CREDIT: Luis Alejo
Press conference in support of the ethnic studies graduation requirement in Sacramento on June 27, 2018.

Fifty years ago, the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in 1968 led to the creation of the first college-level ethnic studies courses in the country.

Luis Alejo

Now, California is on the verge of becoming the first state to adopt legislation that would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement.

But other states have been leading the way in implementing ethnic studies at the high school level. In April last year, for example, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, a Republican, signed legislation requiring all Indiana high schools to offer an ethnic studies course each year beginning in July 2017. Oregon Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, followed in June 2017, with a law to require ethnic studies in the curriculum of all its K-12 schools, beginning in 2021.

Unfortunately, fewer than 5,000 of California’s 1.7 million high school students, or less than 1 percent, had access to an ethnic studies course in 2013. While our state now offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate courses and degrees in ethnic studies at our most prestigious colleges and universities, California has just not come far along when it comes to our high schools. California can and must do better.

To address this, California Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), himself a former ethnic studies high school teacher, is pushing to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for all California public high schools by the 2023-24 school year. Assembly Bill 2772 would require students to complete at least one semester of ethnic studies to receive a high school diploma.

Jose Lara

The bill has already received the approval of the State Assembly with a bipartisan 54-19 vote and is now moving through the State Senate and is expected to land on Governor Brown’s desk by late August. California State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has also endorsed the bill and testified in support in the Senate Education Committee last June where it was approved with a 5-0 vote.

We believe there is a good chance that Gov. Jerry Brown may be willing to sign it into law too.

After all, two years ago, Gov. Brown signed a bipartisan bill, Assembly Bill 2016 — which one of the writers of this commentary, Alejo, authored — to create a statewide model curriculum on ethnic studies by 2020. This model curriculum, to be designed by the Instructional Quality Commission and then approved by the State Board of Education, would provide guidance to school districts so they can offer ethnic studies courses that reflect the student demographics in their communities. The model curriculum will include examples of courses offered by districts that have been approved as meeting the a–g admissions requirements of the University of California and the California State University, including, to the extent possible, course outlines for those courses. That work is currently underway.

Making ethnic studies an integral part of high school makes sense in California as our state is home to the largest and most diverse student population in the nation. Students of color account for 76 percent of the population in our public schools and California students speak 90 different languages. Given California’s growing diversity, it is especially important that students learn about the various racial and ethnic groups in our state and their shared American identity.

In doing so, students gain a better understanding of other cultures while learning respect and tolerance. Additionally, ethnic studies courses provide students with the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures in the context of California’s rich history, while also helping them understand that they can change their communities in positive ways.

Having access to ethnic studies could increase student engagement in their schools and therefore improve their academic outcomes. The National Education Association found that “there is considerable research evidence that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.” And a 2016 study by researchers at Stanford University showed that ethnic studies courses helped high school students increase their educational outcomes, attendance and credits earned. Researchers found that students’ GPA improved by 1.4 grade points, attendance rose 21 percentage points and class credits earned increased by 23.

In the last few years, local grassroots efforts have created a strong, growing movement to standardize ethnic studies all across our state, district by district. School boards have begun to make an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement or approved policies to expand such courses at their high schools, including in Sacramento City UnifiedLos Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified and San Diego Unified, to name just a few.

If California is serious about preparing its students to succeed in diverse university and workforce environments and for jobs in a global economy, it must provide its students with the knowledge of the diverse people who make up our great state and the rest of our world. Gov. Brown has one last opportunity to make this a reality for California’s students and schools.

•••

Luis A. Alejo is chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, a former State Assemblymember and sponsor of AB 2772. Jose Lara is a high school social studies teacher and school board member at El Rancho Unified School District in Los Angeles and an organizer with the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Paul Muench 2 months ago2 months ago

    This will at least work as a jobs bill for ethnic studies majors. I’d bet these teachers are also more likely to pay their union dues in full. But scaling the results from the Stanford study will be much harder. That will at least take time, perhaps decades. What ethnic studies does academically for not at risk students is also not clear as they were not included in the Stanford study. … Read More

    This will at least work as a jobs bill for ethnic studies majors. I’d bet these teachers are also more likely to pay their union dues in full. But scaling the results from the Stanford study will be much harder. That will at least take time, perhaps decades. What ethnic studies does academically for not at risk students is also not clear as they were not included in the Stanford study. But perhaps the point for those students is a kind of spiritual enlightenment and not academic improvement. The track record for ethnic studies is somewhat dismal in this regard, because ethnic studies programs have been growing in colleges at the same time that wealthy communities and schools are resegregating. So at a minimum ethnic studies has not generated enough interest to prevent this trend. Which is kind of odd given the benefits of ethnic studies is supposed to make people more effective in the work force. But perhaps people just don’t know what is good for themselves and need to be forced onto the ethnic studies path.

