Can ethnic studies high school classes reduce complex inequalities across school districts as these programs continue to grow across school districts? A group of researchers from The University of New Mexico will collaborate with Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), to examine this question.

The study, led by UNM Sociology professor Nancy López and associate professor Shiv Desai, is funded through a two-year grant of $570,000 from the William T. Grant Foundation, which invests in high-quality research focused on reducing inequality in youth outcomes and improving the use of research evidence in decisions that affect young people in the United States. Lopez and Desai, along with colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, and University of California, Los Angeles, will work together on the project.

Nancy Lopez
Professor Nancy López

Studies have shown that ethnic studies classes reduce racial and ethnic inequalities in student academic and socio-emotional outcomes, however few have examined if these reductions in inequalities differ across groups by gender, English Language Learner Status, and race as complex lived positions. In addition, there is a need to examine the on the ground mechanisms that may be contributing to these reductions.

"In the classrooms we will observe courses and activities that will highlight the learning activities and curriculum." López summarized.

Desai added, “We also hope to investigate how ethnic studies teachers create community and curriculum during this time of COVID-19, civil action, and social change. We are interested in how these teachers adjusted their pedagogy to meet the needs of their students during this pressing time.”

In 2016 a group of UNM faculty and students contacted APS to talk about how to co-construct research that would help with the implementation of ethnic studies. APS administrators welcomed the group and asked what teachers needed to implement ethnic studies. López and her colleagues produced an implementation plan and vision statement.

shiv desai
Associate professor Shiv Desai

"Ethnic studies courses have emerged as a promising lever for reducing educational inequalities between students of color and their advantaged peers. Such courses use culturally relevant pedagogy and content centered on the histories and experiences of marginalized racial and ethnic groups to foster critical social engagement and unlock their educational potential. It is crucial to deepen our understanding of its effects across contexts, for students from a variety of groups and lived experiences, and to understand whether different features of its content and implementation contribute to its success,” López explained.

“Ethnic studies have a long rich history of community-centered activism that privileges the knowledge(s), experiences, and cultures of marginalized groups, which is urgently needed in today’s climate where on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the White House released the 1776 Commission report that attempted to erase the institution of slavery from our history and its impact on our nation,” Desai added.

Researchers will focus on the following questions:

  • ·       What is the relationship between ethnic studies course participation and student academic, behavioral, and socio-emotional outcomes and the reduction of inequalities in those outcomes among racial and ethnic groups in our districts? Are any of these relationships different for students from multiple, intersecting marginalized backgrounds (e.g., Latinx English language learner status, African American students with disabilities, Native American, low-income female students)?
  • ·       What insights about potential mechanisms for reducing complex inequalities can the ES implementation in these districts provide us as they examine course pedagogy, materials, and classroom interactions that focus on issues of racism, power, inequality, resistance, and intersectional identity? How can participants’ (teachers’ and students’) perceptions about these hypothesized mechanisms extend current ES theory?

Lopez defined intersectionality as “a term that we use to talk about the urgency of using new ways of looking at complex and simultaneous systemic inequalities in education. For example, instead of reporting graduation and other school outcomes by race alone, gender alone or free lunch or class status alone, we would get a more accurate and complete picture by looking at race-gender-class as integrated lived positions that are simultaneous.”

·       Do these relationships vary across partnerships and in emerging versus maturing ES programs?

The team will work to estimate the impact of ethnic studies courses on student outcomes, using different models to compare outcomes of those who enrolled in ethnic studies to similar students who did not. They will examine differences in outcomes between African American, Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and white youth, as well as assess potential effects based on intersectional identities of race/ethnicity and gender, economic standing, and language minority status. Interviews, observations, and document analysis will provide insight into program implementation, as well as how and why the courses may reduce inequality. As states consider requiring ethnic studies courses for high school graduation, the study will inform local and national conversations among policymakers and practitioners.

"Through quantitative data analysis, we expect to find that ethnic studies courses are powerful levers for reductions in inequality for all groups, but particularly for those who have experienced generations of historical exclusion from educational opportunities,” López noted. “This leads to interrupting opportunity gaps and empowering marginalized students, teachers, families and communities."

"The goal is to understand the mechanisms that cultivate a healthy community and create awareness about one's own identity and to use that as a way of understanding other people's identities and experiences. This is a first step in hopefully creating unity and a sense of solidarity. We can't get to a point of solidarity unless we understand our past, present and think about the implications of history for the future. Then with the hope that once you understand your own identity, your own history, you can actually shift and understand other people's experiences and create a sense of solidarity, a sense of empathy, a sense of love and understanding, and a healthy community,” López explained.

Desai added, “The goal of the qualitative data is to illustrate how ethnic studies teachers center students’ lived-experiences which empowers them to engage in a decolonizing pedagogy that highlights the rich intellectual, spiritual and ancestral wisdom that so many communities of color utilize to create social change.”

There have been many members of the research team over the years. Currently, the UNM team includes several graduate assistants, all doctoral candidates: Andrea Abeita and Emily "Florence" Castillo and Magdalena Vásquez Dathe.


Abeita, Andrea, Florence Emily Castillo, Magda Dathe, Shiv Desai, Myrella Gonzalez, Nancy López, Omkulthoom Qassem, Mia Sosa Provencio. 2018. Albuquerque Public High Schools Ethnic Studies Implementation Policy Brief. December. Available

Dee, T. S., & Penner, E. K. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127-166.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational researcher, 41(3), 93-97.

Sueyoshi, Amy and Sujitparapitaya. 2020. “Why Ethnic Studies: Student Success for the Twenty-First Century, Ethnic Studies Review (2020) 43 (3): 86–102.

About the image: Augustine Romero's ‘Cuauhtémoc Wall’ with the drone signifies the dehumanization of immigrants, Nancy López said.