The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Part 1: Introduction

Washington State Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) has posted a couple of blog posts regarding the debacle that is the Ethnic Studies situation in Seattle Public Schools. Since I have been working on the Ethnic Studies initiative starting in 2016, I have encountered time and again situations wherein administrators are the barrier to Ethnic Studies and anti-racist work. This got me to wondering about the experiences of educators in other districts, so I reached out to educators who are currently teaching Ethnic Studies content in various districts and asked the following questions to try to understand what educators who are doing the work need from administrators to implement a viable Ethnic Studies program:

What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?

What policies are in place and what policies are needed to support implementation?

What do district leaders need to do and say to support implementation?

I interviewed eleven educators from five districts via email to understand their experiences, perspectives, and needs in relation to Ethnic Studies curriculum implementation. Member checks were regularly conducted with respondents to verify I am accurately interpreting and presenting the data. To protect these educators, I am providing pseudonyms for both the educators and their districts, but their racial, ethnic, and gender identities are provided, since those are traits important to consider with their responses. I will color code their quotes to help readers follow the trends in the different districts. 

The purpose of collecting data and reporting on the findings here is to offer insight to district and state administrators who are considering or implementing an Ethnic Studies program. I hope that it will offer some insight into to the expertise of educators and other activists who are trying to push a program into their districts, including the barriers they face. My hope is that this data will help district leaders, named or emergent, understand where their anti-racist educators are in anti-racist praxis, what they’re accomplishing, how they’re struggling, and what they need to support anti-racist educators and a viable, robust Ethnic Studies program.

This will be a 5 part series broken down into the following posts:

  1. Introduction – That’s what you’re reading now.
  2. Infrastructure – an analysis of the responses to question 1
  3. Policy – an analysis of the responses to question 2
  4. Words and Deeds – an analysis of responses to question 3
  5. What Now? – a discussion of where we go next based on the data


I am employed as a district administrator for one of the districts represented. It’s challenging to maintain confidentiality for respondents and disclose my exact position in the data being analyzed. There is reasonable fear of retaliation against respondents, so this is the most information I can disclose at this time.

I identify as Xicana and use they/them and she/her pronouns.

I am a Doctor of Philosophy candidate writing a dissertation on the relationship between curriculum and retention of educators of Color. The major of my program is education with a concentration on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and evaluation. I have an undergraduate degree in social sciences and a Master’s degree in teaching social studies. I am certified in the State of Washington to teach social studies and English language arts in grades 5-12. I am the Executive Director of WAESN.

Respondent Demographics

Academic Language

Going through the responses made it clear that the first follow up/clarification question I needed to ask of the participants was how they define equity, racial equity, and anti-racism because they did not use them interchangeably, as some tend to do. I think that’s an important distinction to make before I offer an analysis on the responses to other questions. I’m less concerned with “official” or theoretical definitions, and more concerned with how these educators define the terms, since their personal definitions impact their practice more than anything else. Interestingly, the educators who offered responses to my clarifying questions all gave similar definitions. 

Equity – Every educator responded that equity means providing access to systems and resources, focusing on groups that are historically and presently marginalized. 

Racial Equity – This term means the same thing as equity, but with a focus on race and acknowledgment of systems of racial oppression.

Anti-racism – This is where there is some variation in opinion among the educators. Every educator used the term “dismantle” in their definition. They all see anti-racism as dismantling racially unjust systems, institutions, practices, and beliefs. A couple educators included capitalism as one system that needs to be dismantled, particularly when it comes to high-stakes testing and standardized, Eurocentric curriculum, and a few white educators included the need to work on their own racism and biases. 

Terry says, “I do not think the vast majority of our administrators can even begin to imagine how corporations and testing and other seemingly innocuous and color-blind practices and institutions are barriers to equity. They do not see the ways that our schools policies and procedures were designed by a privileged class of white folks and correspondingly protect the interests of those people.” This alludes to the general feeling of all the educators that anti-racism is a prerequisite to racial equity; policy and decision makers have to understand and be literate in racial oppression, what it looks like and how it manifests, before they can begin to address inequities. 

