Credit: Alison Yin/EdSource

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.

CREDIT: LPI

Linda Darling-Hammond

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. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Dr.Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago

    When you are unable to address the fundamental problem of a persistent achievement gap between children of color and white and Asian system, better to tackle easier problems like establishing an ethnic studies curriculum. Only 14% of Hispanic 11th graders in San Jose Unified School District are proficient or advanced in Mathematics. And this pattern can be found throughout the state. See http://sipbigpicture.com. Our ethnic subgroups are in the emergency room bleeding to death and we … Read More

    When you are unable to address the fundamental problem of a persistent achievement gap between children of color and white and Asian system, better to tackle easier problems like establishing an ethnic studies curriculum.

    Only 14% of Hispanic 11th graders in San Jose Unified School District are proficient or advanced in Mathematics. And this pattern can be found throughout the state. See http://sipbigpicture.com.

    Our ethnic subgroups are in the emergency room bleeding to death and we are checking the patients for halitosis.

    Better that we stay focused on the prize of academic achievement which truly aligns with the survival of our ethnic minorities . Let’s work on providing them with high quality Math, ELA, and science curricula. And while we are at it, maybe we could make sure that we recruit and train teachers at our woeful colleges of education to teach the curriculum well. Our ethnic subgroups are most dependent upon high quality systematic curricula and professional practices. But they are definitely not getting it.

    We are going to end up with students who are ethically savvy but struggling to become greeters at Walmart at this rate.

    Our stat leaders need to wake up to this reality and begin focusing on the main event – academic achievement!

  2. BC 3 months ago3 months ago

    I would like to see the examples of the inappropriate language, the inappropriateness of instructional resources, and the mischaracterization of “our" economic system that this article refers to. It’s interesting that examples were not given. And who does the “our” refer to? I have not had a chance to read the ethnic studies curriculum in detail, but I have read criticisms that the curriculum is left-leaning, and I see that the ethnic studies glossary … Read More

    I would like to see the examples of the inappropriate language, the inappropriateness of instructional resources, and the mischaracterization of “our” economic system that this article refers to. It’s interesting that examples were not given. And who does the “our” refer to?

    I have not had a chance to read the ethnic studies curriculum in detail, but I have read criticisms that the curriculum is left-leaning, and I see that the ethnic studies glossary includes terms like capitalism, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, herstory, Islamphobia, microagression, etc. Are these types of words and terms the language that some people find inappropriate? And if so, who are those people and why do these find the language inappropriate?

    An ethnic studies curriculum in the 21st century can’t be based on traditional Eurocentric worldviews, and such a curriculum must expand upon and go beyond the terminology of the 1960s when ethnic studies courses were being introduced.

    It sounds like there’s a group of individuals who want to control the focus of ethnic studies by trying to depoliticize it. I hope that’s not the case. This article needs to explain what’s not “right” about the ethnic studies curriculum, and who gets the make that determination.

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 3 months ago3 months ago

      Are the public’s comments publicly available? If so, you could read the 21,000 comments this article references to see who wrote them and what they said about the terminology.

  3. Chris White 3 months ago3 months ago

    Kudos to the AB 2016 California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee (ES-MCAC) for their overall work really well done under such difficult tight time constraints. They are Ethnic Studies teacher leaders and experts from throughout California, selected by the Instructional Quality Commission and appointed by the State Board of Education (SBE) after all. If we're being honest, the most controversial parts of the curriculum account for far less than 1% of the entire curriculum … Read More

    Kudos to the AB 2016 California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee (ES-MCAC) for their overall work really well done under such difficult tight time constraints. They are Ethnic Studies teacher leaders and experts from throughout California, selected by the Instructional Quality Commission and appointed by the State Board of Education (SBE) after all.

    If we’re being honest, the most controversial parts of the curriculum account for far less than 1% of the entire curriculum draft. Why isn’t that a part of the public narrative more? It’s important to keep this in mind as the project moves forward. Hopefully the powers that be will keep and protect the ESMC draft at the core of it, as the over 8,000 signatures recently signed on in support are calling for. This can still include revisions that other groups are calling for as well, a natural part of any project of this magnitude and scope.

    This is a wonderful opportunity for California to show how such diverse groups can come together for this project, and as the SBE president says, for “building and strengthening, a socially just, forward-looking California for all”.

  4. Paul Muench 3 months ago3 months ago

    It’s unfortunate that the ethnic studies research is behind a pay wall. This is such a politically active issue. Someone should convince the Journal to put the research in the public domain.

  5. Dr.Maggie Carrillo Mejia 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you, Linda, for your leadership and support in developing a model curriculum for ethnic studies classes taught in California’s high schools. As a native Californian, retired K12 educator and an alumnus of our state’s public school system, I am heartened by your advocacy to develop these standards. You are absolutely right that the debate as to whether to offer ethnic studies classes at the high school or not was settled many years ago. The … Read More

    Thank you, Linda, for your leadership and support in developing a model curriculum for ethnic studies classes taught in California’s high schools. As a native Californian, retired K12 educator and an alumnus of our state’s public school system, I am heartened by your advocacy to develop these standards.

    You are absolutely right that the debate as to whether to offer ethnic studies classes at the high school or not was settled many years ago. The model curriculum will send a message of significance and value, in addition to supporting districts across our state that include these courses in their offerings for students.

    My first experience with studies of my own culture did not occur until my baccalaureate years, and I remember saying to my classmates that for the first time in my education, I was learning the history and contributions made by so many “Mexicanos” and “Chicanos” in their pursuit of social justice and recognition of Latinos in California’s rich history. It certainly would have helped me, as a new teacher, teach the ethnic literature course I was assigned. The value of this curriculum will be felt by many, both students and educators, personally and professionally.