CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new Arizona law targeting ethnic studies classes could negatively affect students’ academic achievement and reverse academic gains made over the last several years, according to two Oregon State University researchers.
Susan Meyers, assistant professor and director of writing in the English department at OSU, and Rick Orozco, an assistant professor in the College of Education at OSU, both earned their Ph.D.s at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. and are intimately familiar with the program that spurred the new law in Arizona.
The bill, HB 2281, prevents “. . . courses or classes that either: 1) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or 2) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
The types of courses that this bill targets are known as ethnic studies courses, a field of study that is commonly offered on many university campuses, including OSU, as well as on increasing numbers of high school campuses.
Meyers and Orozco said this specific bill started as a reaction to the Mexican-American Studies Department, also known informally as Raza Studies, in the Tucson Unified School District.
Arizona School Superintendent Tom Horne advocated against the program saying it promotes “ethnic chauvinism.” After failed attempts to oust school board members who supported the program, he took his appeal to state political leaders. They drafted HB 2281, which went into law May 11. Proponents of the bill argue that programs like Raza Studies pose a threat to political and social stability, while program advocates say it is an important means of supporting minority students.
Some educators argue that programs aimed at empowering students and increasing literacy are particularly important in a state like Arizona, which ranks among the lowest states in the nation in terms of dollars invested in public education – and is one of the highest in student homelessness and teen pregnancy (ranking second).
Meyers and Orozco are concerned about the proposed elimination of programs that have been documented to help student learning and success. The researchers said that Raza Studies students graduate at rates that are higher than their white peers, and enroll in college at a rate that approaches 70 percent. Raza Studies students also outperform their peers in Arizona’s standardized testing.
“Ample scholarship in a variety of disciplines now conclude that rates of student success — particularly among minority students — is positively correlated with culturally relevant and community-minded curriculum,” Orozco said.
Before coming to OSU, Orozco spent 15 years as a teacher at a predominately Mexican-American school in Tucson. His research there focused on analyzing mission statements of schools and school districts that served predominantly white versus predominantly Mexican ethnic populations to see if expectations and attitudes differed. Orozco found that there were lower expectations and more negative attitudes toward the Mexican ethnic students.
“For minority students — whether ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, disabled students, etc. — ethnic studies program can provide meaningful connective experiences that aid both their understanding of academic content and increase their motivation to pursue formal education.” he said.
Orozco said he had many students who pursued post-secondary education in Tucson and credits Mexican-American studies curricula with providing the impetus they needed.
Meyers has been involved for the past two years in a qualitative research project that investigates the educational experiences of students whose families immigrate to the United States from Mexico. In particular, she concentrates on the ways in which these students adapt to education in the United States and she has focused specifically on these students’ relative success and motivation – and their decision as to whether to pursue further levels of education.
Her findings indicate that when students encounter curriculum that does not include cultural references or awareness of their backgrounds, they feel alienated by the education process, and they are less likely to complete high school and/or go on for professional or academic training.
In contrast, Meyers said, curriculum that encourages students to think critically about a variety of topics — from cultural differences to gender equity to transnational relationships — is a more effective means of engaging students and preparing them for higher levels of education.
In addition to this research project, Meyers also worked with a college readiness program in Tucson called GEAR UP, which serves the Tucson school district and a neighboring district, Sunnyside Unified School District. GEAR UP is a federal grant that aligns school districts and local universities in order to help prepare students from low-income schools for college programs. Many of these students become the first members of their families to attend college; in Tucson, many of these students are Latino.
Through her work with GEAR UP, Meyers said she witnessed some of the kinds of culturally integrated programming that HB 2281 will eliminate.
“GEAR UP programming itself seeks to create culturally relative programming that invites students to critically engage with their educational experiences so that they better understand the education system and are better prepared for college,” she said. “I saw how important programs that recognize a student’s culture and heritage are, not only to their educational attainment, but also to their sense of self-worth and confidence.”