California’s schools chief states his position as his department revises ethnic studies curriculum

February 6, 2020

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.

In a preview of what it will recommend this spring, the California Department of Education is siding with ethnic studies advocates who argue that courses should focus on four ethnic and racial groups whose histories have been largely overlooked in the high school curriculum: African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, and Native Americans.

Ethnic studies examines the social justice struggles and the political and historical forces affecting racial, ethnic and religious groups. Who should be the subject of ethnic studies was one of several controversial issues that derailed a draft last fall of a model high school ethnic studies curriculum that the Legislature ordered the State Board of Education to adopt.

Some ethnic and religious groups had criticized the first draft of more than 500 pages, written by a panel of high school ethnic studies teachers and university experts, for excluding their stories and struggles in America. Jewish leaders criticized the omission of anti-Semitism in the draft and what they characterized as a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the section on Arab American ethnic studies.

Later this spring, the education department will present its revision to an advisory committee of the state board for further editing. The revised version will go to the state board for final adoption by March 2021.

In an update on Jan. 24, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond agreed with activists who argued that ethnic studies courses fill a vacuum. What’s taught in schools hasn’t done enough to highlight “the contributions of people of color and has actually minimized the importance of their role,” Thurmond wrote. “Therefore, our recommendations will acknowledge and honor the four foundational groups” that are the core of ethnic studies.

Elaborating during a press conference last week, Thurmond said that there are opportunities in classes besides ethnic studies to discuss the full American experience. “Sometimes, people think when you create a curriculum, it’s like the only game in town — and it’s not,” he said. “We owe it to those who founded the ethnic studies movement to kind of keep a sense of fidelity there.” But the department “will be leading conversations statewide about how we address hate, acts of violence. How we promote the beauty of the diversity of what our students represent in this state.”

Thurmond said that he met with Jewish leaders about expanding “efforts around teaching tolerance and using education” to counter “the kinds of awful acts of anti-Semitism that we have seen in recent times.”

What’s unclear is whether the experiences and past discrimination against ethnic groups that have been assimilated — the Irish, Polish, French Canadians and Jews — will be included to provide context to an ethnic studies course. In an email, a spokesperson said only that the department is months from completing the model curriculum.

In guidance to the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory group charged with drafting the curriculum, the state board offered general principles, including to “encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together, highlighting core ethnic studies concepts such as equality, justice, race and ethnicity.”

Last fall Assemblyman José Medina, D-Riverside, called for an inclusive ethnic studies curriculum that included European immigration. But in an interview with EdSource last week, Medina said he was satisfied that Thurmond had provided “clarity” in focusing on the four traditional ethnic studies groups.

Medina, whose former wife is Jewish and whose children were raised as Jews, has the distinction of belonging to the Legislative Jewish Caucus and the Legislative Latino Caucus. He also taught a general ethnic studies course and Chicano studies for three decades at Riverside Unified.

In his own ethnic studies classes, Medina said, he gave examples of how Jewish experiences can be interwoven in the curriculum. But he said he didn’t support requiring these types of comparisons in the curriculum.

Last year, amid the controversy over the draft curriculum, Medina withdrew Assembly Bill 331, which would require all high school students to take a semester of ethnic studies. He said he would move ahead with the bill this year.

In 2017-18, according to a legislative analysis of Medina’s bill, 17,354 students — about double the number from two years before — took ethnic studies in 943 courses in 555 schools. Sixty percent of the courses satisfied the A-G requirements for admission to the University of California or California State University.

With interest rising, a model curriculum would provide teachers, particularly those unfamiliar with the subject, with guidelines and resources they could use if they choose. Ethnic studies teachers say that ethnic studies is effective in engaging black and Latino students. They point to a 2017 Stanford University study that found “surprisingly large” increases in grade point averages and school attendance for “at-risk” students who were assigned an ethnic studies course.

Disagreements over content and terms

The draft curriculum generated 20,000 comments for and against, according to the education department. Which groups should be the focus of a course was just one issue. The debate over the proposed content was contentious.

Critics charged that the draft curriculum had an activist agenda and a left-wing bias in the language it uses and in a 22-page glossary. Ethnic studies, the curriculum introduction read, “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including but not limited to white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and xenophobia, that continue to impact the social, emotional, cultural, economic and political experiences of Native People/s and people of color.”

The department took down the draft of the model curriculum after the public comment period ended last August. However, you can find the proposed introduction here, the glossary here and the full document here.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the chairwoman of the state board, agreed with some of the criticisms last fall when she called for more time for a rewrite of the draft. “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,” she wrote in a statement last August co-signed by board members Ilene Straus and Feliza Ortiz-Licon. “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

Since last fall, the drafters of the curriculum have organized a large Save CA Ethnic Studies Coalition supported by more than 100 ethnic advocacy and social justice organizations, university and school ethnic studies groups, the California Teachers Association and the Asian & Pacific Islander, Black and Latino legislative caucuses. In a document last month, the coalition demanded that the department and the state board “keep the current model curriculum draft (with some revisions) focused on the histories and social justice struggles of communities of color in the U.S.”

“Groups with little to no experience in the discipline have waged an aggressive lobbying campaign” that could undermine the work of expert practitioners, the statement said.

In emails over the past week, R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a teacher in Los Angeles Unified who co-chaired the 19-member committee that created the draft curriculum, said, “We also understand this is a political process and project, as all curriculum is. Thus, we are here to help consensus building and, if necessary, negotiations, with and between all reasonable stakeholders.”

The draft curriculum, he said, should be reconciled with the state board’s guidelines but not compromised. And the academic language of ethnic studies, which critics have dismissed as jargon, is essential.

“If the expertise of leading Ethnic Studies educators is marginalized or ignored in deciding what the model curriculum needs to be to retain its transformative potential, then it is likely self-sabotaging it, setting it up for failure, as has been done for students of color for far too long, and that would be tragic.”

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