Jacob agrees with Terry’s sentiment about which order the terms need to occur: “For me, racial equity is the ultimate goal, but to achieve racial equity, systems and the individuals within the system, must approach their work from an anti-racist stance. For me, it is a prerequisite, a mindset, and a practice that needs to be in place in order for racial equity work to occur.

And Sarah shared her feelings about this order of operations by quoting Paul Gorski: “Equity efforts should never be about fixing anything about students who are marginalized in schools. They should always – always – be about fixing whatever is marginalizing students in schools… Effective equity efforts focus not on fixing students of color, but on eliminating racist conditions.

I’m starting with these definitions to build some background knowledge to better understand why these educators feel the way they do. A tangible knowledge gap exists between the educators implementing Ethnic Studies in their classrooms and administrators who are writing policy and making funding, and therefore, staffing decisions. This gap is the source of noticeable frustration in the responses of the educators. 

This knowledge gap translates into a policy and practice gap with every district represented skipping over anti-racism and going directly into equity. Districts 1, 2, and 5 have equity policies, but none have anti-racist policies. In my work as an administrator, I frequently see school leaders using equity, racial equity, and anti-racism interchangeably. In a conversation with racial equity leaders in my district I asked what we were doing to define and delineate these terms with our teaching staff. The response was, “I don’t know why that’s important,” from one leader and, “It was hard enough getting people to say racial equity,” from another. We’re in trouble when that’s what our “racial equity leaders” think.

Emergent Themes

The questions posed to these educators were about what they need to successfully implement a viable Ethnic Studies program, and the themes that emerged from the data indicate districts are operating in a deficit. The message was that none of the districts are close to ready. Below is a graphic representation of the four major themes that emerged from the data. Though the questions were asked in an asset based framework, asking what exists and what is needed, the answers were largely framed in a deficit model that quickly went from asking how we can make Ethnic Studies successful to Ethnic Studies educators venting about district leadership failures. This fact is data that administrators should seriously consider when planning racial equity initiatives. They can’t expect educators who feel unprepared, undervalued, and under-resourced to carry out lofty goals and strategies.

All talk. No action. – This theme presented itself more than any other theme. It appeared across responses to all questions and all districts. Every single respondent brought it up in some form or another. It means exactly what it sounds like. The educators felt that most “equity” work in their district was more about buzzwords and empty goals and policies than actually working to meet the needs of students of Color, let alone anti-racism.

Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC – For this theme, I included both positive and negative statements, including statements about poor leadership, the need for “visionary” leadership, the lack of educators of Color (EOC) leading racial equity work, and the need for EOC to be in leadership positions, in general. 

*Caveat: Here I am reminded by the voices in my head that, “All skin folk ain’t kin folk,” so I want to be clear that I am talking about critical EOC; EOC with a strong foundation in anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. My predecessor is a Black educator who said, “All lives matter,” and led a protest against the Black Trans and Queer themed day of Black Lives Matter at School. Critical EOC is key.

No mandates – Again, this sounds just like what it says. None of the districts represented in the data has a mandate for anti-racist or Ethnic Studies professional development (PD) (not even anti-bias PD), and none has a mandate that students take an Ethnic Studies course. Respondents felt like a lack of a mandate allowed educators to opt-out of anti-racist work, especially those who need it most.

Leading with equity instead of anti-racism. – “Racial equity” is the shit right now. It’s everywhere. Sometimes, it’s just “equity,” you know… for the fragile folks who can’t say “race.” As mentioned above, anti-racist educators see racial equity as the end goal and anti-racism as the starting line, but no districts have anti-racist policies; they have equity and racial equity policies. Respondents are feeling this misalignment of work, and that’s part of the reason the All talk. No Action. theme was so prevalent.

Concluding Thoughts on the Introduction

Hopefully, this introduction sets the reader up with the appropriate language and framing for the analyses to come in future posts. Reading the interview responses was painful at times, as the frustration and disappointment was palpable, especially from respondents of Color and other marginalized groups. One goal of WAESN is to create a collective community of critical educators, and reading these responses helped me understand the urgent need for this to become a reality. Some folks are out there in hostile districts trying to do this alone, but if we can start to get on the same page, have the same working definitions of Ethnic Studies and anti-racism, then maybe we can offer some support for those of y’all who are isolated but persevering! 

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the first question, “What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?”


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