Danielle Hayes, a high school history teacher in Holyoke, points to a pull-down screen at the front of her class that shows a photo of a door chained and padlocked. She wants her ninth-graders to consider the picture a metaphor for what they are doing — learning.
“If I were to try to open the door with my hands, what might happen? The chains would jangle, and it would not open,” Hayes says, explaining that the chained door can represent barriers on the way to graduation. “Sometimes,” she adds, “when we look at the flaws of learning and schools, it can feel like you’re tugging on these doors that won’t open.”
Hayes is teaching a yearlong ethnic studies history course, and her lesson this day in November is quintessential ethnic studies, an attempt to have students think critically about the institution of education itself. The 33-year-old teacher has written the lesson’s “essential questions” on a dry-erase board: “How can education be a form of assimilation? Liberation? What is the history of schooling? And of learning?”
In her classroom at Holyoke High’s Dean Campus, students learn about the past and also are asked to imagine a better future — for themselves as well as their community. They are encouraged, too, to express thoughts about their racial, ethnic, and gender identities through essays, poems, and songs, and in posters that decorate the hall leading into the classroom. One poster labeled “Safe Space” shows an African American teen with rainbow hair. Another shows Black, brown and rainbow-colored hands clasping each other, with a caption written in Spanish and English: “No matter where you come from or who you are, you matter on the outside and in.”
Ethnic studies is a way of teaching that focuses on centering the stories of racial and ethnic groups that are traditionally not covered in American education. The field — which some of its advocates also consider a social-justice movement — was born out of the five-month student strike on San Francisco State College’s campus in 1968 and ‘69. Thousands of students from different racial and ethnic groups, calling themselves the Third World Liberation Front, protested for equity and for the inclusion of the literature and history of their own cultures. Some protesters were beaten and arrested by police in riot gear. In the end, the school created the College of Ethnic Studies, which focused on four main disciplines: Black, American Indian, Asian American, and Latino studies.
In K-12 schools today, where ethnic studies is on the rise in some parts of the country, an ethnic studies course may focus on one particular race or ethnicity, or cover a broader range of demographics. Either way, the instruction has similar attributes: lessons focus on the history of oppression of racial and ethnicity groups, as well as how those groups rose up (and still rise up) in resistance. Students typically do youth action projects, a nod to the San Francisco State student strikers’ belief that part of education should include addressing problems in their communities. Ethnic studies, its practitioners say, goes deeper than adding a book by an author of color to the syllabus; it puts students’ lived experiences and histories at the heart of the curriculum.
Hayes’ lesson about assimilation included history of Native American children forced by the US government to attend boarding schools, and the mandate in Puerto Rican schools in the early 20th century that only English be spoken; a current events component about a Black student being suspended for having dreadlocks; and vocabulary: What does forced assimilation mean?
Some opponents to ethnic studies label such lessons as indoctrination, similar to the fierce debate going on right now about any instruction on race or racism. Hayes sees the approach as being honest. Students interpret information and events for themselves.
“I do think teaching is a political act. By staying quiet on the way systemic injustice impacts children, you are pulling the wool over their eyes,” says Hayes, who is also the department head for ethnic studies in Holyoke. “It’s disingenuous and dishonest not to be real with young people about the forces that are shaping their lives.”
Can ethnic studies classes make a difference for students and improve their chances of success? Looking for answers, the Globe Magazine examined ethnic studies efforts in public school systems in Holyoke and Boston, as well as in San Francisco, where the classes have been offered for more than a decade. Two research studies in San Francisco have shown improved academic performance for students who took the classes, and last spring the school system said a two-semester ethnic studies class will be a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2028.
Holyoke’s ethnic studies program, in place for eight years, is Massachusetts’ most established, and the most expansive. Using anonymized data provided by the district, we analyzed whether Holyoke’s ninth-grade English and history ethnic studies courses made any impact and found that a greater proportion of students who took ethnic studies classes graduated than their peers who didn’t.
