Scott added, however, that many assumptions enter into these evaluations and the variables involved make it hard to judge how accurate they are.
Most of the students took the courses at a large magnet high school in Tucson that incorporated Mexican-American texts into American history and government courses, as well as English courses. Many of the Hispanic students at the school live in the surrounding low-income neighborhood, but the school also draws a diverse population of students from across Tucson that apply to attend. The diverse, high-achieving environment may have helped the minority, low-income students perform better than their peers at other schools, according to Scott. Any study of students enrolled in the Mexican-American studies program would have to take that bias into account.
In addition, the Mexican-American focus was implemented in junior- and senior-level courses. By the time a student made it that far, there was less chance, regardless of which courses they took, that they would drop out.
Scott also pointed out that the courses affected a very small number of students--just several hundred per year in a district that serves more than 50,000.
Richard Fry, a senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center, acknowledged that the issue is complex. He said, as far as he knows, there is no comprehensive survey that accounts for other influencing factors when looking at whether minority students enrolled in ethnic studies outperform other minorities.
According to Scott, there was little opposition to the Mexican-American studies courses in Tucson before Horne got involved, because there was little knowledge of them at all. He thinks it was a political issue that Horne pursued to help get himself elected attorney general. It was a case of Horne "using issues to get himself elected," Scott said.
Horne did not return a request for comment.
In any case, Scott says, the controversy around the courses is a distraction from what really matters: engaging kids in the learning process. The teachers who taught the Mexican-American studies courses were passionate, they selected engaging material for students to read and they encouraged students to relate to and think about the material instead of simply memorizing it for a test, said Scott. The courses didn't necessarily have to be Mexican-American studies--he adds that students who engaged in sports showed similar improvements--but those courses were nonetheless valuable.
"Regardless of what your community is, what the population looks like, it's up to the school district, because that's our job, to find those engaging things and support them with the budget," Scott said. "Because that's our job."