Credit: Jose Medina/a61.asmdc.org
Assemblyman Jose Medina, author of a bill requiring an ethnic studies to graduate from high school, speaks to the Assembly Education Committee in 2019. With him is Albert Camarillo, emeritus professor of history at Stanford, one of the founding scholars of the field of Mexican American history and Chicano Studies.

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.”

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  1. William Wong 4 months ago4 months ago

    On March 18, 2021, the Cal State Board of Ed approved the model curriculum on ethnic studies.

    Will this bill still need the Governor’s signature ? What happened to AB331? I know that the governor signed AB1460 (for University level). Please help me to understand ? Thank you very much.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 months ago4 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, Mr Wong. The governor's signature was not required following the approval of the model curriculum by the State Board. The creation of curriculum was required under previous legislation, AB 2016, which was passed in 2016. Gov. Newsom vetoed AB 331, which would made a semester of ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement, last September, because he was displeased with the original draft of the model curriculum. The sponsor, … Read More

      Thanks for your comment, Mr Wong. The governor’s signature was not required following the approval of the model curriculum by the State Board. The creation of curriculum was required under previous legislation, AB 2016, which was passed in 2016.

      Gov. Newsom vetoed AB 331, which would made a semester of ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement, last September, because he was displeased with the original draft of the model curriculum. The sponsor, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, has reintroduced the bill as AB 101. It has passed the Assembly and will face a vote in Senate Appropriations in August. If it passes, Gov. Newsom must decide whether he will sign it — raising the question of whether the governor is satisfied with the final version of the voluntary model curriculum. As you noted, the State Board approved it in March.

  2. Ron Gray 7 months ago7 months ago

    Thankfully a small measure of common sense has walked back into the conversation. Teaching that our capitalist society and White people as villains is the wrong message for so-called “People of Color” a grouping that includes everyone in the world . . . except White people. Asian people are the highest paid “race” as a group, are the best students as a group, and have hence demonstrated that hard work, discipline, and seeking a place … Read More

    Thankfully a small measure of common sense has walked back into the conversation. Teaching that our capitalist society and White people as villains is the wrong message for so-called “People of Color” a grouping that includes everyone in the world . . . except White people. Asian people are the highest paid “race” as a group, are the best students as a group, and have hence demonstrated that hard work, discipline, and seeking a place in the American Dream still works. I salute them. Despite what Kendi tries to teach, racism is not an effective tool against perceived racism.

  3. Bill Kozma 7 months ago7 months ago

    Critical Race Theory (CRT) courses will do nothing but increase racism. Digging up the past and pointing fingers resolves nothing. A better idea would be Critical Family (CT) courses, in which children are taught the importance of raising a “Family,” with respect and compassion for others.

  4. Jason Cabral 7 months ago7 months ago

    Is there any consideration that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is simply flawed and not worthy of adoption into curriculum? What is the point? Do we expect Critical Race Theory is factual? Can all human interaction be reduced to oppressor victim models? This seems to be a wild claim. I am far from convinced this is real. Does anyone that claims to believe in CRT actually live by these assumptions? How do you view your role in … Read More

    Is there any consideration that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is simply flawed and not worthy of adoption into curriculum?

    What is the point? Do we expect Critical Race Theory is factual? Can all human interaction be reduced to oppressor victim models? This seems to be a wild claim. I am far from convinced this is real. Does anyone that claims to believe in CRT actually live by these assumptions? How do you view your role in this academic enterprise? Are you an oppressor or victim espousing this theory? Please answer and be consistent.

    Is the adoption of CRT have another purpose? Is it meant to further civil rights? Someone explain to me how a patently racist theory furthers civil rights? Is there any evidence that this theory creates harmony among the identity groups it reduces humanity to? Please someone state clearly if and what evidence exists to support the idea that this theory actually helps society.

    This is my opinion and it will be controversial. Buckle up! The concept that all human interaction can be reduced to an oppressor /victim model and the ultimate expression of this is white supremacy is the ultimate expression of worship of whiteness. It elevates the white race to an entity responsible for all the ills of this society.

    CRT should be let to die as it cannot withstand any critical thinking. It’s unworthy of academic pursuit.

