Latino Teachers: Seek Overthrow of the U.S. Government or to Improve Academic Achievement?

Our education is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!

On April 26, 2011, nine students in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) took over the school board meeting to protest the potential dismantling of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. The dramatic images of students chaining themselves to school board members’ chairs made headlines nationally and have been used by supporters and detractors of the program alike. About 500 community members and over 100 police officers attended the subsequent school board meeting (Cabrera, Meza, Romero, & Rodriguez, 2013).

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The controversy surrounding the MAS program broiled for months, and emotions were charged. Numerous threats followed, including a YouTube video claiming the way to deal with student protesters was to ‘‘shoot them in the head’’ (Cabrera et al., 2013, p. 10). These incidents occurred after the passage of Arizona’s HB 2281 (now A.R.S. § 15-112), which allowed the state superintendent of public instruction to withhold 10% of state funding if he found a district offered classes that

  • Advocate ethnic solidarity rather than treating pupils as individuals,
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people,
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or
  • Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government (Prohibited courses and classes, 2010, p. 1)

Although he never attended a MAS class or conducted an audit of these courses, State Superintendent Tom Horne found TUSD out of compliance with this statute. He asserted that modifications of the classes to align the program with the law were impossible and, therefore, ‘‘the only way in which compliance can be effective within the next 60 days is by elimination of the Mexican American Studies program’’ (Horne, 2010, p. 2).

There was a wildcard in this issue – TUSD was under a Federal desegregation order. The Special Master assigned to the case was not only tasked with creating a plan to eliminate school-based segregation, but also the persistent racial achievement gaps which have been endemic in the district for decades. Within this context, the Special Master requested that a team from the University of Arizona assess the relationship between taking MAS and student achievement. If traditional modes of education continued to be ineffective at addressing these gaps, perhaps a critical ethnic studies curriculum could – but sound empirical analysis was required first. To address this need, we created the first ever large-scale, quantitative analysis of a K-12 ethnic studies program.

Using administrative data collected and maintained by the district, we ran a series of logistic regression analyses to isolate the relationship between taking MAS courses and student achievement (passing state standardized tests and graduation). We utilized multiple modeling and sampling strategies throughout this programmatic assessment across four cohorts (2008-2011, including over 8,000 students), and all of the results point to one conclusion: Taking MAS classes is consistently, significantly, and positively related to increased student academic achievement, and this relationship grows stronger the more classes students take. It did not matter how we operationalized academic success (i.e., graduation or one of three standardized tests); if we ran models using all students in TUSD (current study), only those in schools offering MAS (current study), or a matched sample of students (Special Master report); or if the models utilized clustered, robust standard errors (current study), or omitted this component (Special Master report). The results remained the same, and the only significant shift occurred when we included controls for pre-MAS academic performance (current study) the relationships actually became stronger because of a strong selection bias whereby the lowest performing students in the district were the ones most likely to take MAS courses.

In the “big picture,” these results have several important implications. It blurs the divide between critical approaches to education and traditional measures of student achievement. While, for example, standardized tests are imbued with cultural biases, critical ethnic studies continues to offer one of the most promising ways for traditionally underserved students to develop (narrowly-defined) educational success. Instead of diversity and ethnic studies being a convenient add-on to traditional education, they instead represent real education broadly defined. Thus, the research provokes two critically important questions. Given the numerous educational initiatives meant to alleviate educational inequalities throughout the nation, why are critical ethnic studies not part of the proposed solution?

Nolan L. Cabrera, PhD


Assistant Professor

Center for the Study of Higher Education

College of Education

University of Arizona

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Cabrera, N. L., Meza, E. L., Romero, A. J., & Rodriguez, R. (2013). ‘‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’’: Transformative youth resistance and the school of ethnic studies. Urban Review, 45(1), 7–22.

Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., Jaquette, O, & Marx, R. W. (2014). Missing the (student achievement) forest for all the (political) trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies controversy in Tucson. American Educational Research Jouranl. DOI: 10.3102/0002831214553705. Online at:

Cabrera, N. L., Milem, J. F., & Marx, R. W. (2012). An empirical analysis of the effects of Mexican American Studies participation on student achievement within Tucson Unified School District. Tucson, AZ: Report to Special Master Dr. Willis D. Hawley on the Tucson Unified School District Desegregation Case. Online at:

Horne, T. (2010). Findings by the state superintendent of public instruction of violation by

Tucson Unified School District pursuant to A.R.S.§15-112(B). Phoenix: State of Arizona Department of Education.

Prohibited courses and classes, enforcement, Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112. (2010).

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