Text: Ethnic Studies Programs

by Will Preziosi

The United States prides itself on being a cultural melting pot, where all races and ethnicities are welcome to prosper. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was a promise afforded to us by our founding fathers in the declaration of independence. From a young age, we are told that being a US citizen opens up endless possibilities to flourish, and excel in improving ones position in life regardless of racial or ethnic background It is a common understanding that being a citizen of this great country offers you true freedom that is seldom found elsewhere on this planet. However, regardless of the legal liberties we are given, true freedom is relative and depends upon identity and perspective. The perspective of a white male may be different than that of a woman, an African American, or a member of the LGBTQ community. Freedoms I am afforded because I am a white male, US citizen, and student may be restricted to those that come from any other variety of backgrounds. For example, I am afforded the opportunity to learn US history and American literature from a perspective from which I am well represented. I wonder, are minorities offered the same relative perspective on the American culture that I am?

During the second half of the 20th century, students of color started to question the lack of history and literature that reflected their existence and experience. As a result, Ethnic studies programs were developed as an interdisciplinary study for people of color to approach certain subjects from a more relatable perspective. I have been exposed to the great movers and shakers of my racial group, while the history of many different racial and ethnic groups is missing in most curriculums. This exposure is crucial to creating a cultural and historical connection with my history, which is non-existent for many under-represented minorities. The integration of ethnic studies programs in school curriculum stemmed from concerns about how many academic subjects were being taught. Anthropology, history, and literature were being approached from a Eurocentric perspective that left many students of color feeling alienated from their history. Ethnic studies were conceived to include the struggles and triumphs of people of color in US history, literature, society and culture, from an inclusive perspective. These programs were important to students and communities of color, but were not without their critics. Criticism came Largely from those who believe that ethnic studies programs do not represent an “American” educational identity… Thus, they perceive Ethnic Studies as anti-American. Many parts of the country were seeing high dropout rates from students of color, who saw little purpose and desire to be educated from a perspective they could not relate to. Ethnic studies programs were aimed to reduce these numbers, and keep at risk students engaged in the classroom by teaching them more ethnically relevant history and literature that they could relate with. These programs, once implemented, saw widespread success and acceptance amongst ethnic communities. The most notable example can be seen in Tucson Arizona.

In Tucson, an ethnic studies program was implemented in 1997. 60% of the students in the Tucson community were Latino, and were also the most at risk students. Tucson saw hundreds of Latino dropouts each year. Advocates for the programs saw it as an answer to the problem of Latino dropouts. Students could now be given a sense of purpose and relevance to their studies, essentially the right I was given when I was born a white American. The program saw immense success, and was widely accepted and coveted by the Latino community of Tucson. A Tucson Unified School District study from March 2011 found that students involved in the Latino American Studies program saw a measurable advantage over non-LAS latinos. The TUSD director of accountability and research David Scott, conducted the analysis, and found that over a six year period, the LAS students were 5-11% more likely to graduate then those not In the program. The same study showed that LAS students were 5-16% more likely to pass standardized tests than non-LAS students in the same timeframe. Furthermore, LAS students were 3 times more likely to move on to college upon graduation. The program was clearly effective in engaging students who had previously been disinterested in education. Why then, if the movement is widely acclaimed and successful, is there any negative backlash? Why would the non-Latino community push the government to oppose this movement towards equality in education?

In 2010, a bill was passed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer which prohibits school districts from offering courses that promote the overthrow of the federal or state government or the constitution, promotes resentment toward any race or class, advocates ethnic solidarity instead of individualism, and are designed for a certain ethnicity. Ethnic studies programs were the clear targets for this bill. Arizona School chief Tom Horne was a strong advocate against the programs. Horne said the programs must be abolished, to comply with the new law. “The only way in which compliance can be effective within the next 60 days is by elimination of the Mexican American studies program. In my view of the long history regarding that program, the violations are deeply rooted in the program itself, and partial adjustments will not constitute compliance.” Horne, who worked on the original draft of the bill, produced a 10-page finding, which stated, “Only the elimination of the program will constitute compliance.” Horne felt that the teachings were too radical, and promoted a teaching rebellion. According to The Tucson Sentinel, a local paper,, the Superintendent of Public Instruction for district 20 John Huppenthal believed that the program was teaching “destructive ethnic chauvinism”

[Audio Clip] Anderson Cooper interview of Tom Horne
Anderson Cooper (AC)
Tom Horne (TH)

AC: You said that Ethnic Studies is teaching kids they have been oppressed and it makes them angry and unruly. Hasn’t there been a history of oppression though, of ethnic groups in this country, and shouldn’t kids learn that?

TH: Well let me say that, I didn’t say that, I was quoting a former teacher who said that. We have testimony from a number of teachers and former teachers about the radical separatist agenda that the Raza studies program has.

AC: You did say that actually in your arguments that you published as an open letter to the people of Tucson.

TH: Well yes, I was quoting a teacher, I wasn’t just asserting it. We have quotations from a witness…

AC: Yes, but you believe that, why do you believe that? If there has been a history of oppression, which most people would say there, has, why shouldn’t that be taught?

TH: The textbook thing is called the pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Friere, who is a wellknown resilient communist. I’ve read the book, the sources are Marx, Engels, Lennon, Che Guevara, the philosophers who influenced them, and these kids parents and grandparents came to this country, most of them legally, because this is the land of opportunity. And they trust their children to our schools, and we should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity, and if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams, and no teach them that they are oppressed.

AC: So is there no racism today? And is that something that should not be discussed?

TH: That is not the predominant atmosphere of America, America is a land of opportunity, and we should be teaching the kids that this is a land of opportunity, and not teach them the downer, that they are oppressed, and they cant get anywhere, they should be angry against there government, they should be angry against the country. That’s what the teachers are saying. There observation is it has been going on in this Raza studies program.