  5. Sonya 8 months ago8 months ago

    I would like to know exactly how the teachers plan to educate our 1st, 2nd, and third graders on this topic. It seems to me that young children do not discriminate towards other races yet they are going to be taught that they are bad or less equal if they are white? I am a mother of two children who will be returning to school part time, yet I have not heard one thing about … Read More

    I would like to know exactly how the teachers plan to educate our 1st, 2nd, and third graders on this topic. It seems to me that young children do not discriminate towards other races yet they are going to be taught that they are bad or less equal if they are white? I am a mother of two children who will be returning to school part time, yet I have not heard one thing about this training (which I believe it is, a training to teach children to believe a theory instead of history), and I’m concerned that the schools have not reached out to the parents to tell them how they plan to drop this very confusing information to our students.

    I will do my part in making sure my children learn what is true and right along with what the teachers are forced to teach them. There are many parents who feel this way.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 8 months ago8 months ago

      Sonya,

      The ethnic studies model curriculum that the State Board adopted is for grades 9-12 and is voluntary.

      Gov. Newsom is proposing $5 million in the state budget to train teachers in ethnic studies. I don’t know if the funding can be used to train teachers in elementary and middle schools.

  6. J 8 months ago8 months ago

    This is one sided and targeting. All racism including white on black, black on white, black on Asian, and white on Asian. Real research has to be done, not just what the Democratic Party portrays on social media.

  7. Joan Davidson 8 months ago8 months ago

    It is incredulous to me that CA once the state proud of its’ Golden Standards not only bought the Common Core curriculum hook, line and sinker, but now will try and cram “social justice” theory into a classroom.

    Written by whom? And is their curriculum or fact?

    Once a school starts teaching opinion as fact we’re all in trouble.

    As a former school board president and CA credentialed teacher I am appalled. This is pure politics. That’s a fact.

  8. Wedad Schlotte 9 months ago9 months ago

    Thank you for the article. Please inform me if the American Arab studies have been included to tell our narratives in the most diverse populous state, and not relegated to an appendix.

    Wedad Schlotte
    AD78 Democratic Delegate
    Retired electronics engineer, DOD
    American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee
    San Diego chapter, VP
    (619) 851-2053
    https://www.adc.org/about-us/
    ACLU Board member

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 9 months ago9 months ago

      You can find the lesson on Arab Americans in Chapter 4, page 403 under the interethnic bridge building section .There are no more appendices, only chapters. Dozens of comments on Thursday dealt with where to place the chapters on Arab Americans and Jewish Americans from Asia. I understand the symbolism and complex arguments on both sides, but, standing back and imagining myself as a California high school student wondering what all the bickering was about, … Read More

      You can find the lesson on Arab Americans in Chapter 4, page 403 under the interethnic bridge building section .There are no more appendices, only chapters.

      Dozens of comments on Thursday dealt with where to place the chapters on Arab Americans and Jewish Americans from Asia. I understand the symbolism and complex arguments on both sides, but, standing back and imagining myself as a California high school student wondering what all the bickering was about, I found it a disheartening example of adults setting a poor example where the intent is to build interethnic and interfaith understanding.

  9. B. Hansen 9 months ago9 months ago

    I attended a parochial grade school. Religion was taught and shaded every other topic. I think I recognize ideological education when I see it. There are already avenues to teach about history and other cultures through, for instance, literature, foreign languages, history and geography without ideological courses. I suggest that courses like Asian History or the Geography of Africa would offer more substance.

    Replies

    • Joan Davidson 8 months ago8 months ago

      Thank you for your intelligent comment! And I agree!

  10. Patrick 9 months ago9 months ago

    Continuous lying about historical and current events have led people to believe that white racism is an actual problem in America, when in fact quite the opposite is true. This narrative is pushed in order to rewrite history and dispossess and disenfranchise whites.

    So many lies in order to advance a false narrative. Truly shameful.

