Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

The California Department of Education is recommending dozens of wording changes and additional lesson plans about Pacific Islander, Japanese and Korean Americans and other ethnic groups to its proposed model ethnic studies curriculum. The revisions respond to criticisms that the document, which is undergoing its third revision, is too polemical in presenting racial struggles and omits the achievements and history of various ethnic and religious groups.

The latest changes, released Friday, will go before the Instructional Quality Commission, which will amend the draft curriculum at its meeting Nov. 18-19 (see Item 8 on the agenda). The commission advises the State Board of Education, which by law must adopt the curriculum framework by March 31, 2021.

In announcing the revisions at a press conference Friday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that the new lesson plans and resources, covering more ethnic groups, “reflect California’s diversity” while maintaining a commitment to focus on four ethnic and racial groups. Those are Latino Americans, Black Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans that traditionally have been covered in college ethnic studies courses.

“We believe that we have found a way to create a kind of balance of honoring with fidelity what core ethnic studies is, but also creating a bridge to talk about interconnectivity of other groups whose stories need to be told,” Thurmond said.

Ethnic studies presents “an honest, more diverse accounting” of Americans whose stories, Thurmond said, have been “marginalized and understudied” in traditional history courses. “We know that in this moment of racial reckoning in our state and in our nation, ethnic studies is needed now more than ever in our classrooms,” he said.

Dozens of high schools in California already offer ethnic studies, and the University of California has approved many courses as qualifying for admission. The latest revisions re-emphasize that the model curriculum is just that: a guide, not mandated content, that will “allow school districts to adapt their courses to reflect the pupil demographics in their communities.”

There has been tension over the proposed curriculum ever since a committee of the Instructional Quality Commission, under the guidance of high school teachers and college ethnic studies professors, wrote the first draft in the spring of 2019. Ethnic and religious groups, including Sikh, Armenian, Jewish and Korean Americans, felt left out. Others, including some Jewish organizations, said the curriculum was slanted in minimizing racial progress, opposing capitalism and favoring Palestinians in their fight with Israel over independence.

Thurmond and the department have responded by expanding an appendix of resources and lesson plans for various Asian subgroups, including Laotians and Filipinos, as well as Sikhs and Jews. And they have shifted a lesson about Arab Americans from the Asian American curriculum to the appendix — a move that creates parity with other ethnic groups but will frustrate Arab Americans.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, criticized the exclusion of lessons on Arab Americans from the main curriculum, as “an insult to the discipline of ethnic studies, to the Arab American community, and the scholars and practitioners who were not consulted in the process.”

“How can we not understand the decision to relegate Arab American studies to the appendix of the curriculum as anything other than a form of exclusion and caving to Islamophobia?” she wrote in a statement.

The revisions also seeks to strike a balance between those who view ethnic studies as a complement to the state’s history and social studies curriculum framework and those who believe it should serve as an alternative, critical view of traditional history and encourage political action.

The revisions contain additions that emphasize ethnic studies should promote critical thinking, vigorous discussion and contrasting points of view. For example, the introductory chapter on the goals, principles and outcomes of ethnic studies currently includes “critique empire-building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism and other forms of power and oppression.” The revisions would add several sections, including:

  • “Curriculum, resources and materials should include a balance of topics, authors and concepts, including primary and secondary sources that represent multiple, and sometimes opposing, points of view or perspectives.
  • “The instruction, material, or discussion must be appropriate to the age and maturity level of the students, and be a fair and balanced academic presentation of various points of view consistent with accepted standards of professional responsibility, rather than advocacy, personal opinion, bias or partisanship.”

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 331, which would make a one-semester ethnic studies course a high school graduation requirement, starting with the graduating class of 2026. In his veto message, Newsom said he supported ethnic studies while citing unspecified problems in the draft curriculum.

At the news conference, Thurmond declined to say what Newsom’s objections were and how he addressed them. He acknowledged that some of his recommendations could stir further opposition. At its last meeting, some members of the Instructional Quality Commission said they favored restoring sections that were previously deleted.

“We don’t put forward that what we’ve submitted to you is perfect, but it is thoughtful. It is balanced. It creates an opportunity for discussion,” he said.

