The Casual Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum

By Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis

January 2016


An extensive theoretical and qualitative literature stresses the promise of instructional
practices and content aligned with the cultural experiences of minority students. Ethnic
studies courses provide a growing but controversial example of such “culturally relevant
pedagogy.” However, the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these courses is limited.
In this study, we estimate the causal effects of an ethnic studies curriculum piloted in several
San Francisco high schools. We rely on a “fuzzy” regression discontinuity design based on the fact that several schools assigned students with eighth-grade GPAs below a threshold to take the course in ninth grade. Our results indicate that assignment to this course increased
ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the
course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when
implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk

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