The Boston school system is the newcomer to the discipline. In a surprise even to a group of teachers who had been working since 2018 to develop ethnic studies courses, Boston Public Schools’ School Committee quietly approved new graduation requirements last spring for the class of 2026 that included ethnic studies as one of three history requirements. High school freshmen next fall would be the first group to take the required course. The school district has formed a partnership with University of Massachusetts Boston, to help with teacher training and course content.
Ethnic studies, by its very nature, is provocative, and teachers know they are raising topics that cause a ruckus among school communities in states around the nation. In the past year, many state legislatures have passed or proposed measures banning teaching about race and racism — the measures are often aimed at prohibiting “Critical Race Theory” in schools. (It would be rare to find a K-12 school actually teaching CRT: it’s a legal theory describing how racism becomes part of social constructs, including legal systems.) Among the most sweeping of these was a Florida Senate measure, which recently passed the education committee. Opponents say the bill’s intent seemed to be to protect white people from “discomfort” when schools teach about racism.
In Holyoke, San Francisco, and Boston, advocates for ethnic studies courses are intent on finding ways to improve education for students as their districts have become increasingly diverse. A majority of the 54,000 students in the San Francisco system are Asian Americans, most of whom are Chinese American, and the Latino population is growing. In Boston, Latino and Black students account for three-fourths of the nearly 49,000-student school system. Roughly 80 percent of Holyoke schools’ 5,138 students are Hispanic, and most of them are of Puerto Rican heritage.
Holyoke has the largest per capita population of residents from Puerto Rico of any city in the United States. Puerto Rican history plays a large role in the ethnic studies program, and a timeline of Holyoke’s history — including the Puerto Rican diaspora — covers a back wall in Hayes’ classroom. The mills that once gave Holyoke the name the Paper City folded long ago, and the school system was taken over by the state in 2015 because of years of failure, including graduation rates regularly below 60 percent.
For the struggling school system, though, Holyoke’s ethnic studies program may be a source of hope, based on the Globe Magazine’s data analysis. We compared the outcomes of Holyoke High School freshmen who opted to take an ethnic studies English or history course (or both) to fulfill subject requirements beginning in 2016-17 with peers who did not. Of students who took at least one ethnic studies course during their freshman year, 94.1 percent went on to graduate within five years. That contrasts with the 82.2 percent graduation rate of their peers who did not take the course, estimated after statistical controls were applied. For the group of students who took both an ethnic studies English course and an ethnic studies history class in ninth grade (albeit a much smaller sample), the percentage graduating was even larger, 95.1 percent.
To have similar groups to analyze, the Globe Magazine compared ethnic studies and non-ethnic studies students by controlling for various factors such as students’ race, gender, English-learner status, special-education status, low-income status, eighth-grade test scores, and attendance. Given everything students do during their high school tenure, it’s impossible to say that ethnic studies is the sole reason a greater percentage of the students graduated, but school district leaders, the cofounder of the program, and a university professor who has helped train the teachers see the findings as evidence of a positive effect on at least student engagement.
“Being able to come into a classroom where you [had] community and felt heard was a life-changing experience,” says 18-year-old Shantel Fernandez, describing the impact of taking ethnic studies in high school. A 2021 graduate of Holyoke High North Campus, Fernandez credits ethnic studies with keeping her in school, which she had come to dread as her personal life became more unsettled. She’s lived with her grandmother since age 9, and has had neither birth parent in her life. “I was always questioning the things I was learning. I felt it had no relevance in my life,” says Fernandez, who now works part time as an ethnic studies teaching fellow, helping Hayes. Fernandez says she learned more about Puerto Rico and developed bonds with her teacher and other students because of the class emphasis on creating a caring community. She also learned how to better advocate for herself.
Kysa Nygreen, a University of Massachusetts Amherst education professor who also serves on a community advisory board for the ethnic studies program and helps train the teachers, says the Globe Magazine results are a promising first step toward long-term analysis. The group studied is only the first year of students to take the ninth-grade classes, but the results coincide with what Nygreen has heard from students and observed in classroom visits.
