Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 3:50 PM
Tuttle Center (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Emily K. Penner and Thomas Dee, Stanford University
The adoption of ethnic studies courses in public schools is an exceptionally controversial policy topic. Proponents of these courses argue that they can be highly effective in supporting the academic development of at-risk children because they are culturally relevant and foster a robust and healthy social identity. However, the quantitative evidence on whether ethnic studies courses actually influence student outcomes is limited at best. In this study, we present what we believe to be the first causally credible evidence on the effects of ethnic studies courses using data from several high schools in a large urban school district. Specifically, we estimate the causal effects of an ethnic studies curriculum using a “fuzzy” regression discontinuity design that exploits the assignment of rising 9th graders with 8th grade GPAs below a threshold to treatment.  Our results indicate that taking the course was enormously beneficial to students. We find that ethnic studies participation increased 9th grade student instructional time by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23 credits. These surprisingly large effects persist across multiple robustness specifications, and suggest that ethnic studies, implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context is effective at improving academic outcomes and school engagement for at-risk students. However, we also discuss caveats related to external validity and the challenges of scaling up these reforms effectively.