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After 50 Years, Ethnic Studies Still Controversial

Recent events in school districts and some states show how divisive this 1960s phenomenon may prove to be in the 21st century.
Black Students Union demonstration
A Black Students Union leader in front of a crowd of demonstrators at San Francisco State College in December 1968. The union had gone on strike after racial strife between students and administration.

On April 26, students from the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District's Mexican-American studies classes, angry that these courses might be eliminated because of a state law targeting programs that advocate "ethnic solidarity" and "the overthrow of the United States government," barged into a school board meeting, chained themselves to the board members' chairs, and banged and chanted until the meeting was canceled. When the board reconvened on May 3, so did police in riot gear, and seven people were arrested.

According to a columnist in the Arizona Republic in May, "It's 1968 and the chaotic San Francisco State University riots [over ethnic studies] are starting all over again in Tucson." But isn't this 2011—and didn't the emphasis on (and fights over) ethnic studies classes diminish decades ago?

Certainly, when you look at districts like the New York City Department of Education, ethnic studies seem like ancient history. The back-to-basics movement, says Ivan Yip, assistant principal at the Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men, forced schools in many states to adjust to new curriculum mandates. "In order to make sure our students pass state Regents exams, we have to offer double periods in algebra and the English writing class. Having enough time and money for any electives becomes a luxury."

The U.S. Census Bureau says that minority groups will constitute the majority of Americans by 2042, and it's reasonable to assume they'll want to know about their own history.

In May 2010, above, people rally and protest a push by conservatives to revise Texas public schools' social studies curriculum. Conservatives pushed to amend or water down teaching of the civil rights movement,

Some school districts with large minority group populations, such as the School District of Philadelphia and the Tucson Unified School District, have tried to solve the time-and-money conflict by counting African and African-American history and Mexican-American studies, respectively, toward core social studies credits. But not everyone likes this solution, so the 1960s debates have re-emerged. Debates over the way traditional mainstream courses such as American history portray the histories of minority groups have resurfaced too, especially in Texas, whose new curriculum has been accused of glossing over African- American and Latino issues. Of course, school boards and district superintendents may be caught in the middle when warring constituencies demand that schools teach what they view is accurate and relevant.

In the early 1900s, sociologist and civil-rights activist W.E.B. DuBois advocated the teaching of African-American studies in American schools. The goal was to teach a history and heritage that was being ignored, not just so blacks would better understand their own past, but so white society would be more respectful. But by 1968, when students demanding ethnic studies classes at San Francisco State University went on strike, essentially shutting down campus, the goals had shifted from DuBois' aim of engendering more respect from whites. As explained on the SFSU Africana Studies Department History Web page, the nonintegrationist Black Students Union, Third World Liberation Front, and their allies in the Black Panthers saw ethnic studies as part of a campaign for broad reform of the university, including open admissions for minority students and courses that would "serve as a counter to white value and white attitudinal courses."

SFSU hurriedly set up a division of ethnic studies, offering black, Chicano, Asian and Native American studies, and so many other colleges followed suit that the University of Denver's chancellor, Maurice B. Mitchell, observed, "It is difficult to underestimate the intensity with which courses in Negro and Spanish-American history are being - added to the curriculum at all levels in this part of the country."

Encyclopaedia Britannica published a 1,400-page, three-volume set on The Negro in American History, and by 1970 the NASSP Bulletin from the National Association of Secondary School Principals was boasting that "New York City high schools have responded greatly to the pressing need for the inclusion of black studies in their social studies curriculum."

Backlash—and Acceptance

There were signs of white backlash from the start. In The Spokesman-Review, based in Washington state, for example, a columnist listed new courses in "black philosophy, black literature, 'third world' studies, Swahili, and black music," in Eastern High School in Washington, D.C., complaining that "the neglect of the Negro in history ... stands to be replaced by overemphasis." The columnist stated this was the trend in American high schools and colleges, and that paying so much attention to this was not the best use of classroom time.

Newspapers published accounts of incidents like the one reported in the Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio on February 14, 1970—ironically, Feb. 14 is Abraham Lincoln's birthday—during which white students at Middletown High School in Ohio tried to walk out of a seminar on black history. (Black students confronted them, and a racially charged "pitched battle" broke out, the newspaper stated.)