Dana Altshuler, cofounder of the Holyoke ethnic studies program and now a coordinator of the ethnic studies teaching fellow grant, sees the findings as a validation of Holyoke’s effort. “When I came to Holyoke [in the 2013-14 school year], there was a 50-percent graduation rate. It had the lowest graduation rate of Latinx students in the entire country,” Altshuler says. “To know Holyoke ethnic studies had some contribution in shifting that is a very beautiful and validating thing.”
While Valerie Annear, who oversees curriculum there, sees the findings as reason to keep ethnic studies in most secondary grades, including eighth, another district administrator had reservations. The findings don’t erase long-time concerns for Stephen Mahoney, Holyoke’s chief of schools and former executive principal of Holyoke High School’s three campuses. Mahoney says he isn’t sure whether the classes are rigorous enough academically, particularly the English ethnic studies classes. He wants literacy addressed more. To him, what the findings do show is the power of community that the ethnic studies teachers have created. “I don’t think it’s the content,” Mahoney says. “It’s building a tribe. When you have a tribe, you’re going to do better.”
David Ko was a first-year teacher in 2006-07 at George Washington High in San Francisco when he spotted a flier in his mailbox seeking teachers to collaborate on creating an ethnic studies course — it would be a way to celebrate the approaching 40th anniversary of the San Francisco State College student strike. Ko didn’t know much about ethnic studies when he signed up, but was beginning to see that many of his students wanted Asian American history to become a stronger part of the curriculum. He and the other teachers would get help from a San Francisco State ethnic studies professor. So in 2008, a handful of teachers, including Ko, began brainstorming.
The college student strike, which included Asian American students as activists, became a part of the lessons the city’s teachers used so students understood the origin of ethnic studies. So did the story of a program in Tucson, where courses — despite a study showing better student performance — were banned by the state for a short period and teachers, students, and supporters marched in protests. “Oftentimes, learning about important subjects, it’s, ‘Hey, there is this terrible thing. Hey, see you tomorrow,’ " Ko says — but pointing out resistance is one of the things that makes ethnic studies instruction different from other history classes.
More than a decade later, San Francisco’s K-12 ethnic studies program is considered a national model. It won school board and district-wide support early on, and thanks to nearby San Francisco State’s College of Ethnic Studies, the district gets regular teacher training support. (Holyoke’s Altshuler taught ethnic studies in San Francisco before coming to Massachusetts.)
A 2017 study led by Stanford University economics professor Thomas Dee found that students who took the school district’s pilot ninth-grade ethnic studies course had better attendance and higher grades, and passed more classes that year than students who didn’t enroll. Unlike Holyoke’s program, San Francisco also assigned students with low eighth-grade GPAs to ethnic studies classes; the researchers focused on that group to analyze whether the class could work as an intervention for students at risk of dropping out. In a follow-up study last October, co-led by UMass Amherst assistant professor Sade Bonilla, those same students continued to show better results than their peers. This time, the findings indicated that taking ethnic studies increased students’ chances of graduating: ethnic studies students’ five-year high school graduation rate was over 90 percent, compared with 75 percent among peers with similar traits. In addition, a greater percentage of ethnic studies students were enrolled in college five to six years after high school.
Dee stresses that he and the studies’ co-researchers studied the effect of this course taught by a group of “really zealous and dedicated teachers” in San Francisco. He worries about the rapid scaling up of ethnic studies not just in San Francisco but statewide, given that it becomes a California graduation requirement for students entering ninth grade in 2025 and that teachers need extensive training. “You’re asking them to go into a classroom to manage painful and difficult conversations,” Dee says. San Francisco’s program evolved over years, rather than months, as the teachers immersed themselves in learning and planning before the city’s Board of Education approved pilot programs. By 2014, it was in all 21 high schools.
Ethnic studies teachers in San Francisco follow a similar template but add their own touches to the course. They teach students to scrutinize events in history using the lens of various “isms” — such as racism, ageism, ableism, and sexism. They also ask students to examine what they’re learning for the three I’s: institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression or racism. One of the initial steps for many teachers is figuring out how to create a supportive, respectful community where students are comfortable enough to talk about race and other sensitive subjects.
