended was that essentially, “White people suck!”

    These are just the highlights. I wish I was kidding. Hurrah for Ethnic studies. I definitely learned about the origins of “white guilt”. (when did that become a privilege?)

    • You are a fraud and a liar. I bet you never took that course because Ethnic Studies doesn’t teach the trash coming out of your mouth. Do you eat with that mouth?

      • Mr. Serna,

        Read “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver. I had to read it for the class. All the other stuff was given in lecture. Believe what you wish. Don’t expect me to send you a copy of my transcripts. I actually got a “B” in the class so I can “fling the race dung” as well as any other chimp.

        Thank you for proving my point for me. Most race-obsessed personalities condemn anyone who doesn’t adhere to or dares to question their race-religion and they then react, as you did, with the “reverse racism” you have expressed. However, I was taught from “Ethnic Studies” that only Whites can be racists. Obviously you learned the same thing.

  9. Man, this chat room is taking place at a Trump rally… but it shows how hard it is for racists and white privileged bozos to see the facts: we live in a racist society, white privilege exists, and Ethnic and Chicano Studies helps Chicano and all students become better citizens and people. How hard is that to see. And with a f—en Stanford study. The truth is that racists and right wingers don’t do their homework. They’ll do anything to bully their way and hold on to their race privilege. [email protected] Studies transformed my life. I’m not working at Starbucks like you liars claim. I’ve been teaching for 14 years, being an advocate for my community and defending the interests of youth of all colors from right wing bozos like those above. The struggle continues… which side are you on?

    • > I’ve been teaching for 14 years, being an advocate for my community and defending the interests of youth of all colors from right wing bozos like those above.


      Have you ever used your ethnic studies degree to defend the right of a white youth to support Donald Trump?

      Didn’t think so.

    • Happy that your life was transformed. But it appears an exception rather than a general roadmap for a better society. Vastly more claim their lives were transformed by religion than ethnic studies. Anecdotal claims and discretionary spending (US religious donations estimate is $82 billion per year) support this point.

      A compulsory religious studies program makes more sense than ethnic studies to transform lives.

      I’m on the side of science. Would strongly advocate for ethnic/women/LGBT type studies if evidenced by results. There’s abundant data supporting STEM, finance, management, and trades education, but not ethnic studies. Please provide links if inaccurate (a quick Google search didn’t uncover any tangible justification).

      Dr. Dee’s study is behind a paywall and seems doubtful that Ms. Kandil actually read it. She veers off in an entirely different direction from the actual study. Dr. Dee’s study reinforces the point that students benefit from attention (like the Hawthorne effect), by empathy, and encouragement. I trust these were part of your teacher training – they were in mine. The ethnic studies aspect is incidental to his findings *as he asserted* – read his quotes in Kandil’s article.

      Petulant, ad hominem attacks are unpersuasive and unhelpful. Surprising to see them from a teacher.

      • right, replace critical thinking and history… with mystical thinking (religion). Great idea. Hasn’t been tried… since the Middle Ages.

        • Read beyond first two paragraphs – support of critical thinking was precisely the point of the rebuttal to Mr. Serna. Would be nice if oppression ceased in the Middle Ages, but still vibrant as indicated by periodic legislation.

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