Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Ban of an Ethnic Studies Program in Arizona Sparks Debate

One of the challenges presented by the growing diversification of the country’s student population is how best to incorporate culturally relevant material into the standard curriculum. Educational research and classroom evidence show that students are more engaged and learn better when they can personally relate to the subject matter. For example, if students in a class are predominantly Latino, stories about Sally and Bob probably won’t grab their attention as well as stories about Marisol and Joaquin.

However, there also is debate over whether a culturally relevant curriculum can end up promoting resentment and reinforcing social stratification. That debate is at the heart of an ongoing controversy in Arizona, where the Tucson school district’s ethnic studies program has been under fire. Last week, an Arizona administrative law judge ruled that the program violates a state law banning divisive ethnic studies classes, backing an earlier ruling by the state’s superintendent of public instruction.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Arizona public schools chief John Huppenthal had concluded that the program violated the law, which bans classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” A Huffington Post piece notes that “Huppenthal has 30 days to accept, reject or modify the ruling. If he accepts the judge’s decision, the district has about 30 days to appeal the ruling in Superior Court.”

Opponents say such programs promote victimhood; advocates say they simply teach parts of American history and culture left out of the mainstream curriculum.

A pending case in federal court challenges the constitutionality of the state law, and a group of teachers and students have requested an injunction to stop an implementation of the ban.

Regardless of the outcome, the Arizona controversy highlights the difficulty of adjusting the curriculum to match student demographics. If school districts in your area are creating ethnic studies programs, how are they balancing the offerings? Have there been protests or concerns on either side? What evidence – anecdotal or research-based –have you found that the programs help or hurt students?

On a side note, this will be my last post for the Latino Ed Beat, as I am returning to the newsroom full-time as an education reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Thanks for reading my thoughts on education coverage. I hope you’ll continue to check the blog for ideas and inspiration. I know I will.