Ko, who is 39, grew up in the Richmond District neighborhood where the school is located. He tries to connect to students by sharing his own story in an exercise he calls Life Slides. As he shows photos and documents related to his life, he tells students about his grandfather, a “paper son” who got into the United States under an assumed name, pretending to be related to his sponsor because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred immigration from China at the time unless the immigrant met various exemptions, including having a relative in the country. Ko’s students make their own Life Slides to introduce themselves and write oral histories.
Student Jack Guan, now a senior, took Ko’s class last school year. He recalls his reaction to hearing the story about Ko’s grandfather: “That was impactful. The Chinese Exclusion Act is long gone, but we still feel the effects of it with COVID anti-Asian crimes. There’s a renewed sentiment of ‘they’re not us.’” Guan wrote an essay after interviewing his mother, who was born in 1979 in Guangdong, China, at the end of the country’s Cultural Revolution. She told him about growing up in a village with little money and about her own challenges immigrating to the United States. In 2010, she became a US citizen. “She cast her first vote in 2012 and has cast a vote in every election since then. To my mom, being able to freely express her voice is the most fundamental part of what it means to be American,” he wrote. Since taking the course, he’s gotten more involved in youth action and, as part of a school club, helps other students register to vote. “Ethnic studies,” Guan says, “has built my confidence in being an Asian American.”
Creating community, Ko acknowledges, has been tougher during the pandemic because of remote learning. Students in an afternoon class I observed in October were eager to participate in a discussion on COVID-19 vaccine distribution. To launch the conversation, Ko gives them a link to a New York Times article with a map of vaccine distribution around the world, projecting it on a large screen. “What’s interesting?” he asks. By then, in the United States, people have had access for months to vaccines; some already were getting boosters. A student points out that in some countries, no one has been able to get a vaccine. “There’s this idea of country and national-based privilege,” Ko says. “Most of the countries with high vaccination rates are either very wealthy or created their own vaccine.”
Sometimes, students make comments that lead to challenging moments for teachers. Ko recalls a white student who asked him a decade ago in front of the class, “Wait, there’s a difference between Chinese and Korean people?” He saw the looks of astonishment on her classmates’ faces and their readiness to lash out. “I said, ‘No, no, wait, this is a place where we ask questions and we answer them.’” He explained that China and Korea are different countries and culturally distinct. In another situation this year, a student blurted, “What’s wrong with these people?” in response to incorrect grammar on classwork from a previous semester that Ko was sharing. Ko addressed issues with the student’s comment in front of the class, so that students learning English as a second language would feel supported.
Ko knows he has to be ready for any question. During class this fall as students in small groups discussed voting discrimination, Oliver Dzul asked Ko if it’s possible to “be racist to white people.” Dzul, a 16-year-old junior, had been thinking about the question since he heard another teen a few years ago pronounce that people of color cannot be racist to white people. Dzul, who is Mexican American, thought that was incorrect. As students nearby listened, Ko led Dzul through a discussion. “People can be prejudiced, bigoted toward white people, but racism looks at societal structures outside of individual cases. Does that make sense?” Ko asks. Dzul says yes.
“It’s like the oppressor can be oppressed, right?” Dzul asks. Ko nods. “Definitely. It’s true that oppressors can either A, oppress themselves, or B, be part of systems that oppress them.” He then asks Dzul to Google “Chinese business white face” on his phone. Dzul shows his finding, a CNN story: “Chinese companies ‘rent’ white foreigners.” It’s an example, Ko notes, of internalized oppression or racism. “Outside of the United States, there’s an assumption that a business that has white ownership or white employees is better. It’s not uncommon for businesses worldwide to hire white people purely because of their appearance.”
On this tightrope walk of teaching today — especially teaching about racism — Ko says he is aware of the dynamics at play in American education. “I’m very conscious about allegations of brainwashing and indoctrinating students,” he tells me. At Washington High, the school’s principal, John Schlauraff, Ko, and the social studies department head jointly conduct interviews for ethnic studies teaching candidates, screening them carefully. “Is this teacher going to project their views on the students, which is not our goal?” Schlauraff explains. “Our goal is to have students become responsible, participating citizens who can make up their own minds.”
