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Using Evidence to Improve Ethnic Studies Curriculum for San Francisco Students

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This post is by Bill Sanderson, Assistant Superintendent of High Schools, and Daisy Santos, Executive Director of Humanities at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD, @SFUnified).

Today's post is the practitioner perspective on the research introduced by the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership (@StanfordSFUSD) in Monday's post: Can Ethnic Studies Courses Help Students Succeed in School? Evidence from San Francisco.

The Stanford-SFUSD Partnership previously blogged about the effects of Transitional Kindergarten in San Francisco and how these research findings impacted practice.

When San Francisco Unified School District's commissioners passed a resolution to pilot an ethnic studies course in a select group of five high schools, it stated that "a growing body of academic research shows the importance of culturally meaningful and relevant curriculum."

We already knew that the resolution was on the right track when it said that the course itself would "help close the achievement gap, reduce dropout rates, and increase graduation rates."

We were ready.

However, we knew the school board commissioners would want to know if the ethnic studies course piloted across a set of San Francisco high schools in fact achieved that intended outcome.

We turned to our partnership with Stanford University to find a researcher who could help us analyze the pilot course outcomes. We wanted to have evidence when our school board considered expanding the resolution beyond a small group of schools.

We engaged in many hours of discussions and data review, first with Stanford Professor Tom Dee, and then with Post-Doc (now Assistant Professor at UC Irvine) Emily Penner, about the implementation of the pilot course. Tom and Emily shared the results with us just a few days before the board was to consider a resolution to expand the pilot.

The Stanford study showed the pilot course boosted students' GPA and attendance in significant ways. This gave us full confidence to support the expansion of the ethnic studies course across San Francisco high schools.

We were then tasked with scaling the ethnic studies course to a broader array of our high schools. While Tom and Emily brought the expertise of the original data, as economists, they could not help us think about how to adapt the piloted course curriculum.

SFUSD teachers, in collaboration with SF State University, originally designed the course. After reviewing the current state of the curriculum, we were aware that we needed to revisit the curriculum in order to make it a viable course for all public high schools in San Francisco.

So, we turned to the expertise of our own teachers to redesign the curriculum and make adjustments to the course to implement at scale. Four important steps we took were:

  • Engaging the teachers who taught the pilot course (and with strong backgrounds in ethnic studies content) in the revision of the ethnic studies curriculum
  • Updating the ethnic studies curriculum to make the key elements about content more accessible to teachers with less of a background teaching ethnic studies
  • Creating units of study and lesson plans in alignment with state standards for history and social science
  • Providing teachers who were new to the course with professional development prior to the new school year as well as monthly meetings to support their instruction throughout the year. (This provided teachers with a community where they could discuss their practice).

We are now in talks with our Stanford partners to start the next phase of research on SFUSD's ethnic studies courses. We hope to study the longitudinal outcomes of the students in the original pilot, but to also understand the implementation and the outcomes of our expanded ethnic studies course.

In addition to working with our Stanford research partners, we look forward to our continued work with our teachers on the ethnic studies course as we continue on our learning journey.

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