New draft ethnic studies curriculum for California students issued after a year of study

August 1, 2020

Members of Moms United for Black Lives protest during a peaceful demonstration in Portland, Oregon, on July 31.

The California Department of Education released a more readable and tempered draft of an “ethnic studies model curriculum” on Friday, 11 months after intense criticism of the first draft forced state officials to order a rewrite.

Its release will start eight months of review and revision, beginning with an Aug. 13 meeting of a curriculum commission reporting to the State Board of Education, then a one-month public comment period and more review. The process will culminate in adoption by the state board in March.

The model curriculum will serve as a guide, not a mandated curriculum, for the several hundred high schools that already offer ethnic studies courses. The author of a bill to make a course in ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement withdrew it last fall amid the furor over the initial draft, but Assemblyman José Medina, D-Riverside, has said he would re-introduce Assembly Bill 331 next year. Last month, California State University trustees voted to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and the Legislature is poised to pass an alternate version.

The extensive revision includes chapters on the background of ethnic studies, guidance to districts on how to teach it and sample lesson plans. Gone from the new draft are a glossary full of jargon and academic language and a section on Arab-American history with references to Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The department of education reported receiving 21,000 comments on the initial draft, primarily critical, in the summer of 2019; 18,000 of those asserted the section was one-sided or prejudiced.

The language of the new document is more moderate and inclusive, encouraging classroom discussion of all students’ ethnicities and family backgrounds. But its focus has not changed. Like the original draft, the document is “true to the fidelity of the ethnic studies movement,” the California Department of Education said in a press release Friday. It will concentrate on the four ethnic and racial groups that have been the focus of ethnic studies in higher education since its inception in the late 1960s: African American, Chicano and Latino, Native American and Indigenous people, and Asian Americans.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who has overseen the revision, announced in February that the four groups would be the focus. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, has drawn attention to racism and the need to understand its roots and continuing impact.

In the press release, Thurmond implied that the activism of the past six months reaffirmed his decision.

“Our schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color and the many ways throughout history — and present day — that our country has exploited, marginalized and oppressed them,” he stated. “At a time when people across the nation are calling for a fairer, more just society, we must empower and equip students and educators to have these courageous conversations in the classroom.”

In comments last summer, Sikh, Korean and Jewish Americans and other ethnic groups called for inclusion of their heritage and immigrant stories. That, in turn, led to a backlash from an ethnic studies coalition and others who warned against watering down the curriculum. Ethnic studies is not civics, they said; it is about Americans whose stories and struggles have been missing from history courses and the traditional curriculum, they said.

The revised draft states that ethnic studies “should emphasize educational equity by being inclusive of all students, regardless of their backgrounds.” An ethnic studies course should encourage students to examine and share their own family histories and experiences, it says. Through ethnic studies, “students will gain a deeper understanding of their own identities, ancestral roots and knowledge of self.”

But, it adds “time constraints” that will force districts and teachers to make “difficult choices.”

“While ethnic studies should address ethnicity in the broadest sense, it should devote special emphasis to the foundational disciplines while making connections to the varying experiences of all students,” it states.

Sample lesson plans introducing ethnic studies recommend that students conduct oral histories and study the civil rights movement. African American studies might include lessons on historic housing segregation such as redlining with a reading from the play Raisin in the Sun. Lessons on the Black Lives Matter movement would start with a classroom discussion of a local or national incident of police brutality.

“Students will also begin to think about how they would respond if an incident took place in their community. Students will have the opportunity, via the social change projects, to describe what tools and/or tactics of resistance they would use,” it says.

A group of high school ethnic studies teachers and college professors largely wrote the first draft in the spring of 2019. California Department of Education staff wrote the revision, after reviewing public comments, consulting ethnic studies experts and meeting with students.

Characterizing the revision as “more of a reformat than a rewrite,” R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a Los Angeles teacher and co-chair of the advisory committee that created the original draft curriculum, said Saturday he was pleased that it incorporates key elements of the original draft.

But he also said  there are “some significant omissions” in the new document and concerns that will be fleshed out in coming days. In responding to the critics last year, the revision “now further caters to whiteness and the status quo attacks in significant ways,” he said.

The first edition continues to have widespread support among ethnic studies educators and communities of color, he said.

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