From the Annenberg Institute for School Reform
AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Emulate, Don’t Eliminate, Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Program
Author: Keith Catone
The documentary film Precious Knowledge compellingly captures the ways in which Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) program has transformed the educational experiences of many of its students. The program, a series of core academic classes taken by Tucson high school students, concentrates on Mexican American history and perspectives. The students featured in the film discuss the ways in which they were newly energized by what they experienced in MAS classrooms. They described how learning about their own history and in ways relevant to their own culture led them to be more engaged in school as a whole.
At the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, we currently support efforts to increase and deepen student-centered learning in classrooms across New England. Ensuring that learning is relevant and responsive to students’ identities and their communities is at the heart of student-centered learning. This is exactly what Tucson’s MAS program strives to do.
The data tell us that this approach appears to be working. Students in the MAS program far outperformed their peers on Arizona’s state standardized tests in reading (by 45 percentage points), writing (by 59 percentage points), and math (by 33 percentage points), and they enroll in post-secondary institutions at a rate of 67 percent, well above the national average (Ginwright & Cammarota 2011). Also, pedagogies used in Tucson’s MAS classes encourage and support students to be actively involved in their communities, a strategy that has been shown to correlate with increased classroom engagement (Cammarota & Romero 2009).
Despite these successes, in January 2011 State Attorney General Tom Horne declared that the MAS program was in violation of Arizona state law HB2281. As outlined by Shawn Ginwright and Julio Cammarota (2011) in AISR’s journal Voices in Urban Education, HB2281 – promoted by Mr. Horne and passed into law when he was state superintendent of schools in 2010 – was specifically crafted to target TUSD’s MAS program. The law makes illegal any courses that “(1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people, (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.” Teachers and students from the program have spent the past year challenging in federal court the constitutionality of HB2281 and the state’s ruling. But prior to any final court decision, on January 10, 2012, the TUSD school board voted to immediately cease MAS classes for fear of losing state education aid.
Critics of the MAS program have pointed to the use of texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos as evidence that TUSD’s MAS program promoted radical ideas prohibited by HB2281. But these decontextualized critiques miss the fact that the classes aimed to fully embrace the historical realities and everyday experiences behind being Mexican American and utilized these qualities to develop a rich, rigorous, and engaging course of study that taught students to think critically about issues of politics, race, and identity. Rather than banning what appears to be a highly effective program, education officials and policymakers should instead concentrate their efforts on learning more about whether and how MAS might have contributed to such impressive student outcomes.
Ironically, though, the banning of Tucson’s MAS program has actually led to its widespread recognition and celebration. The controversy has generated interest from bloggers, organizations, and news outlets across the country. The American Educational Research Association passed resolutions condemning both HB2281 and the suspension of MAS classes, calling for the law’s repeal and the program’s reinstatement. Community and education activists have organized screenings of Precious Knowledge in cities across the country that have also served as fundraisers for the legal battle. Other activists have organized a four-day awareness-raising caravan carrying books that were part of the Tucson MAS curriculum and have since been banned. This week, they have traveled from Houston to Tucson, making stops along the way in San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This effort, coined “Librotraficante” (or book-trafficker), has gained endorsements from iconic authors whose books have been removed from MAS classrooms in Tucson like Sandra Cisneros (House On Mango Street) and Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me, Ultima), who will both speak at caravan stops. Finally, in an effort to ensure that the curriculum and pedagogy practiced by the program does not disappear, the national Network of Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) has developed a curriculum guide, No History is Illegal, for teaching about what’s happening in Arizona. Nearly 1,500 educators from across the globe have pledged to teach from the curriculum guide, which includes sample lessons and materials borrowed directly from some of Tucson’s MAS teachers, plus more teaching ideas and resources developed by teachers from across the country.
What these responses make clear is that the teaching and learning practiced through Tucson’s MAS not only has the support of many, but also has the power to engage learners from all walks of life. The curriculum offers the kind of student-centered approach that we need more of in classrooms throughout the United States. If the injustices in Arizona are not rectified, then hopefully the current attention being given to Tucson’s MAS program will, at the very least, help others consider how similar programs might benefit students in their own schools and communities.
Cammarota, J., and A. F. Romero. 2009. “The Social Justice Education Project: A Critically Compassionate Intellectualism for Chicana/o Students.” In Handbook of Social Justice in Education, edited by W. Ayers, T. Quinn, and D. Stovall, pp. 465–476. New York: Routledge.
Ginwright, S., and J. Cammarota. 2011. “Youth Organizing in the Wild West: Mobilizing for Educational Justice in Arizona!” Voices in Urban Education 30, pp. 13–21.
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