How Indiana’s new approach to ethnic studies goes beyond slavery and stereotypes

As American communities become increasingly diverse, a course to be offered in all Indiana high schools aims to equip high school students with the skills and knowledge they need to better understand their peers.

Effective this year, Indiana high schools must offer an ethnic studies elective at least once a year. Such a course centers on the perspectives of ethnic and racial groups, reflecting their lived experiences and contributions to society. It is up to schools to decide which groups they want to study.

But in the course’s inaugural semester, some Indianapolis districts say no one is signing up. State Sen. Greg Taylor, an Indianapolis Democrat who sponsored the new law mandating the course offering, predicted that enrollment would increase in forthcoming semesters and years.

The Indiana Department of Education developed a set of academic standards, which were only recently finalized. They are aimed at providing Hoosier students a chance to broaden their understanding of the various cultures and practices of those living within the United States.

“This country and this world are becoming more and more inclusive,” said Taylor, who has spent four years pushing to make the course offering mandatory. “With the advent of social media and other things, people need to understand the cultures and understand the backgrounds of people which they’re going to be communicating.”

A state-appointed committee of 10 educators, policymakers, and advocates, put in place the standards, which include themes such as Cultural Self-Awareness, Cultural Histories Within the U.S. Context and Abroad, Contemporary Lived Experiences and Cultural Practices, and Historical and Contemporary Contributions.

The course standards are aimed at teaching about America’s ethnic and racial groups in a holistic way that includes more than just the most heinous chapters of history, such as slavery, said Robin LeClaire, the state’s director of school improvement. She helped develop the standards.

“When we defined indicators for the standards,” LeClaire said, “we talked about looking at positive contributions, positive aspects and accepting things like stereotypes — actually looking into those and identifying how they are limiting and how they’re obstacles to ethnic and racial groups in our country.”

The first standard is aimed at identifying students’ own cultural and racial identities. LeClaire said when a student is self-aware and feels good about who they are and where they come from, they tend to perform better in school.

A study from the National Educators Association found that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curriculums have positive academic and social outcomes for all students.

When students of different ethnicities are placed in this course together, this type of interaction “fosters active thinking … increases perception of both commonalities and differences between and within groups and helps students normalize conflict and build skills to work with conflicts,” according to the study from the National Educators Association.

The course also provides historical context, specifically looking at how factors such as politics, policies, and economics have impacted different ethnic and racial groups. Teachers must also teach about the contemporary lived experiences and cultural practices of the groups they study.

Finally, students will study the historical and contemporary contributions of the different groups.

“Students need to be prepared for this increasingly diverse global community we live in in order to contribute and participate in a positive democratic society,” LeClaire said. “To understand groups outside their small community — where they came from, how they got here, what positive contributions they made to the world they live in — is more vital than ever.”

Beech Grove High School offered the course to students for the first time this fall, but failed to receive any interest, the district communications director, Melody Stevens, told Chalkbeat.

Perry Township, home to Perry Meridian and Southport High Schools, started offering an ethnic studies course in January through its online course portal, Indiana Online Academy. District spokeswoman Keesha Hughes said that so far, no students have signed up.

“It’s something I think is going to take a year or two to be implemented fully, but I think there’s going to be a desire for students to take the class,” Taylor, the lawmaker, said.

Taylor said because Perry Township has a large Burmese population, the district’s high schools could tailor the course to focus on the Burmese population.

Perry Township’s course, however, examines four ethnic groups: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans.

“Ethnic Studies is intended to open your eyes to the varying experiences of those who have been marginalized in American history and to understand how their story fits in to the American story,” the course description reads. “Only by understanding the experiences of the past can we begin grasp the events of today, and shape the world to be a better place in the future.”

David Suzuki, director of the Equity Institute on Race, Culture, and Transformative Action at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis, sat on the committee that developed the state’s course standards. His view of ethnic studies is focused on making sure all students of all races and ethnicities, learn about the history and cultures and issues of other racial and ethnic groups.

Suzuki said this could counteract negative perceptions and biases, especially in areas of Indiana that are predominantly white.

“To me, that’s what ethnic studies is,” he said. “It’s an anti-bias kind of philosophy or vision of ethnic studies in it would help counter bias.”