Criticism of draft curriculum for ethnic studies in California intensifies

August 15, 2019

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 in August 2019.

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:

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.”

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