How Oregon Educators Can Fulfill the Promise of Ethnic Studies

New K-12 social studies standards can make learning more engaging, rigorous, and inclusive for all students. Now, the state must help schools prepare.

Megan Irwin is the founder and owner of Brave Ideas Consulting. She is also a former journalist, nonprofit leader, school district administrator, and state agency executive.

Megan Irwin is the founder and owner of Brave Ideas Consulting. She is also a former journalist, nonprofit leader, school district administrator, and state agency executive.

Five years ago, Oregon made history when it became the first state in the country to require all K-12 public schools to teach ethnic studies standards and curriculum. Student leaders, community advocates, and members of the Oregon Ethnic Studies Coalition celebrated a groundbreaking victory, which earned strong bipartisan support in the Oregon Legislature. They heralded the new statewide standards as a crucial milestone that will make Oregon’s education system more inclusive and engaging for all students.

“I didn’t care about history. I didn’t feel connected to the subject because I didn’t see myself in it,” says Jessica Yu, a graduate of Portland’s Franklin High School and former youth leader with APANO, who advocated for the standards in 2017. “Ethnic studies teaches you to think critically about issues that are happening now. It connects the past to what’s happening today and gives you context for your own identity. That makes a big impact.” 

From history and civics to geography and economics, Oregon students will see the new ethnic studies standards integrated across K-12 social studies no later than 2026. The standards will guide educators to teach curriculum that includes the rich and unique histories, perspectives, and contributions of traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, as well as women, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially meaningful in a state where complicated racial history is often left unspoken, and where school curriculum hasn’t fully reflected the diversity and strength of Oregon communities.

“The K-12 system does not always present our communities in a respectful or honorable way, and that has a lot of repercussions for our students. We see how that affects their social and emotional development,” says Patricia Alvarado, Director of Education Programs at Adelante Mujeres, which supports Latina youth in Forest Grove and surrounding communities. “They hear a demeaning history instead of talking about the resilience, strength, and assets that our immigrant communities and communities of color bring.” 

With Oregon’s new ethnic studies standards, Alvarado sees reason for hope. “Everyone benefits from hearing the true history of our communities,” she explains. “Students of color will understand that they belong because they are learning accurate information that recognizes their culture as an important part of Oregon. All students will be prepared to be active members of the community and to thrive in a diverse society.” 

Now, fulfilling the promise of Oregon’s ethnic studies standards depends on successfully implementing standards in classrooms across the state.

The Oregon Partners for Education Justice (OPEJ), a network of community-based organizations and education advocates, is advocating for House Bill 4112 during the 2022 legislative session. Introduced by Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon of Woodburn, the bill would invest $1.25 million to create professional development opportunities that will help educators prepare to teach Oregon’s new ethnic studies standards.

Advocates say this investment is not only critical to successfully implementing ethnic studies, but would also reflect Oregon’s commitment to advancing an inclusive and equitable education system. As the Legislature considers House Bill 4112, Yu hopes the state will learn from the disappointment she experienced when advocating for ethnic studies at the local level.

“When Portland Public Schools made the promise [in 2016] to implement ethnic studies, it was supposed to happen in two years, and it didn’t,” says Yu. “Knowing it didn’t happen made me feel like adults will promise things and say things that make them look good in the media, but they won’t do the work when it matters, which makes young people lose trust and interest.” 

How Ethnic Studies Sparks Student Engagement

According to students, educators, and community-based organizations involved in the passage of the standards, ethnic studies opens up new and important ways to get students engaged in school.

“Children develop their ethnic and racial identity early. They understand how they are perceived at a very young age,” says Anthony Castaneda, Policy Manager for Latino Network. “Once we move into elementary and middle school, if the curriculum doesn’t reflect their identity and they can’t see themselves in it, you begin to lose students. You see the disengagement that can predict later outcomes in high school.” 

In a state where Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color graduate from high school at lower rates than their white peers, equitable access to engaging and culturally relevant learning is vital. Indeed, research shows that ethnic studies boosts student engagement at school, increases graduation rates, and nurtures a sense of belonging for all students.

Ji Reichle, a senior at Lake Oswego High School and a leader with the Oregon Association for Student Councils, believes that Oregon’s ethnic studies standards will make an enormous impact. She knows firsthand how educators play a pivotal role supporting students to discuss complex and at times challenging topics.

“My ancestors didn’t go through Ellis Island. As students, it’s important that we all feel like our history is being told in the way it should be told. It should come from multiple perspectives so we hear every side of a story,” says Reichle. “We want students to feel excited and engaged and willing to share. It creates a better environment where everyone feels more included, and I think that’s at the heart of empowering students.”

The benefits of ethnic studies will extend to all Oregon students, explains Reichle, and can even shape a brighter future for the state. “I’ve always been a firm believer that education is a solution to most of our problems,” she says. “If you can understand more perspectives, your empathy is hopefully going to grow. We can find solutions and there will be less division.” 

