A culturally rich curriculum can improve minority student achievement

For some, the ivory tower of academia is “ivory” in more ways than one.

Events over the last year showed us that within our educational spaces, racial tension can quickly bubble to the surface. Protests erupted across the country, and college campuses became hotbeds for a new wave of student activism that helped deliver a powerful, inescapable message: As a country, we have failed to address how race fits into American education, and communities of color feel a lack of representation. Whether it was the absence of diversity among faculty members or outright instances of racism, student activists cited myriad reasons for their discontent. Children of color will make up 52 percent of K–12 students by 2021. Will this spike in non-white Americans feel the same alienation from, and even anger toward, what is perceived as a mainstream American education? What can be done today to bridge the gap in achievement—and the gap in classroom representation? We might start with culturally responsive school curricula.

As many have said before me, education plays a major role in framing American culture and identity. Through our schools, we reflect on which “ideas, phrases, and principles...are woven into the fabric of the nation,” argues my colleague Robert Pondiscio. An American education should teach us what it means to be American—but for too many minority students, our education system has left them feeling like outsiders. To understand why this may be, we can look to the world of social psychology, which comes from the very same rarified academic realm that was under indictment for much of 2015. While skepticism is understandable, I believe the implications of some of this research has huge value for those who wish to promote education for all.

Stereotypes about which racial groups can and cannot succeed academically have become pervasive in American classrooms. A large, growing body of research has demonstrated how teacher expectations can reinforce the notion that white and Asian students will outperform their black and Hispanic classmates. The American Psychological Association has found that this kind of stereotyping can widen the achievement gap by creating a “stereotype threat”—a self-enforcing stigma for students who believe they are “inferior in academics.” Stereotype threat can “raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties,” potentially damning a student’s academic performance. Culturally responsive curricula would work to intervene and directly address issues tied to race, such as stereotype threat, by providing an opportunity for students to dig deep into the multiplicity the American experience. This would go beyond the “multiculturalism” that is often presented to students in the brief photo captions of history textbooks, or the lessons on black history and contributions we jam into the month of February.

To be sure, elements of multiculturalism are probably more present in U.S. school curricula today than ever before. The fact that we have a Black History Month at all is progress. Unfortunately, the presence of multiculturalism in education has not done much for struggling students of color. Despite our best efforts, the achievement gap persists between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic classmates. Regardless of how much progress towards an inclusive, representative education we’ve made in our classrooms, there’s room for improvement—especially when emerging research suggests that there is much to be gained by bolstering our efforts in this field.

A recent NBER study argues that culturally responsive curricula (also known as ethnic studies) can have major causal effects on outcomes for at-risk minority students. San Francisco Unified School District teamed up with the Stanford Graduate School of Education to pilot an ethnic studies course for 1,405 incoming high school freshman students who were deemed at risk of dropping out (with a GPA of 2.0 or lower upon completing the eighth grade). The course, designed by San Francisco State University, “focused on themes of social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements from U.S. history” from the eighteenth century through the 1970s. Students were also encouraged to engage with their community and family history through required service-learning projects. Participating students’ cumulative GPAs jumped by 1.4 grade points, their attendance increased by 21 percent, and they earned twenty-three more credits overall compared to peers just beyond the program’s threshold for inclusion. More impressively, GPA gains were larger for boys than for girls, a feat nearly unexampled in recent education reform measures.

My own experience in Los Angeles public schools exemplifies the difference that a frame of relevance can have on a student’s interest in education. Despite being Korean American, I was never the straight-A, 4.0 GPA, math-whiz, Saturday-school-dwelling cliché so often applied to my peers. My not-really-a-Tiger-Mom left me to my own devices when it came to school. Sometimes, the studying got done—but there were many, many times that it didn’t. By my freshman year of high school, I was struggling in more classes than I was succeeding in. World history was one such class. Memorizing the succession sequence of Russian tsars or the date the Magna Carta was signed just didn’t interest me.

I do, however, remember one lesson that really resonated. It was the day we discussed personal narratives of Japanese Americans in World War II internment camps. Knowing that my grandparents had immigrated from Korea to the States around that time, I ruminated for days on how this ugly period of history must have affected my fellow Asian-Americans. Discussing it with my family that week led to some of the fullest moral conversations of my pre-college years.

As an Asian American, I escaped much of the negative stereotyping that black and Hispanic students often face in the classroom. I never felt like I was expected to fail because of my racial identity. I simply found that curriculum rarely succeeded in getting me to question, reflect, and engage with the material I was learning on a deep level. Culturally responsive curricula would introduce a means through which students of color could directly engage their education, working to counteract negative stereotyping and heighten student interest as well.

The parallels between the perceived representation gap in higher education and the achievement gap in K–12 education are striking. For struggling students of color, a new take on school curriculum might help narrow both. To be clear: An emphasis on culturally responsive curriculum is not the same as suggesting that we stop teaching about America’s founders, or any of the other pivotal figures or moments in history that don’t center on people of color. This is not an attempt to “assert that every racial group should have its own sealed and separate history.” Rather, it would encourage efforts to diversify material, promote pride in cultural differences, and encourage existing teaching practices that have already demonstrated success in the classroom. Introducing culturally responsive curricula could be a critical step toward breaking down the ivory tower’s walls and reminding all our students that academic excellence was meant for them too.