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Why Carlos Went Back to School

Research shows that students who see their culture represented in the curriculum get the most out of it.

Found In: School Life

Carlos entered my office to find out about my graduate program in education

He had graduated from high school, but found school boring, so he entered the military rather than college. After one tour of duty, he returned to his hometown and got a minimum wage job.

One day, he ran into a friend who was taking Chicano studies courses at a community college. The friend was so enthusiastic, Carlos decided to see what Chicano studies was all about. He was hooked. For the first time, he found a curriculum centered on his reality. Carlos completed community college and then got a B.A. He became an avid reader about Mexican vaquero (cowboy) culture, and accumulated a mini-library. He wanted to continue his education in order to teach, which to my knowledge, he is still doing today.

Carlos is not unique.

As early as elementary school, students respond to curricula based partly on what they experience in their communities.

Studies have consistently found a relationship between academic achievement, awareness of race and racism, and positive identification with one’s own racial group. One study surveyed Black high school students. Those most likely to graduate and go to college expressed high awareness of race and racism, and high regard for being Black.

Studies with middle school students have documented high student engagement when literature by authors of the students’ ethnic background was used. In the Webster Groves Writing Project, middle and high school teachers used action research to improve writing achievement of Black students. Participating students made greater gains than non-participating students on the state writing test.

There are many other programs with documented results:

The Cultural Modeling curriculum leverages the ability of speakers of Black English to interpret symbolism, a skill students use routinely in rap and hip hop but do not necessarily apply to literature in school. In an experimental study in two low-achieving Black urban high schools, four classes were taught using Cultural Modeling and two were taught the traditional English curriculum. The experimental students’ gain was over twice that of the controls.

The Rough Rock English-Navajo Language Arts Program was designed to develop bi-literacy skills of K–6 students, the majority of whom spoke Navajo. After four years, students’ achievement on locally developed measures of comprehending spoken English had increased from 51 percent to 91 percent. Reading scores on standardized tests also rose.

The Math in a Cultural Context (MCC) elementary curriculum connects Yup’ik culture with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. For example, the “Parkas and Patterns” module focuses on geometry. Students who use MCC make more progress toward the state standards than students who do not.

The Social Justice Education Project in Tucson, Arizona, has been used in high schools where over 40 percent of Chicano students drop out. It includes a community research project in which students gather data about manifestations of racism and analyze how they can be challenged. During the first year, 17 students on the verge of dropping out participated. At least 15 graduated and 10 enrolled in college.

Read the full NEA Research report on NBI 2010-3: The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies: A Research Review ( PDF, 309 KB, 38 pgs.).

From The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies, by Christine E. Sleeter. Copyright 2011 by the National Education Association. All rights reserved.


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