Making a Case for Ethnic Studies in Texas Schools

Mural by Raul Valdez, c. 1978 at the Pan American Recreation Center at Zavala Elementary, in Austin, Texas.

Recent research has found that students who participate in ethnic studies classes show improved academic performance and a higher attendance rate. Students benefit from seeing their culture and ethnic backgrounds represented in the classroom, and studies suggest that the relevant subject matter encourages students to be more engaged in the coursework.

However, courses of this type have been met with resistance. For example, in Tucson, a Mexican-American studies course was banned in 2010 due to claims that it caused divisiveness among students of different ethnicities.

Evidence is lacking for those claims, though, says Educational Administration Professor Angela Valenzuela. “Although perhaps counterintuitive for some at first glance, the opposite is actually true,” she said. In fact, research overwhelmingly supports the finding that studying other cultures actually promotes understanding and cohesiveness among students and teachers.

Recently, Valenzuela testified in a precedent-setting legal struggle, Acosta et al. v. Huppenthal, et al. in the Tucson Unified School District. The case battled and helped overturn policies that eliminated teachers’, students’, and the community’s dreams for what turned out to be a short-lived Mexican American Studies program.

Photo of Angela Valenzuela
Angela Valenzuela

And though Arizona’s hopes for ethnic studies courses were dashed, Texas schools are now taking steps to incorporate those courses into the curriculum for 11th and 12th grade students, thanks to advocacy from concerned groups and individuals such as Valenzuela. In fact, six high schools in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) will offer ethnic studies courses by fall 2017. The goal is to have all high schools in AISD offering ethnic studies by fall of 2018. A statewide course also has been approved by the State Board of Education and could be implemented by the state legislature by 2023-25.

The first course, which will focus on ethnic studies through literature, can be counted towards graduation as an English III or English IV requirement. Having the class count toward graduation, as opposed to an elective, is important, as it can aid students’ progress toward graduating on time, and it offers a greater incentive to participate.

According to Valenzuela, teaching diverse students about their cultures in social, political, and economic contexts helps them to feel a part of the grand American narrative where their ancestors made important contributions to society and history. Seeing how their culture contributed to the development of America boosts ethnic students’ academic self-identity and confidence.