These critics feared that the program was advocating anti-government sentiments, and fostering a sense of animosity toward the white citizens. While the program did take a critical look at the US through ethnically relevant guest speakers and literature, is it fair to say it was being destructive? Minority students, for the first time in history, were being given a relevant historical perspective that they could relate to through their ethnicity. The program aimed not to foster animosity, but to promote learning about diverse American perspectives. Furthermore, the programs facilitated the development of national pride around a more inclusive history, despite some of the negative events in our nation’s history.

The historical perspective held by Latino-Americans is different than that of white Americans. Ethnic Studies programs have proved successful in bridging the achievement gap in education. The bill passed by Jan Brewer and backed by Horne and Huppenthal poses a threat to these strides. However, is there merit in their concerns for the alternative perspective? Several anonymous teachers cited in Horne’s findings stated they felt ‘open’ resentment from MAS students, and were being accused of ‘not liking Mexicans’. The argument for division rather then inclusion is clearly a legitimate concern. The issue remains; do the benefits outweigh the harmful effects? This is the Political battle that continues to be a concern for advocates and critics alike.

A second point of contention in the educational realm is ESL programs. ESL is an acronym for English as a Second Language. ESL students are not native English speakers. They generally need additional support and resources to adjust to the many linguistic complications associated with learning English. The 2001 national mandate, No Child Left Behind, required all public schools to aid ESL students in becoming English proficient. These students are held to the same national standards that fluent students are. The controversy surrounding ESL programs is in their effectiveness and relative equality.

Since 2001, California, implemented a ‘Full Immersion’ program. California schools are mandated to teach classes only in English, with $50 million allocated toward extra tutoring for ESL students. However, this isn’t nearly enough. On a daily basis, students are forced to take classes in English, even if they have never been exposed to the language previously. This has been the traditional method of coping with ESL students. It is believed that by immersing them in the language, they can pick it up naturally and learn English with ease. However, According to a study done by Education Weekly, there is research that shows ESL students and fluent students benefit from a separation of the two. The study shows that ESL students learn at a much quicker pace when in an ESL program rather then full inclusion. Furthermore, the study shows that having ESL students in classes with fluent students is detrimental to the learning process of fluent students. Teachers are often forced to slow down the pace of the class to accommodate ESL students. However, does separation in the classroom create a sense of segregation?

Many ESL programs are being evaluated and questioned on the grounds that they are a breach of federal civil rights laws. According to the same Education Weekly survey, critics believe that these programs stimulate an increased cultural bias, which breaks public schools mandate to offer equal education opportunities. Furthermore, extra support and resources for ESL comes at a financial cost that raises flags for many taxpayers.

The 2009 economic recession caused budget cuts across the board for American public schools. Many educational experts must grapple with the best approach for both balancing school budgets, and addressing the linguistic challenges of each student. In an attempt to balance budgets, some states have mandated full inclusion programs, where ESL students are dropped into full immersion regular paced English classes. This approach benefits the checkbooks, but it is less effective in aiding ESL students in their pursuit of Fluency, than ESL programs would be.

The critics of the program, which include parents and many faculty within a school system, feel that it is time to move beyond unequal systems to integrated ones where all students have access to the resources necessary for educational success. This is an ideal scenario, however, the debate wages on, and schools struggle to find a balance between budgetary concerns and educational equality to ensure that neither ESL students nor fluent English speakers are left behind.

There are two sides to every debate, and only by finding middle ground can a resolution occur. ESL programs and Ethnic studies programs are an attempted stride toward a solution to the educational equality debate. The advocates for both programs feel that success in bridging the educational equality gap can be found within these programs. While, the critics feel that these two programs create a divide in the populous, where animosity and further inequality occur. The United States is a country with a diverse population and diverse experiences. Ethnic Studies programs aim to highlight those diverse histories that have been excluded from traditional Eurocentric curriculums. ESL programs are aimed at inclusion and immersion of foreign language speakers into American English society. Regardless of the aims of these programs, there are varying perspectives on there effectiveness. Cultural perspective is everything in the United States, and a solution to these debates will only come with full understanding of a diverse range of perspectives. Diversity is fundamentally American, and only through acceptance of all cultural perspectives can Ethnic Studies and ESL programs find their place in the educational system.


Chen, G. (2012, January 1). Inclusion or Exclusion, The ESL Program Debats. Public School Review. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.publicschoolreview.com/articles/95

Proven Results. (2011, March 16). Save Ethnic Studies Updates. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://saveethnicstudies.org/

Planas, R. (2013, March 11). Arizona’s Law Banning Mexican-American Studies Curriculum is Legal. Huffington Post. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/arizona-mexican-american-studies-curriculum-constitutional_n_2851034.html

Biggs, S. (2009, October 1). The Debate continues about ESL and Bilingual Educational Programs. Examiner. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.examiner.com/article/the-debate-continues-about-bilingual-and-esl-educational-programs

Collom, L. (2013, March 11). Judge Upholds most of AZ Law banning Ethnic Studies. AZ Central. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.azcentral.com/news/politics/articles/20130311arizona-ethnic-studies-ban-ruling.html

Deruy, E. (2013, March 13). Do Ethnic Studies Programs Help Minorities?. Fusion. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://fusion.net/american_dream/story/arizona-ruling-limits-ethnic-studies-11673

Scott, D. (2011, March 1). Save Ethnic Studies. Save Ethnic Studies. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.saveethnicstudies.org/assets/docs/proven_results/Save_Ethnic_Studies_Data_Analysis_and_Evaluation.pdf

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