AP Photo / Don Thompson
Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, chairman of the Legislative Jewish Caucus, center, speaks beside State Superintendent Tony Thurmond at a news conference in Sacramento.
The article was updated on Aug. 18 to include new links to the draft model curriculum on ethnic studies.

California lawmakers will decide this month whether to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. Yet the first draft of a proposed ethnic studies curriculum has drawn strong criticism from top state education leaders, as well as some ethnic organizations that say their stories are mischaracterized, underplayed or ignored.

Thursday is the final day for the public to comment on the proposed curriculum that already has drawn more than 5,000 responses, mostly from critics who describe the 350-page document as politically slanted and insensitive to Jews and other groups. (You can find instructions for commenting by going here.)

Count State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond among those calling for major rewrites. The document would provide guidance for ethnic studies teachers but would not be a mandated curriculum.

“A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” Darling-Hammond wrote in a short statement earlier this week, which was co-signed by board Vice President Ilene Straus and board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon. “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

Darling-Hammond and her co-signers issued the statement without a vote of the full board, indicating they felt they had to respond to mounting criticism of the document and increasing national attention to the controversy. The board meets every other month.

Thurmond, meanwhile, called on the state’s advisory Instructional Quality Commission to add “the contributions of Jewish Americans and the high levels of anti-Semitism that have existed historically and that still do now” to the ethnic studies framework.

Thurmond spoke at press conference in Sacramento Tuesday flanked by members of the Jewish Legislative Caucus. In a sharply worded letter, the caucus not only criticized the draft curriculum’s omission of any references to Jewish Americans’ contributions to California life and culture and their struggles against prejudice, but also implied the omission wasn’t an oversight.

“We have been advised that this exclusion appeared to be intentional and reflected the political bias of the drafters” of the document, the letter, co-signed by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-San Fernando Valley).

What caught the eye of Jewish and pro-Israel critics was a favorable definition of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which calls for sanctions and boycotts of Israel and gives a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hindu, Korean, Armenian and Hellenic groups in California joined the call for a redraft, saying the curriculum “is replete with mischaracterizations and omissions of major California ethno-religious groups.”

At times, the document reads like word soup.

“Ethnic Studies also examines borders, borderlands, mixtures, hybridities, nepantlas, double consciousness and reconfigured articulations, even within and beyond the various names and categories associated with our identities,” a passage in the introduction reads. “People do not fit neatly into boxes and identity is complex.”

A 20-member Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Group largely wrote the draft, which includes a glossary, after receiving a skeletal document from consultants hired by the California Department of Education, according to Deputy State Superintendent Stephanie Gregson, who oversees curriculum issues.

The 2016 law ordering the creation of the ethnic studies curriculum required that committee members consist primarily of college professors of ethnic studies and high school teachers who teach or are familiar with the subject. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, a professor at San Francisco State who consulted with San Francisco Unified on its ethnic studies offerings, and R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a teacher in Los Angeles Unified, co-chaired the committee. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Missing from much of the criticism, though, is an acknowledgment that ethnic studies, an interdisciplinary study of political, cultural and historical forces affecting racial, ethnic and religious identities, can be effective in engaging marginalized students and encouraging civic involvement in an increasingly diverse California. At a time of racially motivated mass shootings and random deportations, ethnic studies can encourage discussions of hate speech on the Internet, inequality and prejudice, and place students’ own struggles in a broader context.

It “can be an important tool to improve school climate and increase our understanding of one another,” Darling-Hammond and co-authors wrote in their statement.

Timeline for approval

The state board has until March 31 to decide what’s in the model curriculum, which would provide guidance to high schools and potentially middle schools beginning by fall of 2020. The board will take up the issue in January or March, after the Instructional Quality Commission reviews the document when it meets next month.

A bill now before the Legislature will add pressure on the state board to get the curriculum right. Assembly Bill 331 would make California the first state to require all high school students to take a semester-long course in ethnic studies as a graduation requirement, beginning with the class of 2024-25. The Assembly passed it 63-8 and the bill is now in the Senate. Its author, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, is also a member of the Legislative Jewish Caucus and signed the letter from the Legislative Jewish Caucus.

In vetoing a similar bill that Medina proposed last year, Gov. Jerry Brown wrote, “I am reluctant to encourage yet another graduation requirement” for already “overburdened” students.

Eighteen school districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Ana and Stockton, already offer ethnic studies courses or require a course to graduate.

In its guidance to the committee writing the draft curriculum, the state board said that it should, among other goals:

  • “Encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together” while highlighting core ethnic studies concepts such as equality, justice, race and ethnicity.
  • Enable school districts to adapt courses to reflect the demographics in local communities.
  • Be consistent with the state’s history-social science standards.
  • Promote critical thinking and self-empowerment.

The draft curriculum sometimes advances those goals. But too often it veers off into a narrow political perspective that “grafts too much jargon and unnecessary radical thought,” said former State Superintendent Bill Honig, who retired earlier this year after leading the Instructional Quality Commission for Brown.

For example, the writers said that ethnic studies should “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.”

The guidelines shouldn’t alienate readers; they should be approachable in Bakersfield as well as Berkeley, Honig said.

Representative of critics’ comments is a letter signed by man who identified himself as Tom Reeve: “It has long been California practice to not make partisan propaganda part of any public school curriculum ….. but the authors of the draft ethnic studies curriculum have abrogated their responsibility and offered a political indoctrination course under the false flag of an ethnic studies curriculum. I ask the Board to throw out this entire embarrassment to California.”

Share Article

Comments (3)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Paul Muench 1 month ago1 month ago

    I wonder if it might help to rename Ethnic Studies to Power Studies. Stanford Business School students pay a lot of money to take Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Paths to Power course. We shouldn’t just leave that type of opportunity to the elites. One of his points is that people are squeamish about talking explicitly about power. But given we have democratic governments it sure seems like it’s a good idea for people … Read More

    I wonder if it might help to rename Ethnic Studies to Power Studies. Stanford Business School students pay a lot of money to take Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Paths to Power course. We shouldn’t just leave that type of opportunity to the elites. One of his points is that people are squeamish about talking explicitly about power. But given we have democratic governments it sure seems like it’s a good idea for people to understand and question who should wield power for what purposes and how that power can be used.

  2. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 1 month ago1 month ago

    You can't be too comprehensive when teaching "cisheteropatriarchy." This well-intentioned descent into the morass of religious, ethnic and sexual political facts and sensitivities cannot possibly end well. The truth is that most California legislators who are busy pushing this education requirement have little background in plain old American History and the students who would be required to "learn" this curriculum are similarly disadvantaged. Many California kids can barely read. Most are barely literate in civics, … Read More

    You can’t be too comprehensive when teaching “cisheteropatriarchy.”
    This well-intentioned descent into the morass of religious, ethnic and sexual political facts and sensitivities cannot possibly end well. The truth is that most California legislators who are busy pushing this education requirement have little background in plain old American History and the students who would be required to “learn” this curriculum are similarly disadvantaged.

    Many California kids can barely read. Most are barely literate in civics, world history, the history of the westward movement that settled our country or the variety of American “wars” fought since our founding. Let’s shore up the curriculum we have and include the contributions of our diverse populace rather than proceed down the rabbit hole of astounding political correctness.

  3. Jerry Lopez 1 month ago1 month ago

    The inclusion of all the stated objections to the curriculum would take more than the 3 years the children are in high school to teach. The main point should be that the excluded participation of the largest segment of the population needs to be examined and questioned.