On January 20, the Providence Student Union (PSU) launched #OurHistoryMatters, a campaign to bring ethnic studies courses to all high schools in the Providence Public Schools. Over 75 students and supporters gathered outside the district offices on Westminster Street to hear the PSU's student leaders explain why the issue is important to them.

"Educators are always asking why students aren't more engaged," said Diane Gonzalez, a senior at Central High School. "One important reason is that a lot of these classes aren't for us. It's hard to find your history course relevant and compelling when you never see yourself in any of your curriculum, or worse, when everything you're learning seems to glorify and excuse past and present oppression against your community. We need at least one course -- one real, full-credit course -- where we can look at history from another angle and learn about where we come from."

The PSU has a track record for success in fighting for expanded bus passes for students and ending the NECAP graduation requirement. They have strong community partners like the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), Youth in Action, and the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. The Providence Teachers Union Treasurer Alex Lucini and a representative of SEIU 1199NE turned out to show their support, as did Interim PPSD Superintendent Chris Maher, current Providence School Board member Mark Santow and former board Chairman Keith Olivera. With a real chance of movement on the students' concerns, the issue of "ethnic studies," and how it compares to the current curriculum, deserves some attention.

Stanford's recent study

One cornerstone of the PSU's argument is a recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education of the impact of an ethnic studies course taught in San Francisco high schools, aimed at academically at-risk freshman. The researchers found that attendance for those enrolled in the class increased by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points and credits earned by 23. These are extraordinarily positive results with difficult to reach students, particularly for an intervention taking place as late as 9th grade, and provide hard quantitative data to back up promising results from earlier, more qualitative analysis of the benefits of ethnic studies courses. It can be difficult to replicate the results of a single pilot program in other sites, but the potential shown in San Francisco cannot be ignored.

What is "Ethnic Studies"

Here is how the San Francisco Unified School District describes their Ethnic Studies course: “The Ethnic Studies course teaches students to explore their individual identity, their family history, and their community history through the lenses of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture. Students study the history of people of color in California from the early 19th century to the present, with a focus on the social movements that have successfully resisted and overcome oppressive political, economic, and social conditions. Students design and implement learning service projects based on their investigations of their local communities.”

Point of view and the current curriculum

Both the PSU students' statements at the rally and academic research indicates that by high school students of color are tuning out their teachers and "mainstream school knowledge." One interesting example of this point is the number of topics the PSU students said they have not been taught, but which are in fact part of the official district curriculum or textbook. For example, Diane Gonzalez said "I'm Guatemalan, and I have no idea about our history at all." Yet according to the curriculum, right about now all PPSD freshman should be wrapping up a 12 day unit on Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations -- which is more time than the curriculum spends on, for example, the Renaissance, Protestant reformation and scientific revolution in Europe, combined.

The standard sequence for Providence high school students is two years of world history and one year of 20th century American history.

There are several factors which may explain the difference between the official PPSD curriculum and student perception. Teachers may be reverting to a more Euro-centric presentation than is specified in the curriculum. They may be simply tracking the textbook and disregarding supplemental materials included in the curriculum. Some PSU students may be taking AP history courses instead of PPSD's college prep offerings. It is important in this stage of the discussion to verify if the problem is less the curriculum as written than the curriculum as taught.

The other issue is the textbook. The problem is not so much that the district's Pearson textbooks exclude global perspectives or completely whitewash American history, but that the text presents history as "one damn thing after another." As often been pointed out by critics, including Diane Ravitch, the texts are carefully constructed to not so much create meaning in students' minds as to navigate the political requirements of multiple interest groups and textbook selection committees. Textbooks emphasize breadth over depth, covering all topics superficially.

Overall though, one gets the impression that the current history curriculum is failing to make much of an impression on PPSD students regardless of the part of the world or phase of history being covered. Thus, changing the list of topics on the official curriculum or choosing a different textbook seems unlikely to engage more learners.

