Ethnic Studies Should Be Mandated in K-12 Schools

By Emmy J. Min
Associate Professor of Clinical Education

April 16, 2021

A young female student writes at her desk as schools and lawmakers debate mandating an ethnic studies course in K-12 schools

Editor’s Note: The California State Board of Education recently approved a model curriculum to guide how K-12 schools teach the histories and contributions of Asian, Black, Latino, Native American, and other groups, as well the racism they have experienced. But until state legislation is passed mandating an Ethnic Studies course, local school boards must decide how much of the curriculum, if any, should be implemented.

As an Asian American growing up in California, my experience was often ignored, dismissed, or misrepresented. If the stories of Asian Americans were ever mentioned in school, they were usually lumped together as if all Asian Americans belonged to the same group and shared the same histories and experiences.

In my secondary schooling, I was required to take U.S. History and European History and felt isolated and belittled in the class discourse. My presence as an Asian American was rarely valued as I was often regarded as “other,” and my perspectives represented those of a foreigner.

There was a separation between the content that I was learning at school and what I was experiencing at home. However, I wasn’t consciously aware of the disconnection. No one indicated that our stories were worthy of being included in the school curriculum and that their omission was a problem.

Benefits of Ethnic Studies for Students

The debate over whether Ethnic Studies curriculum should be approved in K-12 schools was fierce. The controversy primarily stemmed from the disagreement over which groups such a course should represent and what content should be included. One of the fundamental questions about power relations and equity is “whose knowledge counts?” Another real concern is about diluting the content by covering breadth but not much depth. These are challenging questions without easy answers.

Notwithstanding this controversy, however, mandating the approved curriculum would mean that students grow up witnessing members of minoritized groups as the “main characters” in their class discourse. Though the current model of curriculum might be imperfect, including it can still make a meaningful difference in students’ lives. It can enhance equity, diversity, and inclusion by placing historically marginalized groups at the center of attention and not on the periphery, which has been the case in K–12 public school curricula.

In a dedicated Ethnic Studies class, history, research, and the lived experience of marginalized people can be used as a springboard to further discussion on some sensitive yet critical topics such as systematic racism and power dynamics.

Having their own stories included in the content will empower marginalized students and increase their cultural pride. And for those students who do not belong to a particular group, Ethnic Studies will also help them recognize and validate the experiences and stories of people from other ethnic groups who live alongside them.