Raza Studies and the Battle Over Educational Reform

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Since the readings reflected our students’ lives and experiences, they were able to continue to develop and grow in consciousness while sharpening their academic writing.
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Chicana/o and Latina/o students also dramatically improved and outperformed their peers in the math portion of the exam, although we offer no Mexican American/Raza Studies math class. The only plausible theory for this improvement was that the students began to hope, believe, and see themselves as having an academic identity regardless of the specific disciplines of history, composition, and literature.

In Lak Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti / If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo / I do harm to myself;
Si te amo y respeto / If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo / I love and respect myself.

— Luís Valdez

Each day, my Students and I recite this verse from the poem “In Lak Ech,” by Chicano writer and activist Luís Valdez. It draws upon our indigenous history, roots, and cultura, and reminds us of our common humanity. Through these beautiful words, we are able to reflect upon the true essence of learning and are inspired to roll up our sleeves to help create a better world. With a unified voice, we affirm that teaching, learning, and education must always be about love.

In 2001, as the standardized testing movement exploded upon us in Tucson, Arizona, educators were immediately inundated with professional development that was geared to reeducate and train experienced maestros to be generic teachers. Administrators and district officials expounded on the need for the entire school and district to be in lockstep. Phrases such as “common curriculum” and “pacing calendars” began to take root in our professional discourse, while teacher creativity and innovation were discouraged; teachers could not be trusted to develop curriculum or create educational practices from their own wealth of knowledge, training, and experience.

However, standards have not been the issue for the Raza Studies classes that my colleagues and I teach at Tucson High Magnet School, since we have maintained a higher degree of expectations for ourselves as teachers than simply teaching to a test. We have been fortunate to see our students make dramatic improvements in their scores on the state’s high-stakes assessment, the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).

But more importantly, our students have consistently told us how Raza Studies classes have built an academic identity and desire to continue their education at the college or university level, thoughts that many did not have on the day they entered our classrooms. We believe in a rigorous curriculum that is based upon self-reflection, cultural studies, critical thought, and social justice. We rejected the prepackaged, test-driven curriculum that our district administrators were championing, and we proved that success would follow. We showed that by working in the best interests of the students, not the state, anything is possible. This is our story.

In the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), we are blessed to have a Mexican American/Raza Studies Department that was created in 1998 from a grassroots community movement. For generations in Tucson, Chicana/o students were often ignored, marginalized, or directly impeded from academic success. The mission for our Mexican American/Raza Studies Department has been to empower students by addressing the educational and academic needs of the Chicana/o community throughout Tucson. It is due to the hard work of youth, parents, educators, and community leaders that we have such a vibrant presence within our schools, fostering the growth of the classes and program.

Nearly a decade ago, as a response to the authoritarian legislation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Mexican American/Raza Studies Department brought together a team of teachers to address the issue and possible effects of the high-stakes standardized test agenda on our students. In our district, art and music classes were discontinued. Schools were demanding that teachers not supplement their curriculum or divert from the standards in any way, which meant a further marginalization of cultural and ethnic history and literature. Initially, even the teaching of poetry was frowned upon, except for those who taught honors or Advanced Placement literature classes. It became clear that we needed a plan to counter such damaging experiences for all our students, and specifically the Chicana/o students.

Tucson High Magnet School (THMS) celebrated its 100th anniversary during the 2006–2007 school year. Change does not come quickly to a school with generations of tradition. Thus, the creation of Mexican American/Raza Studies literature and history classes was met with resistance. In team meetings, we eventually developed academic spaces, specific classrooms and classes centered on the Chicana/o experience, at THMS, where I teach English. With Chicana/o literature and studies courses, we focused on rehumanizing the educational experiences for students. Students themselves select Raza Studies classes; on average, the classes are composed of over 90 percent Chicana/o or Latina/o students.

