The debate over whether ethnic studies is an appropriate and valuable course for high school students was settled long ago: It is.
Some schools have offered classes in ethnic studies for decades. In 2017-18, 253 California high schools offered a course in ethnic studies. Many courses are University of California-approved. Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, require ethnic studies to graduate.
In these polarizing times, ethnic studies can be a way to bring students together through a shared understanding of the forces that shape society. There is also evidence that access to such courses can help improve overall school success.
A Stanford University study found that 9th grade students — including a group at risk of dropping out — who took an ethnic studies course in San Francisco experienced large gains in attendance, grade point average, and credits earned, as well as lower rates of dropping out. Effects were positive across white, black, Latino/a, and Asian students and especially so for students who were Latino and male.
The authors noted that “these surprisingly large effects … suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context, can provide effective support to at-risk students.” Another study of Mexican American Studies in Arizona found similarly positive outcomes.
These are among the reasons we are committed to expanding high-quality ethnic studies course offerings through development of a model curriculum. While there are many good curricula already in use around the state, we know that many smaller districts will look to the state for help in developing a course and will use this guide.
As we are learning with the recently posted model curriculum draft, this work is very difficult. Laboring under a tight timeframe dictated by statute, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee and writers spent long hours discussing what content to include and what topics to address.
Within the 300-plus-page document are many thoughtful lesson plans, some of which are already used in schools with existing courses. Compelling lessons on issues ranging from real estate redlining to the United Farmworkers Movement and the exclusionary treatment of Chinese railroad workers will add to students’ knowledge of the history of our state.
Opportunities for students to learn about the contributions of many who have been unsung while they take up issues of social justice and inclusion and learn about their own heritages will strengthen their ability to create strong common ground for our shared future. We appreciate the committee’s hard work and the many productive components they developed for the document.
Unfortunately, the initial draft also wades unnecessarily into a global debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that feels unbalanced. It has drawn legitimate criticism over word choice and content omissions.
Others have raised concerns over the accessibility of some language, the appropriateness of some instructional resources, and the characterization of our economic system. The draft does not yet fully align with the statutory requirements or the State Board of Education’s guidelines. As is true for any undertaking of this magnitude, there is considerable work yet to do.
A bill now on Governor Newsom’s desk will provide an extra year for the Instructional Quality Commission to recommend, and the State Board of Education to adopt, a model curriculum. We are grateful for this proposed extension. California is the first state to commit to developing an ethnic studies model curriculum. Our efforts will have ripple effects across the country.
We need time to get this right. We must arrive at a curriculum that meets the many aspirations policymakers, educators and students have for it and fully aligns with California’s values of inclusivity, empathy, accuracy and honesty.
With extra time, the California Department of Education can consider how to integrate what has been learned from more than 21,000 comments received on the draft, and to conduct focus groups with teachers and students to gather feedback on what they’d like to see in the curriculum.
The state can also study districts with successful and long-standing ethnic studies courses to learn from them. And we can continue to learn from many of the state’s experts around overall framing, themes and instructional resources for the curriculum, so that educators can choose materials that are most useful and relevant for their schools.
This process cannot be rushed if we are to provide our students with a meaningful and relevant curriculum that helps them better understand society and their lives — and to play their own roles in building and strengthening a socially just, forward-looking California for all.
Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the State Board of Education.