Changing Curriculum Can Change a Student’s Life: Why Massachusetts Should Pass Ethnic Studies Legislation
By: Marilyn Flores
Massachusetts, the state ranked highest in educational attainment nationwide, is frequently lauded for its public education system. It is clear, however, that the system is failing students of color. The four-year graduation rate for white students in the Commonwealth is 93%, compared to 80% for Black students and 74% for Latino students. These inequities persist beyond high school—we see them play out in college degree attainment, and poverty rates for Latinos, all things that have been exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic
The lack of diversity in the state’s teaching force is one facet of this issue, which is currently being addressed by a coalition of legislators and organizations including Latinos for Education (read about the Educator Diversity Act.) But another crucial aspect of this issue, less frequently discussed but critical, is the lack of culturally relevant curriculum.
White students’ identities are constantly affirmed in their classrooms. Most of their teachers and principals look like them. History books tell a story of America where white people (men in particular) are the heroes, and people of color are victims or footnotes at best and inaccurately, maliciously vilified at worst. The books students are assigned to read in high school have changed very little in decades: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, The Outsiders. To Kill a Mockingbird purportedly teaches students about racism, but its author and protagonist are white.
Many teachers try to bring diverse voices into their classrooms, but a dash of diversity here and there for heritage celebrations and history months is far from enough. Moreover, the burden should not solely be on the teacher to try to make changes to curricula that are designed to meet the standards of statewide testing. Ideally, Black, Native American, Latinx and Asian American history would be infused into U.S. history courses; Europe would not be the center of world history; and English classes would teach as many, if not more, texts by BIPOC authors. There are numerous hurdles to this reality, but in the most educated state in the country—where students of color are growing in number but still falling behind in achievement—shouldn’t we try? We can begin by offering ethnic studies courses in our secondary schools.
Numerous studies have shown the academic benefits of ethnic studies courses, particularly for marginalized students, including improved grade point average and attendance. In Tucson, AZ, Mexican-American students who took Mexican American Studies classes were more likely to graduate from high school and even to pass standardized tests they had previously failed. Despite these outcomes, Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program was dissolved after Arizona banned ethnic studies under state law.
Here in the Bay State, the Boston Teachers Union Ethnic Studies Now! Organizing Committee has worked for three years to design and implement an ethnic studies curriculum for Boston Public Schools. The program is now being piloted, although promised resources and funding have been slow to materialize. The Ethnic Studies Now! Committee did not have to look far for a model of how to deliver an ethnic studies curriculum, collaborating with University of Massachusetts faculty and teachers from Holyoke Public Schools. Holyoke began their Ethnic Studies program in 2014 as a means to improve student engagement in middle school. Now offered to students in grades 7 through 12, data from Holyoke has shown that taking Ethnic Studies classes reduced the rate of student absenteeism and led to a decrease in disciplinary referrals.
In 2019, Holyoke High School students involved in the Ethnic Studies program protested the school’s dress code, which they felt was disrespectful of students’ cultures and racist in its enforcement. After surveying the student body, the organizers presented their findings to the principal, superintendent, and mayor. Three days later, the policy was changed. In Holyoke—a majority Puerto Rican school district— not only were students learning about Puerto Rican history and how Puerto Rican migrants had helped develop Western Massachusetts, they were also learning how to organize and advocate. They were being empowered to use their voices for change. And perhaps this lies at the heart of controversies over ethnic studies in communities across the country: the fear of what will happen when students of color join together in solidarity and refuse to be marginalized.
Connecticut recently became the first state in the country to mandate that all of its public high schools offer an elective Black and Latino studies course. US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, formerly CT’s Education Commissioner, was a major proponent of the plan.
Noelia Nunez, a high school senior in Danbury, CT, spoke about how the Latino history class at her school was a safe space: “It’s become my zone, a sanctuary, because it’s where we learn about who we were.”
Massachusetts should follow its neighbor’s lead and pass similar legislation. All students stand to benefit from a more thorough understanding of different cultures and the peoples and policies that have shaped our world. If we strive for a more just society, we must teach students the roots of injustice, for they cannot dismantle what they cannot see.
A 2020 Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellow, Marilyn Flores is a graduate of Smith College and earned her Master’s at Yale University, where she undertook research on the history of Puerto Rican communities in New England. She is currently Senior Associate Director of Admission at Worcester Academy, where she advises the Latinx affinity group and serves on the DEI Strategic Implementation Committee. Passionate about access and mentorship, she is a board member of Worcester Latino Dollars for Scholars, a nonprofit dedicated to helping local Latinx students attain their higher education goals, and she mentors first-generation college students through The Philanthropic Initiative.