My Chicana/o literature class was created to complement the Chicana/o history class as an academic space that encouraged the authentic exploration of the Mexican American story. The classes specifically attach cultural, historical, and contemporary relevancy to the rigorous and beautiful struggle that is education. This was our response to NCLB, which rolled back the multicultural and pluralistic education movements of the 1980s and 1990s and justified the reinsertion of a less diverse curriculum, all in the name of standards.

“The Raza Studies classes created the foundation of my academic, political, and personal life. Throughout my 12 years of public education, I can honestly say that my last two years were the only ones that prepared me for life and not an exam.”

— Arturo Rodríguez, Class of 2008, Gates Millennium Scholar

In the 2003-2004 school year, my Chicana/o literature class overtly challenged the high-stakes testing movement. I consciously decided to teach reading and writing through a cultural lens with a social justice emphasis, and to disregard the stacks of practice tests that were provided for us. It was essential to reject the dehumanizing approaches that encouraged us to forgo building authentic relationships with our students in order to prepare them for the state test.

As a Raza Studies team, we decided to use cultural and critical literacy to provide a high-quality academic experience, instead of deconstructing our students’ lives to results on a test of certain skills.

We continued to cultivate an educational experience that had students at the center, while pushing them to improve their academic skills. In short, we changed nothing. All we needed was courage to rebuff the pressures from the district administration. However, since we were starting a new program with new classes from the ground up, the local school administration left us with the academic heavy lifting, emphasizing only one edict: make sure that it complies with the state standards.

We had a blank check and we ran with it. In my classes, I embraced many contemporary Chicana/o writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Luís Valdez, Ana Castillo, and Luís Alberto Urrea. We wanted the classes to be real and reflect what it means to be Chicana/o, so writing assignments were a balance of self-reflection and exploration, along with rhetorical and analytical skills based upon the readings. And since the readings reflected our students’ lives and experiences, they were able to continue to develop and grow in consciousness while sharpening their academic writing. We supplemented the curriculum with nonfiction reading from many different social justice perspectives, including critical race theory and the work of Paulo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and contemporary educational researchers, historians, and sociologists.

What was at the center of our classes was a deep capacity to love one another. This is another area that the high-stakes testing movement disregards and our district deemphasized, but it is essential to Raza Studies classrooms. We have real relationships with one another, beginning from the moment that students walk into our academic spaces. The decorated walls, posters, and art are essential to transforming a school space, which may resemble a primarily negative place for our students, into an academic space that resembles their home, their culture, and their identity. Former student Alexei Moreno wrote, “The information that I was taught in AP English could not compare to the knowledge gained in the Raza Studies literature class. I was finally able to relate to the material being taught. I found myself consumed by characters and authors that reminded me of my family, friends, and even myself.”

Our room is filled with pictures ranging from Emiliano Zapata to Frida Kahlo to Angela Davis. From Dolores Huerta to Malcolm X to Che Guevara. An entire wall is dedicated to pictures of alumni and former students who were essential in creating that very space. Student artwork also explodes on the walls of our chante, our home. When administrators come into our room to evaluate my instruction, they often enter with an agenda or discomfort due to the nature of the students’ critical dialogue about racism, injustice, and oppression that the literature inspires. As much as the room is inviting to students in our school and community, only a few administrators have felt the same way. However, as administrators and evaluators leave our space, they usually focus on the level of student engagement in the classroom discussion and the work at hand. As Arturo, a student of mine, expressed, “where the classes mean the most to me is in my personal life. The teachers would always find a way to make the struggling students understand the material. Our teachers would not focus on the way we dress, what our first language was, or how we looked; they would always concentrate on our academic needs.”

Of course, the scores on a state standardized test for which we had spent no time preparing beyond our own curriculum and pedagogy were the only results that mattered. In 2005, district officials who grumbled about our social justice content and indignant attitude toward high-stakes testing were soon inspired to audit our students’ test scores.

