Ethnic Studies in Seattle; Some history and analysis with Dr. Kyle Kinoshita

It’s been a while since our last post, and trolls have taken notice of our work. That’s always a good sign we’re headed in the right direction! We haven’t gone anywhere. We’ve just been incredibly busy building and growing. Keep an eye out for updates on our legislative demand! There is progress!

Below is the transcript of an interview Tracy Castro-Gill conducted for her doctorate program with Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, retired Chief of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction for Seattle Public Schools. Kyle was the district office administrator in charge of implementing the ethnic studies program after the school board unanimously passed a resolution supporting a new ethnic studies program in 2017. Kyle retired from SPS last July, but still teaches at the University of Washington in an administrator preparation program.

Identify the categories of key stakeholders.

Ok. Right. So, I’ll preface all my comments to say that ethnic studies is not a typical curriculum, such as English Language Arts or math because of the fact that, in particular, it deals with issues of race and equity, and because of that, it’s colored by the fact that in some ways it stands in opposition to institutionally established curriculum. So, that means that, in the case of the Seattle effort, the key stakeholders actually turned out to be members of the ethnic communities here in Seattle that have historically been underserved by Seattle Public Schools, and these stakeholders had been asserting for quite some time – decades probably – that in particular areas of curriculum that represented them, their communities, their history and current reality were not represented in the overall curriculum in Seattle Public Schools. So, I would say that was one category, the community. There was a related community internal to the system which would be teachers, teachers of color, and teachers who had a strong equity focus who also saw the lack in the curriculum and wanted to actually take some action to do something about it. As well, to a lesser extent, within the administrative structure of Seattle Public Schools there were certain individuals who actually sympathized with this and hoped to actually attempt some kind of action. That’s that question in terms of the categories.

How are stakeholders identified?

Right. I think that, again, not being a traditional sort of curriculum adoption or curriculum development effort, in some ways the stakeholders identified themselves, and that this was an effort that came about from the grassroots, both externally and internally. So, in many ways, they did not necessarily wait for the typical sort of pathway in which some district leadership selects and identifies stakeholders. They asserted themselves in terms of their identity of leadership. It just happened that, in this particular case, the district leaders involved began to recognize that and then really began to understand that these stakeholders not only had to be strongly represented in the effort, but they had to take leadership roles as well. 

How are stakeholders brought into the work of creating and implementing the program?

Let me say that in some ways there are some parallels to a traditional curriculum effort in that the kind of representative bodies that are created in order to provide input into curriculum development and adoption, there were kind of rough parallels in the sense of developing what now is known as the advisory committee. These are representatives from various parts of the system, particularly, teacher educators as well as people from the community. These are things that are part of a traditional curriculum effort. What was different about this, however, is that, you know, in many ways the stakeholders were actually active in some ways even prior to the effort in terms of developing ethnic studies. As they self identified themselves, the leadership which emerged was a community and activist and district partnership, or collaboration. They then recruited  stakeholders into committee work and into the actual work like writing curriculum as well as evaluating curriculum.

…I think would be important in finding an ally inside the organization and finding a way to expand presence in the organization in order to just handle, really, the structural parts of it. But, you know, if you wanted to talk about the leadership in content and development and the political leadership, these were essentially the activist educators as well as the community leaders…

Which category of stakeholders have been leading the work?

This is an interesting question in that it’s a unique kind of collaboration between the different categories. So, if you want to talk about, for example, that the structural leadership – having an internal district leader – was one component and that meant, for example, having a department as well as a manager level administrator leading the work. This meant that you could bring to bear system resources of both budget and space and time and, sort of, permissions that would kind of allow the work to develop. So those are kind of the structural pieces and lessons that I think would be important in finding an ally inside the organization and finding a way to expand presence in the organization in order to just handle, really, the structural parts of it. But, you know, if you wanted to talk about the leadership in content and development and the political leadership, these were essentially the activist educators as well as the community leaders, just in terms of helping provide direction, in terms of ensuring the authenticity of the work. I would say that it was the activist educators in the community that provided the main leadership of the work, and it was not something that came from within the district structure. So, in that sense, that form of leadership came external to the district structure which was kind of important in the sense that within the district structure there were built in barriers to the authentic development of that work, but by having the leadership external, this ensured those barriers didn’t impede the development of the content. 

some of the SPS Ethnic Studies Advisory Group educators leading the work

Which category of stakeholders have been in the margins and need to be moved to the center and why?