By contrast, Florida schools today have taken a more peaceful, albeit slower, route toward teaching minority groups' histories and cultures without sinking into culture wars. In 1994, the state passed a law requiring more content on African- American history, Latino history and the Holocaust in its core social studies classes, and the Task Force on African American History was formed to train teachers statewide, offer resources to districts, and monitor progress in the courses. Today the task force describes eight of the largest districts in the state as "exemplary"—that is, in full compliance with the 1994 law—and chair Bernadette Kelley says that although the mandate has yet to be fully achieved statewide, most districts are complying to some extent.

Not only do Florida schools teach from culturally inclusive core curricula, but elective ethnic studies courses are thriving in some districts. Gloria Crutchfield, director of secondary curriculum for the School District of Palm Beach County, notes that 22 of the county's 23 high schools offer African and/or African-American history courses; some also offer courses in the history of Latinos, Vietnam, women and the Holocaust. "We live in an interconnected world, so it's important for kids to learn each other's histories," she says.

Raising the Bar Across Curriculum

Kelley raises another issue—one that's not easy to prove—that wasn't part of the 1960s debate: "If we teach students about where they come from, reading and math scores increase. Every group and every student must feel part of the education process - to reduce suspension rates and increase the graduation rates of all students, particularly African-American males."

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho speaks at the Florida state capitol against state budget cuts in education this past spring. Carvalho has found ways around cutting ethnic studies classes in his district.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho adds that his district's "commitment to instilling pride in every child's identity" is in part the reason why it's the highest-performing urban school district on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams. "The exploration of [multicultural students'] heritage excites and entices our kids, so it's as important as language arts and science," Carvalho says. "We treat the African-American curriculum as a moral imperative."

Teaching ethnic studies in Miami is generally accepted, but Carvalho has run into another roadblock: budgets. Rather than cut instruction in African-American and Latino history, he notes, "We've cut our administrative budget by 52 percent and changed our health insurance plan."

Dennis Holt, supervisor of secondary school social studies at Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, says that electives in his district are actually growing. The district emphasizes teaching reading skills through social studies so middle and high school students' reading scores increase on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Also, he says, teachers who take on an elective ethnic studies course are people who are passionate about the subject, and the kids pick up on that and apply themselves to their studies.

Supporters of the ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District protest this past May outside the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix.

Texas Politics

It gets more contentious in Texas, where the arguments aren't about stand-alone ethnic studies courses, but the way various issues, including the histories of minority groups, are covered in the new core curriculum. When the Texas Education Agency revised its TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards for K12 core social studies in May 2010, the normally conservative Fordham Institute characterized TEKS as a "heavily politicized" document in which "slavery and segregation are all but ignored" and "native peoples are missing until brief references to nineteenth- century events."

Julio Noboa of the Multicultural Alliance for Social Studies goes even further, accusing TEKS of glossing over "the Klan, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws and the Mexican-American civil rights movement." And the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens have filed a lawsuit against the state board of education.

Gail Lowe, chair of the state board, counters, "Most critics haven't really looked at the new standards. We wanted to emphasize some of the patriotic elements of our state and country, to beef up instruction on important events, dates, constitutional rights and the founding fathers." Longtime board member and former social studies teacher Pat Hardy declares, "Anyone who is critical needs to go back and read the darned standards. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable, so the new TEKS has more minorities than the old curriculum. George Washington Carver was not in the old standards—for that matter, neither was John Adams—but he's there now."

Where does this battle of words (and lawyers) leave someone like Angela Miller, secondary school social studies curriculum manager for the Houston Independent School District? On the one hand, she says that "most of the people involved in revising the standards had no background in history or social studies," resulting in "a curriculum that is biased" and "weighted down with testable names and dates." (Hardy agrees that the list of required names and dates is too long.) Indeed, the Houston district petitioned the state board in the spring of 2010 to postpone its approval of TEKS. But now that TEKS has been approved, says Miller, "this is our curriculum, and by law, we must teach it."

She adds, "I believe it's critical that we emphasize the role of minorities, and how they've thrived and suffered and contributed," but she admits that Houston can't do that by offering ethnic studies electives because instructional time is so limited. "We are a state that focuses on the test, and the emphasis now is on math and science," she says. "I'm not sure that the few ethnic studies classes Houston schools do offer will even be around next year."

Miller urges administrators to "sit down, study the new objectives, and help our teachers interpret them. "Not all curriculum objectives are created equal, so some names and dates, like William Blackstone, who appears three times in the new curriculum, may require just a mention." Miller's office continues to provide resources to help teachers enrich the curriculum. Above all, this new TEKS curriculum has strengthened Miller's resolve "to teach kids how to examine historical evidence and then make their own decisions."

