Ethnic Studies Grad Requirements are a Beginning, Not an End

Sign that says "It's a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it".

My home state of California recently celebrated yet another first by becoming the first in the nation to require an ethnic studies class to graduate from high school. The bill’s author, Assemblymember Jose Medina, believes that ethnic studies “provides hope for fostering understanding and unity” in the face of civil unrest and racial tension. In fact, passage of the legislation came just over a week after students from an Orange County, California high school demonstrated why this mass education is still sorely needed.

In a highly publicized racial incident, the students from one high school with a very slight white majority student population at 51% seemingly targeted the Latinx students from a neighboring high school by way of a viral poster reading, “Ur dad is my GARDENER.”

While the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District vowed to investigate, the school board may meanwhile propose a resolution to define and ban “critical race theory” at their next meeting.

As an Orange County Latina who attended high school in the same school district in question, I’m both disappointed by how little has changed in the more-than-decade since I graduated and also hopeful for the classes of 2030 and beyond (2030 is the year in which the ethnic studies requirement becomes effective for graduates).

It simply isn’t too much to ask that our education system include educating our children about diversity.

In fact, such racist incidents demonstrate ignorance about, if not outright resistance to, the reality of an increasingly diverse nation with a diminishing white population. Part of the issue we are facing can be attributed to the lack of diversity within the teaching corps as much as it reflects an uninformed portion of the student population.

Reflecting upon my time in high school, I can attest to the fact that I never had a Latinx teacher, or any teacher of color for that matter.

I can’t recall ever interacting with a Latinx school administrator during my four years.

All my teachers were, as far as I could tell, white. I genuinely believe that they cared about me and the rest of their students regardless of race or ethnicity and a handful of my teachers were wonderful with credit due to their commitment to teaching.

But, there were others who sometimes committed lapses in cultural understanding in their teaching and during casual interactions with students. Such microaggressions included errant remarks about immigration and “real Mexicans” during class lectures and overheard “jokes” predicting which Latina student would be the first to become pregnant, that I was forced to process at a critical time in my development.

In my school district, the teacher population is nearly 80% white, while the student population is 43% Latinx.

But let me be clear, this isn’t just a suburban Orange County reality. In California, the most diverse state in our nation, Latinx teachers only make up 21% of the teaching workforce while the student population is more than 50% Latinx.

According to a 2018 study from the Learning Policy Institute, students of color who have educators of color demonstrate greater academic achievement, such as social and emotional gains; increased scores on standardized tests; and decreased rates of chronic absenteeism, suspensions, and dropouts. White students benefit from educator diversity as well, meaning that the achievement of a truly diverse teaching workforce would be a win for all students.

Yet, aspiring teachers of color experience significant barriers to entry at every level of the teacher workforce pipeline, such as the high cost of college attendance and lower college completion rates.

These problems are not without solutions at every level of our education system. 

For example, school districts could create DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) subcommittees to strengthen hiring and retention practices and work in partnership with local Minority Serving Institutions. States could modify credentialing requirements to remove unnecessary hurdles, such as overreliance on standardized testing requirements given the mounting evidence that they don’t accurately or consistently predict teacher effectiveness.

At the federal level, the Secretary of Education could create a subcommittee to explore and report to Congress potential solutions, such as grant programs and additional financial aid (#DoublePell).

The inclusion of an ethnic studies bill as a high school graduation requirement is a hard-fought accomplishment with far-reaching implications. However, it’s only the beginning of not only the kind of transformation that is possible, but the kind necessary to promote inclusivity and student success for our next generation.

Briana M. Calleros lives in Brea, CA and works as the Director of Community Education at Suma Wealth. She is a recent graduate of the Hispanas Organized for Political Equity (HOPE) HLI 2021 Cohort, an intensive nine-month leadership program for professional Latinas across California. The goal of the Institute is to train Latinas in vital leadership and advocacy skills, enabling them to create fundamental change within their local neighborhoods, state, and workplace.

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