Well, another interesting question. I think that I spoke earlier about the fact that you had several categories of stakeholders who were active in terms of leading the work in different ways. I think, in some ways, it’s the whole effort that can sometimes be put in the margins in the sense that once both the external activist leadership as well as the internal structural leadership get to a certain point where the work develops and will begin to impact some of the areas of work. In fact, the overall effort can tend to be marginalized and thwarted. So, I think that the structure that was developed both internally, with the district leaders that participate in the work and who advocate for the work, as was the collaboration together with the activist educators and the community, they need to be continually recognized as the leader. They need to be brought to the table to assist the work, becoming a central part of the work with Seattle Public School students and obstacles need to be removed. However, in fact, what’s actually happened in this effort is that [some] top district leaders have actually treated this as something that is threatening, and so, therefore, has put limits upon the entire initiative, and put limits on all the stakeholders.

Which category of stakeholders are absent?

Well, I think that I would say that there’s kind of two flavors of absence. One, if you think about the fact that there’s still many communities within Seattle who have been shut out of, or marginalized, from the overall process of education and those are ethnic communities who need to be – always – better represented. This is not necessarily the fault of the effort; it’s just that the effort being at its early stages. It still will probably continue to bring in stakeholders from the community who are not currently connected. Those could be, for example, some of our immigrant communities, some of the communities who live on the margins of society because of a particular kind of oppression exercised by the government. Things like that. So, that’s one type of absence. Another type of absence is different, that I would say, in that, the stakeholders – one set of stakeholders, in fact – are [some of] the top district administrative leadership. They are absent in the sense that they are not behaving in such a way that would actually support the authentic development of the initiative. And I use the term very carefully: [some of] the top district administrative leadership, vs. another stakeholder that I neglected to mention, for example, the elected school board, in fact, is one set of stakeholders that in a variety of ways have vocalized support for the effort. There have been some members who have questioned why the district administrative leadership has put constraints and limits and not, in fact, encouraged the development of this effort. 

Which category of stakeholders have been oppositional?

I think that kind of goes without saying that there are sectors of society for whom this kind of curriculum and its content are pretty threatening. So, and although it has not yet been kind of a central theme, yet, you do have the opposition of more privileged sections of the community, geographically, and some cases are located, for example, in the north end of Seattle. So, you have people who purport to adopt the liberal Seattle stance who have been vehement in terms of opposition to some of the people and the efforts of ethnic studies. So, for example, a community blogger who has traditionally been a bit of a gadfly on the district scene, again, purporting to be a Seattle liberal, who is vehement and really began to expose herself as a closeted racist because of the fact that this, the anti-racist content of ethnic studies, was so threatening. And, she represented a sector of society, you know, some of the folks who subscribed to the blog who cheered this on. So, you could see that that sector of society would actively stand in opposition to this curriculum as it would develop and get out to students.

screenshot from “Save Seattle Schools”, which had become the gathering place for white supremacists hiding behind the “liberal progressive” label and anonymous “monikers” until the blog’s author moved out of Washington

Added later: [Kyle notes that there are objective obstacles by the very nature of the structure of school districts, irrespective of whether individuals may or may not support ethnic studies.]

In some ways this [obstacles at the district level] isn’t unique to ethnic studies: Any district structure has other stakeholders that compete for resources; their time, space, etc. In district structures, it’s often fairly common that they work in silos. So, that has been the case that there has been probably greater and lesser cooperation, for example, within the curriculum department around the development of ethnic studies that had to be sort of considered and dealt with and still essentially need some work in trying in terms of developing the breaking down of silos and the collaboration with the other curriculum areas in the department, which have their own kind of mini-organizational structures. As well, that also can take place within the larger categories of the organization. So, for example, you often times have competition between the curriculum department and the human resource department in terms of who really takes charge of race and equity issues. Who is allowed access? Who is allowed monetary resources? There is also competition, for example, within the organizational structure with student services who is charged with a multi-tiered system of support initiative, which also takes up quite a bit of resources in terms of money as well as time and energy of the people in school buildings. So, all of these sort of structural categories of [internal] stakeholders compete for resources, time, and access are [objectively] , barriers and obstacles to the development of ethnic studies.

Because of the fact that principals, in particular, have been put in the position of accountability for things like student assessment results, that can sometimes be a barrier put in place to actually develop the equity perspective and develop the ethnic studies perspective within the curriculum.

