An expansion of ethnic studies courses in some of California’s largest school districts is changing the way thousands of students are learning about the historical contributions of a wide range of racial and ethnic groups.
Over the past few years, Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, and San Francisco Unified, the sixth biggest, have added courses in their high schools designed to broaden understanding of the roles played by African-Americans, Latinos and other racial and ethnic groups.
Last October, the Oakland Unified school board approved an ethnic studies course for all Oakland high schools within three years, and last month the board of San Diego Unified voted for an ethnic studies pilot program in two high schools for the 2016-17 school year. San Diego Unified is the state’s second-largest school district; Oakland ranks 12th.
The new courses — which are adding to whatever is taught about these groups in existing history and social studies courses — have come about in response to critics who say the more traditional courses present an excessively Eurocentric view of American history and culture. Just under 11 percent of L.A. Unified’s 643,000 students are white, with the rest from a variety of other racial and ethnic groups.
This year, about 40 of Los Angeles Unified’s 150 high schools offered at least one of six one-semester ethnic studies courses — Afro-American History, Afro-American Literature, American Indian Studies, Asian Literature, Mexican-American Literature and Mexican-American Studies. Plans are now underway to offer a one-semester, survey-style course in ethnic studies to even more high schools, starting in the fall. The specific number of schools has not yet been determined.
Derrick Chau, L.A. Unified’s director of secondary instruction, said the survey course would include separate units on the cultural experiences of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “And we’re open to adding more,” he said, citing Armenian studies as one possibility.
The push to expand courses to more schools across Los Angeles comes from a school board resolution passed in November 2014 to make an ethnic studies course a requirement for graduation, beginning with the graduating class of 2019.
But six months after the vote, then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines came out against the plan, objecting to making the course a graduation requirement and citing the cost — an estimated $72 million to cover textbooks and specially-trained teachers. He also expressed a preference for weaving ethnic studies into the regular school curriculum from a child’s first year in public school, as early as pre-kindergarten.
Taking those concerns into account, a committee appointed to examine how to expand ethnic studies continued to meet and last month reported to the board that it was moving toward a solution — but not as the board had originally intended. The new course would be an elective and serve as a compendium to the six individual courses that are now being revised to create a year-long program with all of the courses as electives. None would be required for graduation.
“Right now,” Chau said of the graduation requirement, “we don’t have the time or money to implement it that way.”
San Francisco Unified began offering an ethnic studies elective course as a pilot program in five high schools in 2010. In December 2014, the district school board voted unanimously to expand the program in the current academic year to all of the city’s 18 public high schools. The resolution also “encourages district middle schools to infuse multiethnic and multiculturalism throughout the 6-8 grade curriculum and to explore institutionalizing ethnic studies coursework as a requirement for graduation in the future.”
“To my knowledge, outside of California, there are no statewide initiatives for expanding the teaching of ethnic studies and only a few one-off courses here and there in a few states,” said Ron Scapp, past president of the National Association of Ethnic Studies.
In both districts, the ethnic studies courses have been approved by the University of California and California State University systems as electives that count toward admission.
Although ethnic studies courses have been taught in public schools since the late 1960s, they have taken root in only a small number of districts, said Ron Scapp, past president of the National Association of Ethnic Studies and a professor of humanities at the College of Mt. St. Vincent in New York City.
“To my knowledge,” he said, “outside of California, there are no statewide initiatives for expanding the teaching of ethnic studies and only a few one-off courses here and there in a few states.” He said that so few schools around the country have any form of ethnic studies courses that the national association has no official count.
In California, L.A. Unified and San Francisco Unified are among only 17 school districts out of just under 1,000 that offer ethnic studies courses, said José Lara, coordinator of Ethnic Studies Now, a volunteer organization that works to expand the courses across the state. Seven of the districts — all of them small, including El Rancho Unified, Coachella Valley Unified and El Monte Union High School District — have made an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement.
The push for the courses has been bolstered by research that shows providing courses to examine the experiences of African-Americans, Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups makes the understanding of American history and social movements more relevant to students who might appreciate but don’t identify with a Eurocentric approach to teaching American history and culture.
A recent study of 1,405 9th graders who took the course offered at three of the San Francisco high schools in the pilot program showed that students identified as at-risk for dropping out and for academic struggles through the 8th grade increased attendance by an average of 21 percentage points and boosted their grade-point average by 1.4 points, compared with students who were not viewed as at-risk.
“Taken at face value, these findings provide a compelling confirmation of an extensive literature that has emphasized the capacity of [culturally relevant pedagogy] to unlock the educational potential of historically marginalized students,” said the study’s authors, Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, both of Stanford University.
In a 2011 study that traced the historical development and value of teaching ethnic studies courses, Christine Sleeter, professor emeritus in the College of Professional Studies at Cal State Monterey Bay, reached a similar conclusion. “Both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically as well as socially from ethnic studies,” Sleeter said. “Indeed, rather than being non-academic, well-planned ethnic studies curricula are often very academically rigorous.”
To help boost expansion in California, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, has sponsored a bill (AB 2016) that would amend the state Education Code by requiring every school district and charter school serving high school students to offer an ethnic studies course beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
It was approved by the Assembly Education Committee last month, the first step in a long process that requires approvals from the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the entire Assembly and from their counterparts in the state Senate before it reaches Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill (AB 101) from Alejo six months ago on the grounds that it called for creating an advisory panel that would duplicate the efforts of another group studying the issue, the Instructional Quality Commission.
“With this bill, it’s not a question of if it succeeds but when,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, about a bill that would require high schools to offer ethnic studies. “Given the grassroots movement for ethnic studies, and so many school districts already teaching it, it’s the right time to make this state policy.”
The latest effort streamlines the development process, calling on the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to oversee the creation of a model curriculum, taking into account the work of the commission.
“With this bill, it’s not a question of if it succeeds but when,” Alejo said. “Given the grassroots movement for ethnic studies, and so many school districts already teaching it, it’s the right time to make this state policy.”
Lara, of Ethnic Studies Now, said the proposed measure would aid smaller school districts that do not have the resources to create their own ethnic studies curriculum.
But Alejo’s latest bill still faces significant hurdles, not least that it would impose yet another state mandate on districts, which the state would have to pay for if the districts couldn’t. Brown, in particular, has opposed adopting more mandates, especially in light of his major effort to pay off billions of dollars of accumulated unreimbursed mandates that the state has owed districts.
Even with the recent efforts to hasten the development of ethnic studies courses in California and elsewhere, school districts should proceed cautiously in expanding them, said Dee, one of the authors of the San Francisco study.
“Our fondest wish when people want to implement this is do it in small ways, do it well, then scale up,” he said. “We worry about scaling up in indiscriminate ways.”
“Start with pilots,” Dee said. “Learn what works. Then, refine them before going to scale.”