Tucson's Tug of War

The clash over ethnic studies has come to a head in Arizona. Since the Tucson Unified School District created the Mexican- American Studies Department, or MASD, in the late 1990s, high school students have been able to take two years of La Raza/Mexican-American studies classes in lieu of mainstream courses. For example, they could take a social justice class instead of one on American government.

A few years ago, Tom Horne, then superintendent of the Arizona State Department of Education, accused MASD of disseminating "propaganda and an ideology that teaches [students] to resent the United States." Speaking to Tucson's ABC affiliate, he continued: "The La Raza studies convey a revolutionary message, a separatist message." As proof, he pointed to Rodolfo Acuna's book, "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos," and other materials used in the classes. Horne helped draft Arizona House Bill 2281, which bans classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government, ... promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and advocate ethnic solidarity."

When HB 2281 was passed in May 2010, students staged a protest, and 11 MASD teachers filed a lawsuit against Horne and the state board. CNN reported that Tucson school board member Adelita Grijalva called HB 2281 "part of an anti-immigrant political climate." Richard Martinez, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, maintains that HB 2281 violates the First and 14th Amendments. "Accusing us of sedition is comical," says Augustine F. Romero, the Tucson district's director of student equality. "We've done nothing wrong. What we're really about is closing the achievement gap."

In 1969, Columbia University students stand by the hooded statue of the Alma Mater after a rally in front of the low library in New York.

Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, a University of Arizona professor and advocate of MASD, adds, "Tucson's program is exceptional, a model. Students become engaged and they succeed. Expanding and adopting such an ethnic studies model in communities nationwide would unquestionably see a dramatic rise in graduation rates and an increase in college-going rates."

Last fall, Horne ran as the Republican nominee for state attorney general, won the election, and declared Tucson schools to be in violation of HB 2281, which went into effect Jan. 1. TUSD board president Mark Stegeman complained that this was "ex post facto jurisprudence"—that the state could not punish TUSD for noncompliance in 2010, because the bill had not become law yet. The Tucson board insisted that the district had done nothing wrong, and it filed an administrative appeal.

Still, Tucson was in a tight spot. First, such an appeal leads to a quasi-judicial review that isn't binding. Second, Tucson's new superintendent, John Pedicone, had chosen to comply with HB 2281, to the dismay of some MASD teachers. Third, if found to be violating the law, the already financially strapped Tucson schools would forfeit about $15 million in state aid. Pedicone said that "we can't jeopardize the whole district for the sake of any one program." (At last count, fewer than 5 percent of Tucson's 13,000 high school students were enrolled in MASD classes.)

When Horne's replacement as state superintendent initiated a $170,000 audit of the Mexican-American studies classes in early 2011, Pedicone convinced him to avoid making any adverse rulings in the midst of the semester. Meanwhile, Stegeman, caught between advocates and foes of the MASD, suggested a compromise: Continue to offer the classes, but as electives, so students would have to take the mainstream American history and government courses for core social studies credits. Sean Arce, director of Mexican-American studies in the district, told board members

that this would essentially kill the program. "Students, particularly Latino students who have traditionally struggled to graduate, will not take the additional courses and double up for an additional history class."

Just Heating Up

Personal attacks, protests, a lawsuit, and possible financial penalties—what's an administrator to do? Throughout the spring semester, Pedicone sought consensus among conflicting constituencies. "When lines are drawn in the sand, separating us by race and culture, kids get caught in the middle," Pedicone says. "The district needs to be taking care of people—not being adversarial." He displayed statistics showing that Mexican-American students in the Mexican-American Studies program have 5 to 11 percent higher graduation rates than those who don't.

On June 16, the Arizona Republic published state superintendent John Huppenthal's verdict: Because Mexican-American studies course materials "referenced white people as 'oppressors'" and "the program is primarily designed for pupils of a particular ethnic race," Tucson is not complying with the law.

Pedicone admitted to the Arizona Republic that the district might not have adequately monitored the courses, but he also restated his position that "kids do feel connected to these classes. Because of that, we want to preserve them."

"Things are just heating up here in Arizona," warn the Three Sonorans, who write a column for that supports the Mexican-American Studies program. "A long hot summer is ahead."

The larger question is whether the sort of culture wars that have sprung up over Tucson's Mexican-American studies program will lead to battles in other public school districts.

Ed Wetschler is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.