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Ethnic studies in California classrooms

The state approves the much-debated curriculum model


George Washington High School in San Francisco Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu (file)

Ethnic studies in California classrooms

More than 100 protesters on March 7 gathered before a line of American flags at a government building in Los Angeles. Carrying signs and wearing masks emblazoned with “End Jew Hatred,” they cheered and clapped as speakers called for California to reject a high school ethnic studies curriculum four years in the making.

Over their protests, and after an editing process that drew tens of thousands of public comments, California on March 18 adopted the curriculum. Teachers are not required to use the nearly 900-page document, but its potential influence on high school students has sparked a heated debate that will now move from state to local battlegrounds. Following multiple rounds of edits, the curriculum’s original writers disavowed the final draft as watered-down, while early opponents say the changes didn’t fix its divisive core.

Ethnic studies examine the history and culture of historically marginalized groups. A 2016 Stanford study suggests including them in high schools boosts students’ attendance and GPAs. Proponents say ethnic studies equip students to celebrate different cultures and challenge racism.

In 2016, California passed a law to develop an ethnic studies curriculum, and the state Department of Education in 2018 assembled high school teachers and college professors with experience in the field to write the first draft. The result, like similar college-level courses, focuses on African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

But some found elements of the draft concerning. It omitted Jewish American history while including in its glossary a favorable definition of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which opposes Israel. It also drew criticism for jargon and radicalism: The draft said ethnic studies courses should “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.” The president and vice president of California’s State Board of Education called for revisions.

Edits produced a litany of changes. The final version added lessons on Arab Americans, Armenian Americans, Jews, and Sikhs. It dropped a list of significant African American figures that left out Martin Luther King Jr., along with the controversial glossary. In response to criticism that the curriculum ignored its own call to consider multiple viewpoints, the final document encourages teachers to present students with differing perspectives on each topic and allow them to discuss and draw their own conclusions. Edits also added information about anti-Semitism.

Though critics applauded the changes, many say the curriculum is still flawed. Elina Kaplan, the co-founder of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, said it encourages students to define people as either victims or oppressors. “If the lens through which you see the world is still this victim-oppressor lens, then until you change that lens, no specific wording really matters,” she said.

California first grade teacher Lori Meyers, co-founder of Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies, noted the curriculum relies on critical race theory, which attributes the root cause of many social problems to slavery and racism. Kaplan and Meyers argue Los Angeles’ ethnic studies curriculum offers a better example of teaching history while telling teachers to avoid promoting specific activist movements.

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have required an ethnic studies course for high school graduation, saying the model curriculum draft still needed revision. The bill may return, while districts in Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif., have already added their own requirements.

If the state requires ethnic studies, districts will have the freedom to adapt the model curriculum or design their own courses. Advocates on both sides of the debate are preparing to continue the fight locally. After condemning the final document, members of the model curriculum drafting committee joined a group created to help districts design courses closer to the original.

Meanwhile, Meyers is calling for districts to open their curriculum design process to the public and allow parents to view textbooks and primary sources beforehand: “Transparency every step of the way will make a huge difference in making sure that this is done right.”

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