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

Part 2: Infrastructure

Welcome to part 2 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. For ease in reading, I am including the color-coded table of respondents and the graphic of the emergent themes. If that’s confusing for you, please see part 1: Introduction.

Respondent Demographics

Respondent names are pseudonyms. The colors will be used in quotes to help you follow trends between and within districts.

Emergent Themes

These are the four dominant themes that emerged from the data that I will be referring to and they will be bolded and italicized to bring your attention to them.


Respondents were asked the question, “What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?” The sub-questions asked questions about district structuring. For example, one sub-question asked, “Ideally, what department should ethnic studies work live in?” Questions were also asked about staffing and what types of positions exist to support anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. 



An interesting cycle of sorts emerged from the data, in that we have districts in different phases of implementation from hostility, to early implementation, to “end stages.” Districts 3 and 4 don’t have an equity policy, though district leaders talk about equity in their goals and operational rhetoric. Educators from both districts paint a picture of a working environment that is hostile. Sarah and Terry provided the most anecdotes about their experiences with blatant racism and inaction from the district in the face of racism. District 4 has had an Equity Director position unfilled for over a year, and Sarah says, When I search in the district site for Equity under staff or Equity Team, the search yields zero results.” 

Districts 2 and 5 are in the early implementation stage of Ethnic Studies. District 2 is currently developing a high school course they hope to be available to high school students next school year. District 5 has been delivering Ethnic Studies through high school courses for about 4 years, recently began an 8th grade course, and is hoping to expand to elementary school. District 2 has an “equity” plan and policy and district 5 has a “race and equity” policy.

District 1 is the only district represented in the data that has a “racial equity” policy. District 1 is in what I’m calling end stage implementation, with “end stage” meaning Ethnic Studies and anti-racist educators are coming under attack from the institution which is actively dismantling the gains made. Linda explains what this looks like: “The District HAD a Ethnic Studies [Program Manager] and the Ethnic Studies Advisory [Group], but those positions are under attack.” 

Gina adds, “[The Ethnic Studies Program Manager] was there, and she had hundreds of us ready to revolutionize the way we teach, and then she wasn’t there anymore (except that she totally is, and we’re still here, too.).” Gina’s statement is in reference to the grassroots origins of the movement. Though district 1 may currently be hostile to Ethnic Studies expansion, a group of educators is persisting and organizing to fight back.

District 1, more than any other district represented here, embodies the All talk. No action. theme, since they are dismantling an Ethnic Studies program despite their racial equity policy and other racial equity goals. Their actions are what my best friend and fellow teacher activist calls “#ReWhiting.” #ReWhiting is what happens when racial justice crosses implicit boundaries – goes beyond box checking – in racist organizations. The organization mutates their systemically racist policies and practices to absorb the anti-racist efforts and keep them in check. Kind of like an institutionally racist Borg.

I’ve looked for answers to what comes after end stage implementation, but I can’t find any examples. The Tucson Mexican American studies program comes to mind, but the Borg came for it, too. I suppose one could look to university Ethnic Studies departments and programs, but even those are continually under threat of losing funding, and if students don’t have opportunities to take Ethnic Studies courses prior to college, they aren’t likely to enroll in them once they leave the K-12 system. I suppose, at least in district 1, the next stage is being written. Some believe, however, that this will be an endless #ReWhiting loop and Ethnic Studies is meant to be a struggle. 

Organizational Structure

Educators were asked to describe the structures that exist in their districts that support anti-racist Ethnic Studies curricula and what they believe is missing in their organization’s structures. The leading theme for these responses was Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC. This is a particularly interesting topic to consider because “It’s just the way we’ve always done it” seems to be the reason for existing structures. I know that, in my district at least, the organizational structure creates a competitive environment that silos work and pits departments against one another for funding and human resources. In my opinion, this is a product of capitalism and the politics of scarcity as well as the hierarchical structuring of leadership that enables white supremacy to have a stronghold.

To that end, most responses to these questions were about radical changes to organizational structures. Educators in district 1 indicated the structure of the Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction Department (CAI), itself, needs to be reorganized to meet the needs of a viable Ethnic Studies program. Linda blames Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC, stating, “I don’t see folks in CAI being leaders in this work so it would take a complete overhaul.” Heather goes a step further and offers a concrete suggestion on how to start this overhaul: “Ideally, the Ethnic Studies Department should oversee other departments because its framework is fundamental to all aspects of education.

Ethnic Studies belongs in every grade level, content area, and department because Ethnic Studies is education reform, not just curriculum.

Sarah worries about Ethnic Studies being marginalized like many other programs that are assumed to be only for the benefit of students of Color, like ELL services. Jacob contends that to prevent this marginalization, we must re-imagine how we teach and learn: “At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” Jacob’s philosophy frames the universal sentiment of respondents: Ethnic Studies belongs in every grade level, content area, and department because Ethnic Studies is education reform, not just curriculum. This calls to mind the No mandate theme. Is a mandate a solution? This will be discussed in part 3 of this series on policy.