Students note Ko’s care. Ella Morris, a 16-year-old junior who is white, says it’s pretty difficult to tell teenagers what to think, anyway. “Ethnic studies is filling in the gaps of what other classes haven’t taught,” she says. “It’s very relevant, very immediate. You can see the stuff we talk about every day.” She scoffs at critics who worry that lessons on historical oppression could make white children feel bad.
In Holyoke, Mahoney worries that teachers at times may lead students too much in one direction. In his experience, he says, many ethnic studies students’ projects ended up being attacks on school policies he’d proposed previously. One source of students’ class research, for example, was about a random search policy that Mahoney had proposed (but was never implemented).
Mahoney recounts his perception of how some ethnic studies students view his motivations: “There’s an overt political value system that becomes the water kids swim in” in ethnic studies classes, Mahoney says. In his view, the ethnic studies students think of him as “a white guy in power” who wants to do random bag searches and “put Black and brown kids in prison.” He believes teachers foster those attitudes because the ethnic studies way is to critique systems of power, including systems of power in schools. He wants to be sure students are encouraged to view the full picture, including, for example, his point that random searches were a response to problems such as gun threats, smoking marijuana, and vaping in the bathrooms, not racial profiling.
Hayes says a random search policy is an obvious topic to present to students in an ethnic studies class because such policies in schools historically have been criticized for unfairly targeting students of color. “As an ethnic studies teacher, I shared it with them and said, ‘Let’s talk about it, unpack it. What are the downfalls of this policy?’” Students did research and made presentations about their concerns to Mahoney at Holyoke High campuses.
Apprehensions about ethnic studies originate outside school communities as well as from within, like the intense debate that initially stalled expansion of such classes in California. A 600-page model curriculum had been proposed, providing examples of social movements fighting for change. Five were included, including the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, says Artnelson Concordia, one of the curriculum’s contributing writers. Active in the United States and abroad, the BDS movement aims to “end Israel’s oppression of Palestinians,” according to its website. Some Jewish organizations objected to BDS and other aspects of the Palestinian experience being included in the proposed curriculum, which also had a section on Arab American studies.
The version of the model curriculum given the green light no longer contained the examples that Jewish groups considered anti-Israel and/or antisemitic. Also, lessons on Jews and antisemitism were added.
Unhappy with the final model, a group of teachers, activists, and ethnic studies experts from some colleges created an alternate version, which they called the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, restoring some eliminated content. (There’s no obligation for school systems to use either model curriculum.) That version was announced last July at the annual Free Minds, Free People conference of ethnic studies educators and activists. Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center, asked attendees to help promote the alternative curriculum. “The California State Board of Education rubber-stamped a white-washed, anti-Palestinian ethnic studies curriculum,” she said at the conference. “Time and time again, we are forced to prove we have a place in history.”
Some Jewish organizations remain uneasy about proposals to expand ethnic studies, given the fight over California’s model curriculum. Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a coalition of area Jewish groups, says he wants Boston and Massachusetts to avoid creating the same “mess” over ethnic studies.
While Boston is in the midst of planning and implementing its new graduation requirement in ethnic studies, Massachusetts lawmakers last spring proposed a measure to establish a Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education. The commission’s charge would include working with the state Department of Education to “ensure that ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history, and unlearning racism is taught at all grade levels using a critical approach” and age-appropriate teaching methods.
Teaching about the Middle East is already a part of world history and geography state standards in Massachusetts. Burton’s main concern is to avoid “deliberately singling out and condemning Israel” and omitting antisemitism. “It boils down to, where do Jews sit in a curriculum? Are we an oppressed minority? Or are we wholly seen as an extension of the great white oppression?” Burton says. (Boston Public Schools administrators declined to comment on where the Palestinian/Israeli conflict might fit in the city’s plan for ethnic studies.)