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  1. Mark Powell 3 years ago3 years ago

    Gov. Gavin Newsom made the right decision when he vetoed AB 331, a bill that would have required all public high school students in California to take at least one semester of ethnic studies in order to graduate. Approximately 33 percent of California’s 6.3 million students do not even meet the minimum state standards in Math and English, and a whopping 72 percent of high school students did not meet standards on the California Science … Read More

    Gov. Gavin Newsom made the right decision when he vetoed AB 331, a bill that would have required all public high school students in California to take at least one semester of ethnic studies in order to graduate. Approximately 33 percent of California’s 6.3 million students do not even meet the minimum state standards in Math and English, and a whopping 72 percent of high school students did not meet standards on the California Science Test. So now is obviously not the right time to pile on another high school graduation requirement. In fact, these school performance statistics are simply unacceptable. Educators need to refocus their efforts on the basics, especially with the possibility that thousands of California students will be measurably behind in school due to learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

    When the academic impacts of a transition to remote learning caused by COVID-19 are taken into account, the average student could fall 7 months behind academically. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses equivalent to 10 months for Black students and 9 months for Latinos, according to an analysis by consulting group McKinsey & Company. We also know that many school districts will be strapped for cash in the near future, and many needed to borrow money to avoid budget cuts this year. It’s going to take a lot of money to implement a mandated Ethnic Studies Curriculum, and that money could be better spent on programs and services to help bridge the achievement gap. Differences in the performance on math, reading, and science tests between disadvantaged and advantaged students, also known as the achievement gap, have remained essentially unchanged for nearly 50 years—and that’s absolutely unacceptable. A new approach is needed now more than ever.

    Implementing a mandated Ethnic Study Curriculum, before we even know what our schools will look like in the future, is premature and ill-advised. COVID-19 has changed our traditional model of public education forever, and parents realize that learning is no longer restricted to the classroom, so we need to take extra care when looking at new graduation and course requirements. What we do know is that, from this point forward, school districts will need to offer students a distance learning option, and should also provide distance learning training and IT support for parents so they can facilitate their children’s instruction. This hybrid school model may be what is needed to help bridge the achievement gap. However, adding on an additional graduation requirement at this time may prevent more students from receiving a high school diploma, and the reasoning pushing its implementation is shortsighted and foolish. Injecting an Ethnic Study Curriculum graduation requirement is something that needs to be experimented with sensibly, considering all aspects and outcomes, and parents must be involved every step of the way to make sure the curriculum and implementation is fair, just, and equitable.

    Thanks to the hard work of the California Department of Education, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is headed in the right direction, but many groups are still being left out, and that is unacceptable. Ethnic studies has always focused on giving a voice to those who have historically been ignored, misunderstood, or marginalized, and without question African American, Latino American, Asian American, and Native American students deserve to have their stories better represented in our education system. However, on the issue of inclusion, the curriculum still needs improvement.

    Making ethnic studies a mandated graduation requirement for public school students is not what is needed; rather, individual school districts need more local control to determine if they want to implement an ethnic studies course as a high school elective. Giving students, parents, teachers, and school administrators more authority and regulation over required courses is more crucial than ever, and it’s important that we get this right the first time. Many generations of students are depending on us to provide an Ethnic Studies Curriculum that will give voice to the voiceless, contribute to healing our racial and ethnic divisions, and uplift all communities in our state. I encourage parents, students, educators, and all concerned Californians to give the decision making power back to the local school districts so they can determine what curriculum is best for their students. Local control of education is a concept that has become embedded in American culture. It is generally accepted that decisions about the education of students in a public school district should be made by those who are closest to the site and not politicians.

    (I am a member of San Diego County Board of Education. The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of the Board of Education or the San Diego County Office of Education.)

  2. Chris White 3 years ago3 years ago

    “Fair and balanced” — like Fox News? Great, the censoring and silencing of leading educators of color continues. It’s very sad and unjust what has happened with this curriculum over the past year.


    • Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

      This is one topic I’ve not heard discussed. Is standardization and institutionalization the beginning of the end of the spirit of Ethnic Studies? Does the critic need to speak with a single voice? Because clearly our political process needs to speak with many voices.