Jacob’s statement may help explain why some districts are openly hostile to anti-racism and Ethnic Studies: its fundamental goal is to challenge power structures and white supremacy – the very thing modern education systems are built on. In an interview I conducted with former Seattle Public Schools’ Chief of CAI, Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, Dr. Kinoshita confirmed this perceived threat by district administrations. “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.” (#ReWhiting) This is an example of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC.

Organizational Leadership

We talk about “systems,” “institutions,” and “organizations” like they are some nebulous entity free from human influence, but I like to start with systems theory; systems exist because of the philosophies and paradigms of individual humans working together. When we want to move a system, we start with the individuals. We change hearts and minds. In the case of district administration, it’s the district leaders who have proven to be intractable. This seems to be why the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC emerged most clearly in this section of the data. The fact that the respondents believe anti-racism is a prerequisite to racial equity may give another clue about why the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC theme was so popular here.

For example, Faith believes that Leading with equity instead of anti-racism is failing to dismantle racist organization structures, full of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC: “It is not enough for Administration to not be actively against Ethnic Studies; they need to be actively fighting for it and supporting it. It takes transformation of positions and leadership. The system of education as it is designed currently (in my district specifically and in school districts generally) does not support ethnic studies.” 

To quote Heather: “We need a visionary leader.

Indeed it took visionary leadership to break through a district that was refusing to say “Black Lives Matter” in 2016, but that’s exactly what a group of dedicated activists did in 2017 in Seattle Public Schools. Then superintendent, Dr. Larry Nyland, forbade district employees from wearing #BlackLivesMatter t-shirts and had district employees wear “EOG” (end opportunity gap) shirts, instead (Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC). By 2018, not only were district employees wearing #BlackLivesMatter shirts, but the district was paying educators to write Black Lives Matter at School curriculum for the entire district. These are some of the same activist educators who wrote the curriculum for Ethnic Studies in Seattle Public Schools. Dr. Kinoshita explained that this visionary leadership came from outside of district leadership. “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.” But as we see with district 1, grassroots efforts are easily dismantled precisely because they come from external forces.

Unions – The District Isn’t Entirely to Blame

Though the questions posed to educators were specifically about district operations, several respondents brought up union action, or more aptly, inaction. Keeping to the #ReWhiting cycle, the districts that are most hostile to anti-racist work have the most anti-racism hostile unions and the district pushing the hardest for structural change has the most active anti-racist union work. Sarah, from district 4, is hopeful that her union will turn around with a change in leadership (Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC), but she tells a story of how bad it can be:

We have had a local union president who has forcibly pushed back against all equity work within our union. She is gone now, and our newly elected Executive Board has more diversity and people who are interested in leading anti-racism work within the district. Our new Pro-Tem President and Rep. Council approved an endorsement of Black Lives Matter at School Week but did not do any special professional development or organizing around it.  This is only a small step in the right direction.  We have a very long ways to go and much work to do to build community relationships with BIPoC and our union members.

Several respondents call for more severe consequences for educators who engage in racism. Terry tells a story of a blatantly racist incident in their district that had no consequences for the offender. Oftentimes, district administrators will blame the teachers’ unions for inaction, claiming contract language limits their options. Sometimes this is true, and it’s fair to say that educator associations aren’t doing enough to mitigate harm caused by their members. And sometimes finger-pointing is just another form of All talk. No Action.

. . . in January one of our white security guards called a Black student the N-word multiple times over the course of two days. He also threatened him physically. Five Black students witnessed the incident. That security guard was never held accountable, students were never called in to explain what happened, and the teachers who brought the issue to the attention of administration were gas lit and pressured to stop ‘stirring the pot’.

Concluding Thoughts on Infrastructure

To bring this full circle back to the #ReWhiting cycle, a pattern emerged in the data from the question on infrastructure. Educators in districts 3 and 4 are in the hostility stage, struggling to start some kind of movement toward anti-racism. They are operating under fear, urgency, and hostility. Educators in districts 2 and 5 are in the early implementation stage. Their responses, while still critical at times, are mostly optimistic. They felt supported at this point and are hopeful about the outcomes. They were more philosophical in their responses, reflecting on their own positions in the work. Educators in district 1 are d-o-n-e, done. They have been radicalized and are in fight mode. They see the Borg and have phasers on kill. They are also the educators that talked the most about ineffective leadership and the need to restructure the district. It’s unclear what the next stage will be, but for a viable Ethnic Studies program, this is where district administrators should be looking – especially districts like 2 and 5. What organizational structures are impeding the work? What vision do current leaders lack? How do we change the hearts and minds of district leaders? How can we re-imagine the infrastructure of education to support Ethnic Studies?

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the second question, “What policies are in place and what policies are needed to support implementation?”


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