Developing the Ethnic Studies Curriculum

Sen. Mary Kunesh. Photo Sarah Whiting

Developing an ethnic studies curriculum in public schools across the United States has seen its share of heated discussion. The conflict mixes equal parts xenophobia and political ideology, with white resentment and anxiety sprinkled in. Opponents target ethnic studies courses as divisive, yet disregard how classes, textbooks, and materials oversaturated with European and Anglo-American viewpoints are polarizing for non-white students.

With a great deal of organizing and hard work by students, parents, activists, and nonprofit organizations, the Education Policy legislation passed in 2023 in Minnesota (SF1476/ HF1502). It was authored by Representative Samantha Sencer-Mura and me, and ensures that every student across the state will have access to an ethnic studies curriculum.

As the chair of the Education Finance Committee in the Minnesota Senate, and as a teacher for 25 years, one of my priorities this year was addressing the necessity and creation of an ethnic studies curriculum. I am elated with the accomplishments of the 2023 Minnesota legislature.

A student beginning grade 9 in the 2025–2026 school year and later must successfully complete a semester-long ethnic studies course to graduate from high school. This course can fulfill a social studies, language arts, science, arts, or elective credit, if it meets the applicable academic standards or other requirements.

By the 2027–2028 school year, instruction in elementary and middle schools must meet new state academic standards. To accomplish this, and to minimize the burden to school districts, the legislature created a working group to advise the commissioner on ethnic studies standards; recommend professional learning requirements, resources, and materials to implement ethnic studies standards; and identify or develop model ethnic studies curricula.

What Is Ethnic Studies?

Typically, ethnic studies curricula focus on cultivating students’ knowledge of self while building appreciation for the differences around them. Embedded across grade levels, the course work is designed to help students build a sense of pride in shared communities, learn about the importance of advocacy for change and healing, and ultimately develop critical thinking skills that empower students to be agents of positive change for an equitable future.

Some of the topics that could be taught in an age-appropriate Minnesota curriculum are the fact that federal laws targeted indigenous people, and the events that led to the killing of indigenous people in Mankato and Black people in Duluth.

Led by ethnic studies specialist Sue Xiong, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is tasked in the post-legislative session to investigate and imagine what ethnic studies for all students will look like across the state.

Recognizing the challenge of introducing and implementing a new set of standards, the group is conscious of the need to build an interdisciplinary framework that allows for the examination of the many aspects of Minnesota students’ identity, heritage, culture, and communities. This will include the various power structures, forms of oppression, and inequalities that impact their lives.

While a portion of Minnesotans may embrace this addition to school curriculum, there are those in opposition, such as American Experiment, which dismisses the curriculum as simply about “race and power.”

For some time, resistance to the implementation of an ethnic studies curriculum has been touted as a threat to parental control, compromising the power normally granted to local school boards to choose curriculum.

In 2021, about half of the states had introduced bills to outlaw ethnic studies. Five outright banned offering the curriculum: Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas. In 2022, six other states passed laws limiting what schools can teach related to race, bias, or identity.

Minnesota’s SF3557 encourages stakeholder participation by requiring district or charter schools to conduct an ethnic studies needs assessment that includes students, parents, and community members. Reflection and improvement are vital to a strong program.

Research affirms what many educators, including me, have intuitively known for a long time: interdisciplinary ethnic studies support and cultivate cross-cultural understanding among both students of color and white students.

Studies show that when students participate in ethnic studies, they are more engaged when their curriculum reflects diverse — not monolithic — backgrounds. They develop a stronger sense of self-worth and personal empowerment, perform better academically, and graduate at higher rates.

This makes sense to anyone who is aware of our wide education gaps in Minnesota.

Look to San Francisco: results from a study of three of their high schools over a five-year span show 21 percent of ninth-grade students enrolled in an ethnic studies course had an increase in attendance with significant increases in their GPAs. These students’ graduation rates and college enrollment rose significantly when compared to similar students who did not take ethnic studies.

It is important that all students see value in their own cultural identity while being able to appreciate and understand unique past and current life experiences.

Many Minnesota school districts that are already integrating an ethnic studies curriculum include Saint Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools. As this curriculum is refreshed and expanded to be incorporated across K-12 subject matters, it will be imperative for Minnesotans to support school boards statewide in embracing the new legislative and policy foundation for our students’ success.

A consortium of community and nonprofit groups were essential in the success of this legislation. Their collaboration and advocacy brought valuable voices of students, teachers, and supporters to the Capitol. Public participation brings perspectives, priorities, and collaboration, for which I am immensely grateful.

http://www.womenspress.com/be-a-badass


Resources

womenspress.com/ethnic-studies-in-minnesota

womenspress.com/deep-dive-division-continues-around-teaching-multicultural-history

womenspress.com/i-want-to-be-reflected-in-our-history-books

“Which states passed laws restricting school curriculum” in USA Facts

“Ethnic studies increases longer-run academic engagement and attainment” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

“Research finds ethnic studies in San Francisco had enduring impacts” in EdSource

“What the research says about ethnic studies” in National Education Association (NEA)


Members of the Ethnic Studies Coalition

Asian American Organizing Project

Coalition of Asian American Leaders

Climate Generation

Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota

Education for Liberation Minnesota

Education Evolving

Education Minnesota

Ed Allies

ISAIAH

League of Latinx Educations

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers 59

Minnesota Educators Against ICE

Minnesota Zej Zog

Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood

Unidos MN

Voices for Racial Justice

Youth 4 Ethnic Studies

YoUthROC