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

Part 3: Policy

Welcome to part 3 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.


I chose to ask a question about policy for these interviews because it’s part of the systems theory I use when analyzing how systems operate and where to apply leverage to affect change. The dictionary defines policy as “a course or principle of action.” If we go back to the systems theory diagram from part two and use the dictionary definition, policy lives in the philosophies and paradigms (principles) section and the trends in policy and practice (action) section, yet it tends to receive the least attention in education activist work, especially at the district level. When thinking about where to apply pressure, policy hits two major parts of a system and has the power to affect the ultimate outcomes.

I think for me, personally, this is where the most interesting and enlightening data appeared. A couple of other themes emerged in this data, but they are minor themes. I want to discuss those first, then get into how most of the respondents felt about the policy needed and the efficacy of current policy. 

Sub-Theme 1: White, Male Optimism

Two white males were interviewed for this report: David and Jacob. Overall, they provided the most optimistic responses, but that trend is most clear in the section on policy. For example, when asked if he felt existing policy is effective, David’s response was, “Yes.” There was no critical thought or analysis of the effectiveness of the policy, but his colleague, who is also white but female, gave a more cautiously optimistic reply. Acknowledging that the process is still very new, Dawn states, “The move to create an ES course and providing time for teachers and district level employees to create the course has been positive. However, I am concerned that only opening this course creation to social studies teachers has resulted in very low inclusion of teachers of color.

Jacob claims that, while his district has a race and equity policy, there is no policy for Ethnic Studies, specifically. He explains that he may prefer it this way. “I worry that if ES is mandated via policy, it would put the system in charge of ES,  making it easier to control and defuse the work. As we function now, ES lives in a gray space, ‘in but not of’ the system, allowing the growing program to be flexible and adapt as needed. For now, this is working.” He further explains that, “having a board policy that tells me my work is to ‘eliminate systemic disparities’ and ‘ensure systemic equity’ provides a sense of purpose and support for ES work.

A few things about Jacob’s statements stand out to me. First, he is the only respondent to prefer there be no policy or mandate. Second, it’s important to know that Jacob is a district teacher on special assignment (TOSA) for his district’s Ethnic Studies program, so he has positional power and racial and gender privilege. Third, I’m struck by the idea that having a policy provides a “sense of purpose” for Jacob. It would be interesting to survey the respondents further on the sources of their drives for social and racial justice. While the policy Jacob cites claims to “eliminate systemic disparities” and has the most direct language of the three district equity policies, it still provides no accountability other than stating, “The Board directs the Superintendent to develop and implement a system-wide racial equity plan with clear accountability and metrics, which will result in measureable academic improvements for [district 5] students. The Superintendent shall regularly report progress on the plan and outcomes.

Why are the only two white, male respondents so optimistic and positive about their experiences in their districts? It’s an interesting trend that should be further explored. Are they not seeing and feeling the resistance, or does their whiteness and gender shield them from resistance? And does their positivity gain access for them to decision making spaces that are less available to a critical EOC who is likely perceived as angry and jaded?

Sub-Theme 2: Policy Does What?

Only a few educators demonstrated a clear understanding of the role of policy in terms of their roles as educators. When asked what policies exist or should exist to support Ethnic Studies, most educators responded with staffing or curriculum options. For example, David’s response to the question, “Does your district have existing policies that support ethnic studies?” was, “Yes—we will have a 12th grade senior social studies elective course offered at all three high schools starting 20-21 school year.” 

The conflation of policy with goals, both board and superintendent goals, was another pattern in the data. When asked if she believed existing policies are effective, Dawn responded, “Our School Board supports this; this will be helpful to run interference IF pockets of resistance emerge.” It’s important to note that superintendent and board goals change with the players, whereas policy is systemic and dictates how operations are managed. Goals are more fluid, whereas policy change requires board approval. For example, under Superintendent Larry Nyland, Ethnic Studies was a prominent board and superintendent goal in Seattle Public Schools, which made it possible to direct funding and resources to the new Ethnic Studies program. When Superintendent Juneau came on board and led the creation of her new strategic plan, Ethnic Studies was omitted, thus removing the funds from the Ethnic Studies program. Had there been an Ethnic Studies policy, the funding would have survived the shift in goals.

