Curriculum Reform and Its Connection to the Black Lives Matter Movement

The imperative to reform our nation’s curricula

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the destruction of Black Wall Street. The 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the death of 128 Black human subjects. The 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Can you recall learning about these acts of racial violence in your K-12 education?

These moments in the history of the United States directly harmed Black and Brown communities and ended the lives of Black Americans as a result of racial violence. However, missing from educational curriculums and textbooks across the United States is America’s racist past and our not too different present.

Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight against school segregation in California in Westminster v. Mendez, about 8 years before the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and their crucial roles in launching NASA’s Friendship 7. Shirley Chisholm and her path to becoming the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. The activism of Audre Lorde against the oppression of BIPOC and Queer communities, as well as her renowned array of literary works.

Do you recall learning about these leaders’ contributions to American history within your K-12 education?

Education reveals the systemic inequities that exist today and connects them to specific policies, leaders, or moments in history. The dilemma? These policies, leaders, or moments in history are notably absent from the United States’ K-12 curriculum, and there is not enough effort to address the societal traumas of racism or to highlight the tremendous contributions of BIPOC.

There is a clear moral and economic imperative for school curricula rooted in a commitment to anti-racism, social justice, and inclusivity.

A focus on introducing Ethnic Studies throughout K-12 can help address the historic lack of attention paid to this vital section of our history, and increase the engagement and integration of Black and Brown communities into the educational system.

If these actions are taken, there is also the opportunity to increase economic mobility for marginalized groups.

As we approach three months since the murder of George Floyd, we have all witnessed and/or contributed to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In response to the police brutality and white supremacy that have been endemic in our systems for centuries, this resurgence has led many to educate themselves further on critical race theory, take a more in-depth look at US history, donate to racial justice organizations, and march in stride with Black organizers across the nation.

The missing ingredient: ethnic studies

Ethnic studies is the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity, with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color, and both social and ethnic minorities within and beyond the United States.

By integrating ethnic studies into K-12 education, students will connect with other students’ lived experiences, students will learn about individuals and people of color in history that are often hidden behind Eurocentric curricula, students of color will see themselves portrayed in a positive light in class materials (feeling empowered rather than marginalized), and students will learn about how racism has led to the inequities we still see today.

The failings of my education

As I grew up in the small borough of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, I was grateful for my education and the opportunity to take rigorous classes that would prepare me for post-secondary education. As an aspiring first-generation college student, I was fortunate to have a college counselor that did not place a ceiling on my ambitions. However, my education provided a very Eurocentric view of the world, failing to accurately portray the lived experiences of people of color. My hometown was a predominantly white community (over 95% of the population), but community demographics should not be a key determinant of what is or is not included in school curricula.

I graduated from high school with an innocent ignorance towards matters of oppression, disempowerment, and racism. 

Nonetheless, this innocent ignorance would begin to dissipate as I enrolled in anthropology and sociology courses at the University of Virginia. I very quickly began to realize that my textbooks and classes growing up failed to accurately represent the complex realities of institutional racism that affect my community and other communities of color. I recall one course at UVA, “Race and Ethnicity in Latinx Literature,” which unpacked experiences of Hispanics and Latinx people in the United States through the authorship of Black and Brown writers. This class would teach me more about the systemic issues affecting our community and would nudge me towards public policy as a solution to injustice.

My journey to become an advocate for ethnic studies

One year ago, it was my privilege to be a Policy Intern at the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL). As a Latino student aiming to create societal change through public policy, it was an incredible feeling to work with Hispanic and Latinx public servants from across the country.  My experience consistently reminded me of the power (and potential) of a genuinely representative government, a representative body conscious of the issues affecting diverse communities. Notably, Latinos make up only 1% of all local, state, and federal elected officials, so there is much room for improvement.

One of my main tasks at NHCSL was to conduct legislative research and draft resolutions advocating for issues affecting the Hispanic and Latinx community. I wrote resolutions surrounding chronic absenteeism in schools, temporary protected status for Venezuelans, non-medical vaccine exemptions, and comprehensive economic reforms for military families.

