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Can Ethnic Studies Improve Student Achievement? Researcher Says Yes

Univ. of Arizona researcher Nolan Cabrera found a link between Mexican American studies classes and higher student achievement.
High School Student Raises Hand
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

A new study linking Mexican American Studies with academic achievement is adding to a growing national conversation about the benefits of ethnic studies curriculums, a researcher tells NBC Latino.

“In many respects, ethnic studies is sometimes treated like a convenient academic add-on,” said Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. “What this (research) is demonstrating is that ethnic studies in and of itself represents real education.”

Cabrera was lead author of the study of Tucson’s controversial ethnic studies program. It found that students who took Mexican American Studies courses are more likely to graduate from high school and pass standardized tests.

The report appears in the December issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

“There’s a consistent positive relationship between taking Mexican American Studies (MAS) classes and student achievement,” Cabrera told NBC. “And the more classes students took, the greater their likelihood of academic success.”

The study by University of Arizona researchers reaches the same conclusion of a 2012 analysis conducted in connection with the Tucson Unified School District’s Tucson’s long-running school desegregation lawsuit. Cabrera also led that study at the request of a special master appointed to oversee the desegregation plan.

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The special master ordered the district to implement “culturally relevant” courses reflecting the history and culture of African American and Mexican American communities, Education Week reported. Tucson created eight culturally relevant courses which are operating at some of the district’s 10 comprehensive high schools.

In the latest study, University of Arizona researchers note that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program has been at the center of polarizing debate, but that a central question had not been examined: Do the classes raise student achievement?

In 2010, Arizona passed a law used to prohibit certain Mexican American Studies curriculums in the Tucson school district. Ethnic studies courses have come under attack from conservatives who charge they promote a left-wing ideology, promote ethnic solidarity and lead students to resent whites. Supporters laud the curriculums, pointing to increased graduation rates, higher academic achievement and other benefits, like exposing Mexican American students to material about their history and culture.

Cabrera emphasized that the newest analysis was based purely on empirical data, but added there are many possibilities for why Mexican American Studies is linked to improved academic achievement.

“The way the program was structured, the way the students experience everyday life was represented in the curriculum,” Cabrera said. “That’s a dramatic shift from the way a lot of classes are taught. There’s an identity component, too. They would try to teach the students, ‘You’re not foreign to this land, you’re native to this land.’”

The latest study included more than 26,000 students, members of the graduating classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Cabrera said researchers unexpectedly found that students with lower prior achievement benefitted more from taking MAS courses.

“Usually when you run an analysis like this and you include prior academic achievement, the effects just wash out,” Cabrera said. “What I found is that the students who took MAS were some of the lowest-performing in the district during their first year. (But) when they graduated, they graduated at a higher rate than their peers.”