Larry Nyland’s Plan

Denise Juneau’s Plan

All Talk. No Action.

The All talk. No action. theme dominated the policy data. I believe two things are happening in the data that led to this: not understanding the role of policy may cause people to believe district leaders say one thing and do another, when actually they are following the policy or lack thereof; and those who do understand policy understand that existing policies lack authority and accountability. District 1 educators referenced this theme the most, which makes sense since it is the only district with a racial equity policy that contains the least direct language on implementation and accountability of the three districts. And as Heather argues, “The policy itself doesn’t mean anything unless concert[ed] measures are implemented.” I argue that, especially when it comes to racism, this is purposeful (#ReWhiting).

Sandy doesn’t know of any policy that includes Ethnic Studies specifically, but says, “Policies? Not really. I mean Ethnic Studies has been included in some decisions and trainings and language, but that is not enough,indicating an understanding of the need for policy to go beyond rhetoric. But what happens when policy is blatantly violated with impunity? Faith references the existing racial equity policy in her district, saying, “Presently the Policy is ineffective is (sic) when each commitment has been violated by the disbanding, closing, and erasure of the Ethnic Studies department.” Faith isn’t alone in stating that district 1 goes beyond the All talk. No Action. theme and actually violates existing district policy. Brian implies the violation of district policy is a function of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC, saying, “[T]he new superintendent doesn’t seem willing to support the work.

No Mandate

So, what do we do about policies that lack concerted implementation measures? I’m going to try to suggest what types of policies may be helpful based on what respondents indicated is missing in their districts to support an Ethnic Studies program. Complaints about there being No mandate seem to hold the answers to what types of policies are needed. After all, a policy can be a way to mandate implementation if it has actionable language. 

The equity policies in each district call out some kind of closing of gaps, but they fall short of mandating any actions to do that. District 2, for example has an “equity policy” that “directs the Superintendent to develop and implement a system-wide equity plan with clear accountability, transparency, and measures,” but as mentioned earlier, a “plan” can change with the superintendent, making this policy useless in terms of implementation and accountability. And while district 2’s equity policy specifically calls out racism: “The Board acknowledges that institutional racism exists and that longstanding institutional biases have resulted in significant, measurable, system-wide achievement inequities for students,” the superintendent’s “equity plan” for professional development skips over anti-racism (it’s not mentioned anywhere in the plan) and directly into “racial equity,” thus Leading with equity instead of anti-racism. In fact, all three districts with some form of equity policy are Leading with equity instead of anti-racism.

As mentioned previously, Jacob is the only educator to not call for a mandate. Every other educator called for a mandate of some type. I am making four recommendations for must have policies for a successful Ethnic Studies program based on the respondents’ insights.

Policy Recommendation 1 – Mandate anti-racist and Ethnic Studies professional development

For the districts that haven’t started any Ethnic Studies program a huge barrier is there’s No Mandate for educators to engage in anti-racist PD. In fact, none of the 5 districts has a mandate for anti-racist PD, but this barrier seems to be exponentially insurmountable in the districts that don’t even have an equity policy. Terry tells a story about their efforts to collaborate with colleagues on Ethnic Studies curriculum development and how the lack of anti-racist professional development complicates it: “I’m currently working largely with folks in our curriculum department, but none of them have substantial background in equity work, much less ethnic studies. I often find myself re-explaining the basic principles of an ethnic studies curriculum while content and curriculum that amplify dominant narratives and fail to critically engage systems of power are pushed on me.

Several educators, including those in districts with equity policies, indicate a need for a mandate of anti-racist and Ethnic Studies professional development.

David – “ALL educators and district personnel must be trained in cultural relevance training and how to engage with our students and communities of color, this is not just a classroom teacher and administrator task, this is office managers, bus drivers, paras, nutrition services, and maintenance staff too.

Sarah – “Without a mandate, policy, training and support, this spotty grass roots way of teaching Ethnic Studies is not making the impact that our students need.

Sandy – “ . . . the district needs to offer high-quality PD for ethnic studies teachers such as the Ethnic Studies two week training or bring in guests like the XITO institute. Both of these things have been done by [the Ethnic Studies Program Manager] and they were the best and most useful PD I have ever been a part of, and truthfully, the only district PD that has actually improved my practice.