For Boston teachers working to bring ethnic studies to city schools, the ever-present question is how to empower and help the city’s students see themselves more in what they’re learning. Ethnic studies discussions have been a grass-roots effort, says Natalia Cuadra-Saez, a Boston Teachers Union organizer. She helped coordinate an ethnic studies panel at an education conference in spring 2018. Afterward, she and another attendee asked participants if they were interested in “continuing the fight” for ethnic studies in Boston. Some were, and a core group of 10 began meeting regularly at Cuadra-Saez’s home in Roslindale. Cuadra-Saez, who is Latina, was motivated by watching a documentary, Precious Knowledge, about the Tucson program during its heyday, and by stories she had heard from her own students in her second year of teaching — like when a Black student asked her why the students always have to learn about Black people as victims.
By June 2018, the group of teachers had won a grant from the teachers union and school system to get training and design ethnic studies lessons. Someday, they wanted to have an ethnic studies course in every Boston school. But they didn’t realize it would arrive so soon.
Last spring, teacher Katie Li, a leader in the effort, was hired to become Boston Public Schools’ first ethnic studies instructional coach. She started work not long after the School Committee approved the inclusion of ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. Neither Li nor the teachers involved in the grass-roots efforts knew about the new requirement until months later. Members of the group, known as the Boston Teachers Union Ethnic Studies Now! organizing committee, are still hoping to learn more about it, says Jasleen Anand, the group’s co-chair. “The answer right now is nobody at the district really knows how it’s going to roll out or move forward,” Anand says.
Drew Echelson, the school system’s deputy superintendent of academics, wrote in an e-mail that ethnic studies is included in the school system’s strategic plan “as a concrete strategy for promoting college, career and life readiness.” He noted that the school system has had to pivot on other actions during the last few years because of the pandemic, seeming to leave the door open to a delayed implementation of the new requirement.
The requirement is slated to begin with freshmen next fall. At least 40 Boston teachers have gone through ethnic studies training, and a number of teachers, including several at Charlestown High School, are already teaching ethnic studies in some fashion, Li says. She cautions against focusing on numerical results as the reason to have ethnic studies. Like her counterparts in Holyoke and San Francisco, she emphasizes that the point is what ethnic studies can give students and their communities. “It’s much more humanizing. It’s understanding our own communities and what we need to get there,” she says.
In Holyoke, Hayes brings in speakers on Puerto Rican history and on the diaspora, and offers students ways to reflect on what they’re learning, like creating murals about Puerto Rico for the walls at Dean, the district’s vocational-technical school. For the lesson on forced assimilation, she presents photos of a young Navajo student taken from his home by the US government and sent to a boarding school against his will. In a “before” school photo, the boy wears fringed tribal clothing and moccasins. His hair, parted and decorated with feathers and jewelry, reaches his chest. In the “after” photo, his hair is cropped short, and he wears a school uniform with a buttoned shirt.
“This is an example of forced assimilation, making someone change what about themselves?” Hayes asks the class. “Their culture,” one student answers. “Everything, their looks, their culture, you got it,” Hayes says. From the back of the room, Fernandez, the recent alumna and teaching fellow, notes how the boy in the “before” photo had jewelry and holds up the charm on her own necklace, then brings it up front to display on a projector for the students to see. “It’s a Taino symbol,” she says, representative of indigenous people in Puerto Rico and her own heritage.
Next, Hayes asks students to illustrate or create a quote about assimilation, and Izrael Lopez, a 14-year-old who identifies as Black and of Puerto Rican heritage, volunteers to share a drawing. He has sketched a man wearing a T-shirt with a Puerto Rican flag standing in a room with an American flag. He adds a caption, words shouted by someone just outside the room: “Go change. This is America.”
Lopez likes that the class teaches him about all parts of his history. The class’s personal nature matters to him. “We talk about our educational past and what we hope for our educational future as well,” he says, including their desires to graduate in 2025, go into a vocational trade, or head to college. “We all hope to be successful, and that’s what we talk about.”
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor and author of “Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance,” reported this article with the support of an Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship. She began researching this topic as a 2020-21 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism at Columbia University. Yuriko Schumacher, a Northeastern University graduate student, conducted the data analysis with guidance from Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts economics professor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.