One example of how the textbook presents issues of race and colonization is the two and a half pages in the United States History text on the "Filipino insurrection" against US occupation. The text states that the Filipinos were "fighting for the same principle of self-rule that had inspired America's colonial patriots," and calls the American response "swift and brutal," with "suspected insurrectos lined up and shot" and "civilians (gathered) into overcrowded concentration camps" This is capped off by a quoting blood-thirsty, racist rant from the 1902 San Francisco Argonaut: "Let us all be frank. WE DO NOT WANT THE FILIPINOS. WE DO WANT THE PHILIPPINES. All of our troubles in this annexation matter have been caused by the presence in the Philippine Islands of the Filipinos... The more of them killed the better. It seems harsh. But they must yield before the superior race."

And yet, after laying out the building blocks of a radical, anti-colonialist critique of US actions, the final paragraphs conclude that, essentially, everything turned out fine for the Filipinos. Americans built schools, hospitals, drove out the Japanese in World War II, and finally allowed the Philippines to become an independent nation in 1946.

You can't blame kids for having trouble relating to this version of history. Nobody could relate to this jumble. The main idea is "Americans in this situation were brutally racist, but... it's all good." The texts constantly point out and illustrate racism. What they don't do is offer a framework for understanding or even remembering it. Ethnic studies seeks to bridge this gap.

Options for Providence
Create a stand-alone ethnic studies course

This is what the PSU is proposing. They want a year-long, apparently optional, course that counts toward the three credits required for graduation, thus replacing one year of either world or US history under the current curriculum. This would require some administrative juggling -- and cost -- but should be possible given sufficient political will. Offering the course as part of the middle school curriculum is an option.

One crucial question is whether the course would be implemented, as in the San Francisco pilot, as a "intensive social-psychological intervention" focused on at-risk freshman with the goal of changing their path in the Providence schools, or simply as an elective course which might mostly be taken by older and already engaged students.

The challenge of multicultural studies with global span

In some contexts, the needs of students can be addressed by an ethnic studies course focusing on a specific culture, such as Black studies, Chicano/a studies, American Indian Studies, or Asian American studies. This helps give the course a relatively straightforward foundation in the history and culture of a specific group.

However, Providence schools serve such a broad, complex, and ever-changing range of students from around the globe, from Guatemala to Nepal and all points inbetween, which will require a high degree of global understanding, empathy and improvisation by a successful teacher. Providence's case may be particularly challenging given how many families come to Providence as refugees from places where they experienced both sides of the conflict. Imagine, for example, trying to manage as a teacher the discovery that one student's grandfather had participated in the destruction of another student's grandparents’ home village. Scenarios like this are, unfortunately, not out of the question.

It is one thing to point out that the history and culture of Hispaniola could be given a more prominent role in the curriculum, but if we are really going to do this, we have to be ready to critique not just prejudice against Latinos by whites in the US, but the history of discrimination and ethnic cleansing between Dominicans and Haitians, as it extends into 2016.

Successfully designing, implementing and teaching an ambitious, critical, anti-colonial, year-long ethnic studies course in Providence schools is by no means impossible, but make no mistake, it is one of the most profound and politically fraught challenges a teacher, and a school system, could take on.

Change the way all history courses are taught

Improving all history courses to make them more relevant, empowering, and truly educational to all students can and should be done whether or not a separate ethnic studies is created. The current curriculum was written in a rush after PPSD Superintendent Tom Brady arrived in 2008 with a mandate to impose a tightly structured "guaranteed and viable curriculum" across all schools. A textbook series was hastily selected and the curriculum writing process was managed by the Dana Center, whose expertise lies primarily in mathematics education, not history.

Interim Superintendent Maher has already told WPRI.com that "We’re going to sit down with them and come up with how to make sure the diversity of Providence is reflected in our school curriculum." It is important, however, that this does not turn into, for example, adding a unit about the Khmer Empire to please Cambodians and an extra week on the Maya to make Guatemalans happy. The current curriculum is already overstuffed, and research and experience shows this type of historical shout out has little effect on students.

Less is more. We need a history curriculum based around in-depth inquiry into essential questions that is engaging and personally relevant to students. One foundation for this work should be Brookline, Massachusetts-based Facing History and Ourselves, a well-regarded educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism. They are best known for their Holocaust curriculum but offer resources and training covering a wide range of topics used in both history and ethnic studies classrooms. Units and materials from Facing History have been used in Providence classrooms for years, and currently have a fragmentary presence in the official district curriculum. Simply moving the emphasis from Pearson's textbook to Facing History's approach would be a huge step in the right direction without too much disruption, expense, and wheel re-invention.