However, the gamble to continue to build academic spaces with our students at the center paid off, and the scores eliminated the “achievement gap” between the Chicana/o and Latina/o students in our classes and the European American students in the TUSD. Chicana/o and Latina/o students also dramatically improved and outperformed their peers in the math portion of the exam, although we offer no Mexican American/Raza Studies math class. The only plausible theory for this improvement was that the students began to hope, believe, and see themselves as having an academic identity regardless of the specific disciplines of history, composition, and literature. Many detractors thought these results were a single year anomaly. However, the scores have been maintained for five years and in four different schools. When asked how we achieved this, Sean Arce, the current director of the Mexican American/Raza Studies Department, said, “We do something revolutionary. We read and write.”

Over the past five years, a small, vicious, and vocal faction of Republican state legislators and officials has aggressively pursued the elimination of the Mexican American Studies department in the TUSD through legislation. We have endured public lambasting by the local conservative radio station, demonizing the teachers and students in our program. My classroom, students, family, colleagues, and I have been the targets as well. Students who were not enrolled in Raza classes have been sent into our space to videotape the classroom decor, students, family pictures, and instruction, and then to upload it to YouTube without our knowledge or consent. Seeing images of my students and family on the internet in such a context was a chilling experience. These examples are indicative of our times and the degree of unethical behavior some will engage in to maintain the status quo.

Although earlier legislative attempts had proved to be unsuccessful, Arizona HB 2281 was passed and signed into law in the spring of 2010. It allowed the state to fine a school district 10 percent of its funding per month if the state deemed that classes do any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

School district officials and teachers in the program vigorously denied being in violation of any of the language in the law. However, the statute also empowered the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction to be the sole person who can investigate the classes, judge whether there is any violation, and administer the fine upon the school district.

Despite tremendous community support, specifically from the youth of Tucson, who spoke at monthly school board meetings and public forums, the local school district felt intense pressure to eliminate the program in the wake of state officials’ threats to fine the district 10 percent of its monthly funding. As the local tension increased, and the fear of losing millions of dollars for our public schools took hold in the community, the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction ordered an extensive audit of our program that included our classrooms and focus groups with teachers, parents, and community members not involved with the Raza Studies program. And despite the auditors’ glowing report and analysis of our program and an avalanche of positive testimonies, data, and evidence, the State Superintendent found that our program violated the new law. The truth did not seem to matter, and due to the vagueness of the law and the unprecedented unilateral power it gave to one political figure, the survival of the program faced its most difficult challenge.

Although these incidents and trials have been difficult to endure, we have remained vigilant and strong in the maintenance of our program and classes for the sake of the students and community. As a result of this political situation, three students, 10 of my colleagues, and I filed a lawsuit against the state challenging the constitutionality of HB 2281; the legal battle has only begun.

The past 10 years of watching Raza Studies students flourish and the program grow has been like catching lightning in a bottle. Our strength to face the difficult days has come from our collective vision, will, and love for each other and for true educational reform. Teachers are vigilant in finding compañeros with creativity, maintaining energy to organize, and taking action to build academic spaces that are geared to the lives and experiences of our students.

Perhaps the experiences in Tucson cannot easily be duplicated in every neighborhood in our country. Educational conditions and political climate are unique, but finding colleagues, community members, and students who are eager for change is the key to reform; communicating clearly with one another, listening closely to the needs of students, while seeking pedagogical approaches and curriculum that will work best for the students will establish a common vision that the entire group will embrace. Students can exceed standards through a myriad of academic experiences; a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Teachers must be aware of the knowledge in their community, the lives of their students, and use their craft as a foundation for reflection and change.

The process and the product will be students who reflect the best of public education in our country and who see themselves as their sister’s and brother’s keeper and as a vital piece in creating a more just world. They will be young people who possess critical thought and consciousness and the desire to be active voices for change, and will build a more critical democracy. Believe it is possible. Sí, se puede!

Curtis Acosta has been an educator for nearly twenty years. He is the founder of the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, a consultation firm committed to helping educators create culturally responsive pedagogy and curriculum that inspires every student to thrive. Reprinted from Educational Courage, edited by Nancy Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin (Beacon Press, 2013).

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