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Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program deserved better

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Esther Cepeda
May 13, 2012
— I’d been really looking forward to screening “Precious Knowledge,” a documentary airing on PBS stations across the country starting May 17. Its prerelease materials promised to explain the controversy surrounding the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program.

Finally, I thought, I’d be able to truly understand what all the fuss was about.


The program was suspended in January for violating a recent Arizona law that prohibits students from taking courses promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government and resentment toward a race or class of people.


I’d hoped this documentary—featuring extensive footage of typical classroom sessions—would finally clarify whether the Mexican-American studies program was good or bad for students.


Based on my careful observation of the news coming out of Arizona, that determination was very difficult to tease out second-hand. For the most part, the state’s attempts to cope with a decade’s worth of illegal-immigration and border issues has been interpreted by nonborder dwellers across the country as blatant racism.


Plus, I’ve been both observer and captive student in “ethnic studies” classes at the high school and university level and know that students can inappropriately be encouraged to believe that all white people are against minorities and that the only recourse is to feel victimized and then revolt.


So which was it? Did Arizona shut down a program that had improved graduation and college admission outcomes for mostly poor Hispanic students because it was radicalizing them—or because of anti-Hispanic bias?


Unfortunately, after watching “Precious Knowledge,” I still don’t know.


Passionate teachers and fawning students chanting about love and forgiveness were presented in classrooms festooned with posters of Che Guevara. And we saw Tom Horne, the past superintendent of public Instruction for the Arizona Department of Education, fret that students are not being taught to judge others on the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin.


As students described how these specialized classes enrich their downtrodden lives, I wondered how the non-Hispanic students feel about the program and their peers. And how segregated are they? Do they get to take general education courses, lunches and gym with the rest of the student population?


But those answers aren’t found in this documentary.


It wasn’t until after I pored through the 120-page report that an independent auditor produced based on extensive focus groups, one-on-one interviews and site visits to classrooms that the film clicked into focus for me.


Released last May, eight months before the program was shut down in order to avoid the district losing more than $14 million in state aid, the report was definitive: There was no observable evidence that instruction promoted resentment toward a race or class of people. In fact, students were taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people and they weren’t segregated from mainstream courses or activities.


There was also no evidence of any instruction promoting the overthrow of the government or that the program excluded non-Hispanic pupils—white, Native American, black and Asian students took courses. Also no evidence indicated that the program advocated ethnic solidarity.


Actually, the report reads like a field manual for engaging students while boosting their academic achievement: excellent teachers delivered well-orchestrated lessons that were appropriately aligned to state learning standards and demonstrated real-life applications.


Parents were given ample latitude to opt out of some of the more controversial bits—and yes, there were some. Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” loomed large in the film, and there were other books, specific topics and discussions that flirted with being pure political speech and call to action.


The report detailed how teachers could balance views and materials, tone down rhetoric and bias—and how the program as a whole could do a better job of managing the curriculum and working with the school district.


Armed with this knowledge, however, this heartstrings-pulling documentary is worth watching.


It’s not a persuasive defense of the academic value of Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program, which sadly remains outlawed despite its track record of uplifting students who had already been “left behind.” But it does illustrate how a group of people can turn into radical activists after a long, peaceful struggle to defend their character and education against vociferous critics who baselessly slandered them.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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