  2. dkel 3 months ago3 months ago

    High School was designed to prepare the student for adulthood. The student was expected to have the skills and tools to start a family, cook healthy meals by understanding the mechanics of the digestive system and its nutritional needs, … Read More

    High School was designed to prepare the student for adulthood. The student was expected to have the skills and tools to start a family, cook healthy meals by understanding the mechanics of the digestive system and its nutritional needs, how money is earned and taxed and invested for retirement, and the American government, ideology, economics, and Constitutional laws. This is the core for success. Ethnic Studies will not meet the requirement to maintain the student in creating or sustaining a business, acquiring marketable skills for employment, etc. Ethnic Studies is a great idea and can be part of the services offered by community organizations and/or community libraries for those wanting to attend.

  3. Floyd Thursby 3 months ago3 months ago

    I don't like the way these courses are taught. They encourage resentment of the past which doesn't help kids. We should make 'Triple Package' mandatory reading, teach kids to study and save, teach that while 50 percent of kids are in poverty, under 6 percent of kids whose parents marry before having them, stay married, work fulltime and graduate high school are in poverty, and that every subgroup who has passed white males … Read More

    I don’t like the way these courses are taught. They encourage resentment of the past which doesn’t help kids. We should make ‘Triple Package’ mandatory reading, teach kids to study and save, teach that while 50 percent of kids are in poverty, under 6 percent of kids whose parents marry before having them, stay married, work fulltime and graduate high school are in poverty, and that every subgroup who has passed white males in grades and test scores has passed them in income (women under 35 in 97/100 US Cities, Nigerians, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Nigerian, Persian, Lebanese, LGBTQ, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Eritrean, many other nations).

    They should teach that good grades and stable families lead to prosperity, as well as lack of bling and emphasis on saving and emphasis on long work and study hours and few TV, game and social media hours. These are the facts, and they are undisputed. So California was part of Mexico for 15 years. Not important. What is important is how you live now, where you put your energy. Resentment or diligence/hard work? Resentment or unity and assimilation? These courses don’t help kids. We need to move past….the past and move into the equal opportunity future. Segregated schools are a problem, mostly caused by white so called liberals who aren’t really in terms of school choice of private or suburban in which they vote for NIMBY laws.

  4. Jaime Vega 3 months ago3 months ago

    As a Mexika from the Xikano Movimiento - leading our walkouts while in high school - becoming a bilingual California counselor of 20 years- and 1st gen University grad/ master's in Education Psych and child of immigrant parents- one of my greatest accomplishments while working at UCSB ( alumni) - and counselor was to get Xikan@ [not LatinX] Studies UC Certified A-G (was trained by UC) was approved at 2 high schools (Santa … Read More

    As a Mexika from the Xikano Movimiento – leading our walkouts while in high school – becoming a bilingual California counselor of 20 years- and 1st gen University grad/ master’s in Education Psych and child of immigrant parents- one of my greatest accomplishments while working at UCSB ( alumni) – and counselor was to get Xikan@ [not LatinX] Studies UC Certified A-G (was trained by UC) was approved at 2 high schools (Santa Paula and Fillmore and helped with Oxnard District UC counselors do same). Also submitted and was approved at over 100 high school UC Certified A-G courses at Santa Paula and Fillmore high schools. It was a Dream Come True as part of “La Causa and Mecha Movimiento de AztLan”. Let’s get all California high schools do the same …Adelante -Tiahui

  5. Tyler Ng 3 months ago3 months ago

    Please apply “Ethics” to our US government first before go preaching. What a waste of money and resources on these classes.

  6. Ted Buckley 3 months ago3 months ago

    Before we spend taxpayer money educating students about their individual ethnic backgrounds, let’s use those tax dollars to require every student to take and pass classes in civics, state and federal constitutional principals, American history, economics, and personal money management.