Stanford researchers have found that at-risk students' academic performance rose dramatically after being enrolled in classes that explore race and ethnicity.
The study followed the academic progress of 1,400 "at-risk" ninth grade students from three different high schools in San Francisco over the course of an academic year. Here, "at-risk" was defined as a student whose grade point averages were below 2.0 at the end of their second semester of the eighth grade.
Not only did the students enrolled in the race-conscious classes GPAs improve by more than one letter grade, attendance rates increased by about 21%. Students who didn't take the ethnic studies course didn't see any remarkable increase in GPA over the same time period.
“I was surprised that this particular course could have such dramatic effects on the academic outcomes of at-risk kids,” Professor Thomas S. Dee, one of the study's co-authors, told The Guardian. “If I was reading a newspaper with results like this, I would read it with incredulity, [but] the results were very robust.”
The ethnic studies course that the study's students were enrolled in made a point of encouraging students to critically analyze the ways in which race and ethnicity are ideas shaped by peoples' individual experiences and the influence of larger cultural forces. The key to the study's astonishing results, Dee says, was making the course's material culturally relevant to students.
"Culturally relevant pedagogy embeds several features of interventions designed to reduce stereotype threat, such as explaining stereotypes and identifying external forces that contribute to academic challenges," Dee said. "Ethnic studies may be effective because it is an unusually intensive and at-scale social-psychological intervention."
In simpler terms, the courses gave students the ability to recognize and challenge racially-based stereotypes both about themselves that suggested that their previously poor academic performance was an inevitability. Not only were the students' performance within the ethnic studies class itself impressive, but Dee and his co-author Emily Penner saw grade increases in other areas like English and math.
Though this particular study's results were promising, Dee and Penner were careful to point out that the class's impact on its students was directly linked to the way that the classes were taught and the care that teachers took. In addition to strong curriculum, the study needed strong teachers.
"The evidence for San Francisco is very strong," said Dee. "Whether what works there would work in other school districts is not yet determined. But the magnitude of the effects in San Francisco merits enthusiasm."