 (Kyle noted that principals are conflicted in relation to ethnic studies due to how the educational establishment has defined their roles in an urban district over the last twenty years) There are several reasons for this. One is that the accountability structure that has been in place for nearly twenty years, starting with No Child Left Behind, really dictates and directs the way curriculum and instruction is developed in schools. Because of the fact that principals, in particular, have been put in the position of accountability for things like student assessment results, that can sometimes be a barrier put in place to actually develop the equity perspective and develop the ethnic studies perspective within the curriculum. It’s really a false dichotomy because of the fact that even if you were to consider performance on things like assessments, engaging and rigorous content is a part of the ethnic studies initiative and, in fact, would not be in contradiction with the academic engagement of students of color. This has actually been proven in emerging research.

What institutional/bureaucratic systems support the creation and implementation of the Ethnic Studies curriculum?

I think, again, what has been pretty instrumental has been the structural development of a support system within the administrative structure of the district and the really intentional collaboration with the activist section of educators as well as the community. I spoke earlier about how that collaboration had been structured whereby the institutional leadership within the district structure helps direct resources, helps to clear obstacles, helps to find channels to other educators and then reach the students, and the fact that they also consent and advocate for the active leadership of the activist groups in terms of the actual content and development of the respect of ethnic studies. The development of that kind of collaboration, I think, is really beneficial to ensure that, not only is ethnic studies created, that it’s eventually institutionalized in various parts of the system.

What curriculum models (banking, learner-centered, critical theory, etc) are most frequently employed in classrooms?

I think that the current model – we’re kind of witnessing this torturous transition from the 20th century industrial model in which, basically, low-level and Eurocentric curriculum is developed in such a way that it is to be passively memorized by students and regurgitated. So, right now, there’s actually – within any given classroom – a really interesting and, sometimes, eclectic mix of those kinds of approaches in which teachers deliver [information one-way] with more learner-centered activities in the sense of putting the student more at the center of the learning. So, you have both of these sorts of trends existing within the same classroom, even within the same subject area, even within an individual lesson. In terms of critical theory, I would say that that is one of the things that is – unless you have the individual discretion of a teacher, who on their own initiative sort of develops incorporation of critical theory into the curriculum – it is definitely something that is very inconsistent and depending on the school and the geographical area, could be more or less common to a particular group of teachers. 

Added later:

Sub question: What role does high stakes testing play in the current classroom environment?

. . . decontextualized, low-level, unengaging, irrelevant curriculum has been developed and really brought into the classrooms where you have kids from communities that are ill-served and done under the name of “improving student achievement”, which is, essentially, code word for increasing the test scores.

Over the last twenty years, it’s had a major impact. So, for example, in [the past] particularly in schools where you have populations that are the least served it’s done two things to the curriculum: one is that a disproportionate emphasis on the so-called “basic subjects” of reading and mathematics have developed to the exclusion of other parts of the curriculum, but even within those areas the impact has been that decontextualized, low-level, unengaging, irrelevant curriculum has been developed and really brought into the classrooms where you have kids from communities that are ill-served and done under the name of “improving student achievement”, which is, essentially, codeword for increasing the test scores. So, in that sense, that the accountability system that began twenty years ago under No Child Left Behind – has had various iterations – still continues to have major impact and major damage [to efforts in replacing the Eurocentric focus of the] curriculum. Countervailing, I think, efforts have been because of the fact that education is not simply kind of a unitary sort of system. You have educators who, in a variety of ways, often times will rebel against [the Eurocentric, industrial age curriculum] and attempt to incorporate more student-centered, more relevant areas of curriculum. So, these kinds of dynamics are going on within any number of schools

educator activists from the Washington Education Association rebelling against Eurocentric, industrial age curriculum

How can Ethnic Studies curriculum improve curriculum models and make them more learner-centered?

You know, I think that one of the research findings of ethnic studies is that when you develop curriculum and curriculum approaches that really align with and approximate the reality of the students in the schools, in particular students from communities of color, you can see the engagement and the academic focus really develop. In fact, an ironic sort of finding is that the further development of ethnic studies curriculum and the further access to students of color actually accomplishes many of the academic gains that traditional institutions are trying to accomplish. So, I think that, in particular, the relevancy aspect is something that can be much more engaging to students of color but to white students as well. And by relevancy, I particular mean that for, example, the anti-racist focus, as well as the fact that the adoption of different cultural perspectives – it turns out to be much more interesting that the traditional Eurocentric presentation and perspective than was in the traditional curriculum.


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