A few calls were also made for mandated curriculum, like a graduation requirement, but the overall emphasis was on professional development. Educators fear that a mandate on curriculum could have negative unintended consequences. I have witnessed firsthand how educators think they are already teaching Ethnic Studies, but are actually perpetuating harmful stereotypes and racist tropes, particularly when teaching about the U.S. history of genocide and slavery.

Policy Recommendation 2 – Define the type, number, and degree of EOC leadership in Ethnic Studies

District 2 is in the process of creating a high school Ethnic Studies course and has a team of 10 educators working on developing it. Of the ten, only 3 identify as EOC – specifically 2 Native American members and 1 Indigenous/Pacific Islander member. I had to pause as I typed that because this is something I frequently run into. Ethnic Studies comes from a history of violent struggle led by mainly Black and Chicano activists. Knowing that a majority of white educators are working on an Ethnic Studies initiative triggers a visceral response for me. How is this, in itself, not a form of #ReWhiting? Dawn addresses this issue in district 2: “I hope in [the] future, we can broaden the content and invite more [EOC] to the table. However, I also acknowledge that this work should not solely be on the shoulders of [EOC], but I feel we need to have their voices driving the conversations. This lack of representations may need to be addressed by district level policy.

I recognize there is legal precedent forbidding racial quotas; however, a policy that requires a system check of Ethnic Studies and anti-racist work being done, something akin to an equity tool, can and should be mandated via policy. If an Ethnic Studies or anti-racist initiative is being led by mostly white educators, there should be some evidence about the efforts – and failures – to recruit EOC to the work and a plan to address these issues.

*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.

Policy Recommendation 3 – Protect anti-racist educators

We are still in situations in which districts have equity, race and equity, and racial equity policies and are still pushing out anti-racist educators. I could offer myself up as an example if I weren’t barred from discussing the details of a current investigation into some of my recent anti-racist actions, but I’m sure many of us don’t have to look too far to find someone who has been punished or intimidated because of their anti-racist work. Sarah tells about just such an incident she experienced: “I had a student removed by the principal to place them in another classroom because the family did not like what I was teaching in the classroom. The principal said my ‘Got Privilege’ shirts, lanyard, and education were “divisive” and her talking to me was intimidating.

If we can’t protect anti-racist educators from the inevitable push back from families and community, we can’t have a successful Ethnic Studies program. It was a white family member that set into motion one of the more notorious incidents in Seattle Public Schools when the district suspended Jon Greenberg’s curriculum on race. That was in 2013, and some argue the only reason it received such media attention and support from the union is because Jon is a white man. We know that EOC are disproportionately punished at similar rates as students of Color and while white educators leave the profession after an average of 5 years, EOC only stay for an average of three years – and that’s ALL EOC, not just the anti-racist ones. It seems a policy is in order.

Policy Recommendation 4 – Locally sourced curricula

This recommendation takes a page out of the definitions of anti-racism in part 1 of this series. The corporate nature of curriculum is part of the racist institution that white-washes curriculum. Even if you ignore that reality, Ethnic Studies is rooted in indigenous epistemologies, which means a connection to land and community. Ethnic Studies curricula should be created by the people it is meant to serve. I think Sarah said it best: “We don’t need some corporate watered-down version of Ethnic Studies. We need this to be led by strong educators of color – not someone who is bought off to shut down the anti-racism work.

Seattle Public Schools has actually created this policy by amending an existing policy dictating the process of selecting new curricula. The policy was amended to include educator created curriculum as an option instead of limiting the process to corporate textbook bids. It’s a start, and I think it doesn’t go far enough. There needs to be a provision for including student and family voice in the creation of that curriculum. 

Concluding Thoughts on Policy

This data left me wondering what the role of NEA and its affiliates could play in educating their members about the role and impact of policy. The data make it clear that educators and activists will miss the mark every time if they are confusing policies with goals and aren’t working to hold the district accountable to the policies that already exist. It’s hard to hold someone accountable to a concept you don’t understand. I don’t even know the answer to this question, but why can’t educators write policy? Can community members and students write policy? Do we have to wait for district administrators to propose the policies recommended from these data? That sounds like a next step: research the process of proposing policy – who can write and propose it to school boards for approval?

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the third question, “What do district leaders need to do and say to support implementation?”


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