Bringing student perspectives forward and even empowering them to guide classroom learning is a hallmark of ethnic studies pedagogy, explains Jenoge Khatter, a former middle school educator now serving as Social Studies Specialist for the Eugene 4J School District. “This focus on student voice and honoring student identity, and acknowledging all the diverse identities and intersections that are coming into our schools, is going to make classroom conversations and experiences extra rich and special to be a part of,” he says.

According to Khatter, Oregon’s ethnic studies standards can spark shifts in teaching and learning that improve student experiences and outcomes: “How much are kids enjoying school? How much do they feel drawn to school? How much do they feel cared about, seen, and appreciated? When our education system recognizes students’ perspectives and agency, that should translate into higher attendance and achievement.”

Teaching Ethnic Studies With Local Context in Rural and Urban Oregon

Oregon’s ethnic studies standards are as important for rural communities as they are in major metropolitan areas. “We have to recognize that we’re educating our kids for a global world,” says Jeneen Hartley, Education Services Director for Douglas Education Service District in Douglas County. “Our youth in rural communities are becoming more globally connected, but students see a disconnect between what’s happening in the world and what is happening in the classroom. It’s important to provide support and guidance to help them understand what they’re seeing within the safety of their classroom environment.” 

Still, after two years navigating disruption to public education during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates acknowledge that teachers are exhausted and will benefit from robust long-term investments in professional development that support them to learn how to apply the standards.

State funding could bring much-needed instructional coaches and content specialists to help implement ethnic studies in Northeast Oregon, says Erin Lair, ​​Director of School Improvement at Intermountain Education Service District, noting how the state has recently done “a remarkable job” tailoring professional development to the unique needs of rural schools. 

“I represent a region that has predominantly small districts and we don’t have the same capacity that large districts do,” says Lair, who provides support to school districts in Baker, Morrow, Umatilla, and Union Counties. “But, lack of capacity doesn’t equal lack of interest.” 

Building up educators’ capacity requires building community, says Leah Dunbar, Language Arts and Social Studies Specialist at Lane Education Service District in Lane County. “High-quality professional development has to be more than just a ‘one and done’ experience,” she explains. “It needs to be a space where you're cultivating community intentionally with other teachers, because implementing ethnic studies should not be done in isolation. It won't be sustainable if it is.”

In both urban and rural communities, Dunbar believes Oregon educators need opportunities to learn from each other, share resources, and collaboratively tailor statewide standards to their local contexts. “Teachers in Cottage Grove, Junction City, and Springfield are going to move this curriculum in ways that are different from teachers in Eugene,” she says.

Kate McPherson, a retired educator now working with the Oregon Education Association on this issue, is also urging educators to engage community partners who hold deep local knowledge and can “help [ethnic studies] come alive” for students. This strategy is especially valuable in Oregon, where the educator workforce is less racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than the student population.

“Most of our educators who are teaching these standards are white. Even if they are good teachers, kids of color need to hear from voices that look like them and that’s an opportunity for partnerships with community-based organizations,” says McPherson. “The human connection is really huge.” 

Helping Educators Weave Ethnic Studies Into Social Studies

Most educators recognize and understand the importance of Oregon’s ethnic studies standards. Investing in professional development is the necessary next step, helping educators to prepare and grow skill sets that aren’t frequently or consistently taught.  

“We aren’t taught [in educator training programs] how to engage in conversation. We’re taught how to design a lesson, how to assess, how to do classroom management,” says Jessica Mallare-Best, who taught social studies at Portland’s Lincoln High School for nearly a decade. “We’re not taught how to meet kids where they’re at, how to validate emotion, how to be learners ourselves alongside young people, let alone how to do that in conversations about race.”

According to Mallare-Best, who now serves as Director of Educational Equity at the Center for Equity and Inclusion, high-quality professional development will ensure Oregon’s ethnic studies standards are woven seamlessly into K-12 social studies curriculum. “Sometimes ethnic studies is viewed as something separate—a separate class, a separate history—and that’s dangerously inaccurate,” she says. “It’s not a separate class or a separate history. It is history.”

Oregon’s ethnic studies standards will also complement new curriculum requirements to teach Tribal History / Shared History and the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. Together, these requirements will help educators go beyond “just skimming the surface,” says Amanda Coven, Director of Education at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

“When I tell people around the country what we’re doing here in Oregon, they say it sounds really great. It’s totally different. And it’s hard—it won’t happen without speed bumps,” continues Coven. “That’s how I encourage educators too: You’re going to mess up, and that’s okay. You have so many people out there who will be there to support you. And making sure educators know that is what makes it okay.”

Giving Oregon educators the support they need and deserve is essential to fulfilling the promise of ethnic studies, say advocates. Though implementation will take time, the Legislature can send a powerful message by passing House Bill 4112 in the coming weeks.

“It would say that Oregon wants to see all students succeed, and that it will support all students,” says Ji Reichle, the Lake Oswego High School student. “By making this investment in educators, Oregon would really be making an investment in the future of amazing students who will grow up to lead our state and nation.”