On Thursday, the State Board of Education will adopt an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for high schools that is four years, four drafts, three public vetting periods and 100,000 comments in the making.
Had they more time and an endless reservoir of patience, the board, the California Department of Education and the Instructional Quality Commission, which reports to the state board, could have continued to refine what and how ethnic studies should be taught. But the Legislature set an April 1 deadline to pass the model curriculum, and more iterations would not resolve the irreconcilable differences between its staunchest advocates and critics.
The model curriculum, while voluntary for districts to adopt, is intended to build upon ethnic studies courses already offered as electives in hundreds of high schools. Two of the state’s largest districts indicated they intend to require an ethnic studies course for graduation: Fresno Unified next year and Los Angeles Unified in 2022-23.
Reinforcing the growing movement is research showing the power of ethnic studies to engage Black and Latino students is compelling, though limited. Most often cited is a 2014 study by Stanford University professors Thomas Dee and Emily Penner of struggling 9th-graders in San Francisco. That report, soon to be updated, showed that taking ethnic studies taught by skilled instructors led to significantly improved attendance, grades and credits.
Over the past two years, the language of ethnic studies — white privilege, implicit bias, white supremacy — has seeped into everyday speech. Searing events outside of California — police killings of Blacks, insurrectionists on Capitol Hill wielding Confederate flags, violent attacks on Asian Americans, blatant efforts to disenfranchise minority voters — have underscored the need for ethnic studies courses, as the draft document states, to “address the causes of racism and other forms of bigotry … within our culture and governmental policies.”
But with the public’s increased sensitivity to racism have come misunderstandings of what ethnic studies is, said Manuel Rustin, a high school history teacher in Pasadena Unified, who chaired the subcommittee of the Instructional Quality Commission that oversaw the drafting of the model curriculum. He now chairs the commission, which advises the state board on state academic standards, curriculum frameworks and textbooks and course materials.
“Many people who say they are in support of ethnic studies want perhaps multicultural studies or some other way of exploring culture and race, but in a way that’s less critical of actual systems of power,” which is fundamental to a course in ethnic studies, he said. And the continued pressure to make ethnic studies something that it isn’t “has been the really unfortunate part of this whole experience.”
The most complex disagreement is foundational: Should teaching about past and current racial inequities and injustices be done primarily through the lens of white supremacy, the deliberate oppression by whites in America to gain and maintain power?
That is the underlying principle of critical race theory, which developed in the 1980s as an academic theory to explain exclusionary zoning and government-sanctioned discriminatory mortgage regulations. It is now applied more broadly to explicit and implicit racism. The model curriculum identified it as a “key theoretical framework and pedagogy” for ethnic studies.
Rustin believes that’s appropriate. “Ethnic studies without critical race theory is not ethnic studies. It would be like a science class without the scientific method then. There is no critical analysis of systems of power and experiences of these marginalized groups without critical race theory.”
Lori Meyers, a 1st-grade private school teacher in the Bay Area, agrees that critical race theory may be a legitimate way to view the impact of race and racism. But it must not be “the only tool in the toolbox,” she said. To make that case, she co-founded Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies and has become its primary voice.
“I’m concerned about critical race theory being the underlying pedagogy when its underlying philosophy is that one group is oppressing another,” she said. “When students are told that the privileges that they have are all based on race that make them dominant or oppressors over other people, that’s a discriminatory practice. It pits groups against each other and is going to create hostility and tensions.”
Meyers said she supports ethnic studies: “We need to learn the authentic history of what’s going on in our country. A lot of that is not taught right now. We need to have a greater understanding of each other.” But critical race theory will not lead to an appreciation of the contributions of multiple cultures that the Legislature envisioned with ethnic studies, she said.
A controversial first draft
The 2016 law, authored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, ordering the creation of an ethnic studies curriculum, left it to the Instructional Quality Commission to define what ethnic studies should be while indicating that it should be guided by “core values of equity, inclusiveness, and universally high expectations.”
The law also said that college faculty from ethnic studies departments and K-12 teachers who teach it should participate in writing the document. And that is who wrote the first draft.
It was largely a K-12 imprint of a college-level elective in ethnics studies, and an heir of the Third World Liberation Front, the student movement of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans whose five-month strike at San Francisco State University led to the nation’s first college ethnic studies course in 1969.
The reaction to the first draft was strong and voluminous. Critics called it doctrinaire, ideologically left-wing, and unsparingly harsh toward whites and capitalism. Jewish groups objected that anti-Semitism, which has been on the rise, wasn’t mentioned in the draft, but Israeli persecution of Palestinians was.
In August 2019, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond sent the first draft back for a rewrite. “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. The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned,” she wrote in a short statement, also signed by board members Ilene Straus and Feliza Ortiz-Licon.
