Does a focus on ethnic studies have the power to transform Seattle Public Schools?

I was urged recently to explore ethnic studies more deeply, and I took that suggestion to heart.

In reading and discussing and learning more, I’ve come to see that I underestimated the potential impact that ethnic studies curricula could have on our schools.

I was aware of the power of culturally responsive teaching, and of the destructive power of implicit bias in the classroom, which is why I have continually advocated that implicit bias testing and training be mandatory for all public school teachers and staff.

But I had misunderstood the potential of ethnic studies to make an impact in this area, because I had not clearly understood its link to culturally responsive pedagogy and the incredible results we’ve seen in culturally responsive classrooms.

I still am not fully clear on that relationship, I suppose.

In fact, this exploration has left me inspired, but with a few questions still unanswered, which is why I had considered attending a workshop tomorrow morning at Garfield High School called “The State of Ethnic Studies in Seattle Public Schools.” The workshop is part of an impressive and important series of workshops being held from 9:30-10:50 in the morning prior to the MLK Day March that begins every year at Garfield. This particular workshop is being led by “various members of the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Group” in Room 224.

The Hill-Halvorsons at the MLK Day March in Seattle in 2018. Photo by Jon Halvorson.

The Hill-Halvorsons at the MLK Day March in Seattle in 2018. Photo by Jon Halvorson.

Instead, though, I’m hoping to catch the workshop being held in Room 232, “Join the NAACP Youth Coalition’s Movement for Racial Justice.” They’ll also be touching on the state of ethnic studies in SPS, but the presentation and the movement they represent will be youth-led. I’m looking forward to it.

The list of workshops and presenters is truly inspiring in its depth and breadth. So much important work needs to be done and so much learning is yet to happen. I strongly encourage you to attend a workshop tomorrow morning that speaks to you.

In the meantime, as I consider the serious possibility that ethnic studies has the power to transform Seattle Public Schools, I find a few residual questions lingering. I hope tomorrow’s discussion helps me see clear to some of these answers.

Here’s some of what I’m wondering:


  • Is ethnic studies the same as culturally responsive teaching? Or are ethnic studies courses taught, ideally, by culturally responsive teachers?

  • If ethnic studies is a term that can be used interchangeably with phrases like “culturally responsive pedagogy,” how would a district like SPS deliver on that?

  • Does the idea of “ethnic studies” (as opposed to non-ethnic studies?) imply whiteness as the norm? Does it imply an acceptance of whiteness as the norm?


Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow! Either way, I hope to see you out there.