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.
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.
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 Unified, Los 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.
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