A year later, in a separate but related issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have mandated that high school students take an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement. The model curriculum was “insufficiently balanced and inclusive,” and still needs to be revised, he said in his veto message.
Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, has reintroduced the bill this year.
In subsequent drafts, the guiding principles of the model curriculum were retained. They include critiquing “empire-building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism and other forms of power and oppression” and challenging “racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonial beliefs and practices on multiple levels.” And the revisions reaffirmed that the history, cultural heritage and struggles of four marginalized groups — African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans — should be the primary focus of a course.
But responding to thousands of letters charging that their stories had been ignored, department of education drafters and the Instructional Quality Commission added lessons on other groups, including Sikh, Armenian, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Laotian and Jewish Americans, leaving it up to districts to figure out how to cram it all in a semester.
They dropped a glossary with obscure terms like hybridities (a mixture of Eastern and Western cultures), and nepantla (an Aztec language term for in-between-ness). They expunged back stereotypes about Jews, and, in an attempt at shuttle diplomacy, moved a lesson about the Palestinians back and forth between a section on lesson plans and an appendix.
Additional passages reemphasized the state board’s 2018 instructions that the model curriculum promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis, align with the state’s existing history/social studies framework and promote civic engagement. They highlighted the importance of seeking multiple points of view and a balance of perspectives.
The final changes
The massaging of language continued in the final draft that the state board will review this week. Most of the 300-plus recommended changes are minor. But several stand out.
- A new footnote to the introduction would state: “At the college and university level, Ethnic Studies and related courses are sometimes taught from a specific political point of view. In K-12 education it is imperative that students are exposed to multiple perspectives, taught to think critically and form their own opinions.”
- A section in the chapter on guides for instruction notes that it’s important to build trust when probing personal and “unique and often sensitive material.” But a warning that would have grabbed a teacher’s attention would be removed: “Engaging topics on race, class, gender, oppression, etc., may evoke feelings of vulnerability, uneasiness, sadness, guilt, helplessness, or discomfort, for students not previously exposed to explicit conversations about these topics.”
- In the chapter on lesson plans, a section on highlighting the 1960s Black Power, American Indian, anti-war, Chicano and Women’s Liberation movements proposes adding, “Acknowledge the pros and cons of any movement discussed.”
- The proposed lesson “Important Historical Figures Among People of Color” would be deleted out of recognition there would be disagreement no matter who’s on the list. It would have included radical sociologist Angela Davis and activist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal, serving a life sentence for a murder that supporters believe he didn’t commit. Not on the list: the late civil rights hero John Lewis or Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.
The combination of changes angered the 20 college professors, teachers and writers of the first draft. In a Feb. 3 letter to the state board, they asked to have their names removed from the acknowledgment section because the integrity of the curriculum had been compromised “due to political and media pressure.” They urged the board and the Department of Education “not to give in to the pressures and influences of white supremacist, right wing, conservatives” like Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies and “multiculturalist, non-Ethnic Studies university academics and organizations now claiming ‘Ethnic Studies’ expertise.”
But newly named California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former Assembly member from San Diego adept at negotiating compromises, said she sees the final draft as a victory. Weber, who was an Africana Studies professor at San Diego State University for 40 years before her election to the Legislature, wrote in a CalMatters commentary, “As to be expected, there are critics of the curriculum on all sides. But I would not have staked my years as an ethnic studies instructor and advocate by voting for this model if I did not believe it maintained fidelity to the principles of the discipline and would benefit the students of California.”
The board’s adoption of the model curriculum will not end the disagreements. If anything, they will intensify on a local level. It will now be left to individual school districts to decide how to approach sensitive, potentially controversial issues. Districts that had been hoping for a complete, state-prescribed package of lesson plans will be disappointed.
California’s model curriculum is not a full curriculum — just guidelines that lay out goals and principles of ethnic studies, suggested lesson plans and instructional approaches and a list of ethnic studies courses already meeting UC and CSU course credit requirements, with a bibliography to come. Districts can pick and choose whatever they want. Newsom is proposing $5 million in the 2021-22 state budget to help prepare teachers to teach the subject.
A half dozen members of the advisory group behind the first draft have joined others to create their own organization, the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition, to promote what they consider the purer version of ethnic studies to school districts in California. With the support of United Teachers Los Angeles, they’re calling on Los Angeles Unified to revise its decade-old ethnic studies curriculum, which Bay Area teacher Meyers and others view as a more inclusive, less contentious approach to the subject.
Meanwhile, groups like Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies, and, on a national level, the New York-based Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, are monitoring districts’ deliberations and fighting what they consider harmful applications of critical race theory in the classroom.
“It’s a complicated document; for many districts it will be a great resource,” Rustin said of the final product. “In the end, it’s just a resource to use at their discretion.”