It was exciting to advocate for my community in each of these resolutions, but there was one that was extremely personal to me. This resolution advocated for integrating ethnic studies into K-12 education. This resolution was sponsored by Rep. Teresa Alonso León (OR) and Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (WA), and it is a testament to the pressing need for curriculum reform. A need that I personally witnessed years before I was tasked with this resolution.

As I drafted resolutions urging legislators to inform policy with a conscious commitment to racial equality at NHCSL, I became acutely aware of the gap between what our public education system in America tells us and what the world is actually like.

Truth be told, I had no idea how relevant ethnic studies curriculum reform would become only one year after my internship and six months after NHCSL unanimously ratified the resolution on December 5th, 2019, at the annual meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. With the resolution passed by the 425 state legislators pertaining to the Caucus, the document is an emphatic call for US K-12 curriculum reform.

Economic mobility and ethnic studies curriculum reform

In addition to centering the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) through culturally responsive pedagogy, there are also connections between ethnic studies and economic mobility. Integrating ethnic studies as a primary focus of curricula can enhance educational and, ultimately, economic outcomes for all.

For example, a San Francisco Unified School District study by Thomas Dee and Emily Penner found that participation in a high school ethnic studies course increased student attendance by 21 percent, increased grade point average by 1.4 points, and increased the total amounts of credits earned by 23 credits (half a school year).

In Tucson, Arizona, students enrolled in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program were twice as likely to graduate from high school than non-MAS students. This analysis by Nolan Cabrera, Jeffrey Milem, and Ronald Marx demonstrated how ethnic studies programs would bolster academic success.

These two research studies highlight how ethnic studies can improve academic outcomes for students. By elevating high school GPAs, improving attendance, and increasing graduation rates (while at the same time combating white supremacy’s remnants in school curricula), there is the possibility that higher education becomes an option for more and more students of color. With more opportunities for higher education, students will now have access to increased social capital and financial capital that are crucial to economic mobility. 

Essentially, ethnic studies has the potential to close the achievement gap.

At CPI, we believe that individuals’ opportunity to achieve upward economic mobility is a foundational component of free and fair democracy. In today’s evolving economy, there’s a myriad of factors that impact individual mobility. These may include race, gender, place of birth, and these characteristics should all be viewed with an intersectional lens.

Thus, by integrating ethnic studies into the K-12 curriculum, we are not only teaching our youth with an explicit commitment to anti-racism, but we are also increasing the likelihood of economic mobility through sharing the lived experiences of students and the empowerment of BIPOC in our schools. Ethnic studies pedagogy will work towards the abolition of white supremacy in our schools, and consequently, in our society. 

Reimagining the education system

The last couple of weeks have re-energized the conversation around ethnic studies. One student, Laura Durante, an 18-year-old from Middletown, NJ, created a petition to integrate ethnic studies into her school district. She said, “To continue to teach in a manner that blatantly ignores the histories and cultures of both Black and Indigenous people and their oppression is doing the next generation of leaders a grand disservice.” In California’s Fresno Unified School District there have also been a group of educators, students and community members advocating for ethnic studies. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has also published a children’s book, “Antiracist Baby,” affirming the need to discuss race with children at an early age.

We must reimagine our education system to equip our youth for the complex realities that shape our country. Curriculum reform centered around integrating ethnic studies represents a clear first step. Students will learn how communities of color were disenfranchised through de jure and de facto methods, as well as how communities of color have contributed to the development of our nation. 

By telling a more complete and honest narrative of our nation’s history, we can build our collective understanding of how institutional racism has infiltrated and continues to influence government policy. Understanding this critical historical context allows us to more openly identify systemic racism in today’s society and work together to dismantle it. It provides a starting point to heal the wounds between government and communities of color, building trust and strengthening the legitimacy of our public institutions.