  11. Christopher Edley 9 months ago9 months ago

    I've read nothing about doing research on how different approaches to ethnic studies change student understanding and opinions on these tough questions. The debate seems driven by politics (broadly defined), intuition, suppositions, and the personal views of those with the loudest voices. When districts and the state revisit the curriculum choice, it would be nice to have some real evidence. I've been a racial justice warrior my entire adult life, but I've … Read More

    I’ve read nothing about doing research on how different approaches to ethnic studies change student understanding and opinions on these tough questions. The debate seems driven by politics (broadly defined), intuition, suppositions, and the personal views of those with the loudest voices. When districts and the state revisit the curriculum choice, it would be nice to have some real evidence. I’ve been a racial justice warrior my entire adult life, but I’ve also been an academic for 40 years. People who believe there are important matters should want informed, smart decisions. We have an answer for today, but can have a better one tomorrow.

  12. Nick 9 months ago9 months ago

    One of the central tenets of early-20th century fascism was to create a scapegoat for the general public. A point around which they could rally, dismantle their former identities, and be reformed by the state-run ideology. The "white supremacist" and "system of white supremacy" mantras seems to be a blatant adoption of this policy. This will not help to dismantle racism. Its effects are seen on the streets today, where homicide has skyrocketed and attacks on … Read More

    One of the central tenets of early-20th century fascism was to create a scapegoat for the general public. A point around which they could rally, dismantle their former identities, and be reformed by the state-run ideology. The “white supremacist” and “system of white supremacy” mantras seems to be a blatant adoption of this policy.

    This will not help to dismantle racism. Its effects are seen on the streets today, where homicide has skyrocketed and attacks on Asian Americans are increasing, as of the time of this writing. But, as they say, “Democrats create the problem, then sell you the solution.”

  13. JC 9 months ago9 months ago

    This isn’t an Ethnic Studies curricula anymore. It’s a watered down multicultural curse that skirts the core issues because 2 ethnic groups wanted it to be all about them. Now this is going to be a study on ethnicities instead of Ethnic Studies, to appease the what about me crowd.

  14. Alice 9 months ago9 months ago

    Did they leave in the part about the need for K – 12 students needing to chant to the human sacrificing Aztec God? Would like to know…

  15. Susan Price 9 months ago9 months ago

    Very interesting article which explains well the complications of creating a state-wide ethnic studies program. Too bad that the school districts can pick and chose because I think everyone should receive about the same curriculum/information. But, it is a first step in the right direction. It will be fascinating to see what is created to teach young people about who we are and how did we all get hear. Knowing who we aRe is … Read More

    Very interesting article which explains well the complications of creating a state-wide ethnic studies program. Too bad that the school districts can pick and chose because I think everyone should receive about the same curriculum/information. But, it is a first step in the right direction. It will be fascinating to see what is created to teach young people about who we are and how did we all get hear. Knowing who we aRe is just as important as knowing the other Rs: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.

  16. Bakari 9 months ago9 months ago

    It’s clear that there are forces out there trying to water down and misdirect the original intent of Ethnic Studies. The criticism of Critical Race Theory is misleading. Opponents of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies don’t want teachers and students to interrogate the impact of racism and White supremacy in this country, and they want to silence any curriculum that sheds light on racialized capitalism and the historical resistance to it. True Ethnic Studies … Read More

    It’s clear that there are forces out there trying to water down and misdirect the original intent of Ethnic Studies. The criticism of Critical Race Theory is misleading. Opponents of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies don’t want teachers and students to interrogate the impact of racism and White supremacy in this country, and they want to silence any curriculum that sheds light on racialized capitalism and the historical resistance to it.

    True Ethnic Studies provides a Counter-Narrative for people of color. It teaches community engagement, culturally responsive pedagogy, intersectionality and multiplicity, and reclaiming cultural identities. It treats students as intellectuals, and not dumping grounds for racist so-called knowledge.

    I encourage teachers and other advocates of Ethnic Studies to read for themselves books like Transformative Ethnic Studies Schools, by Christine Sleeter and Minquel Zavala, and “Rethinking Ethic Studies.”

    Replies

    • Jason Cabral 7 months ago7 months ago

      Bakari, I'm opposed to Critical Race Theory in school curriculum. My understanding is CRT will teach children that white students are inherently racist, due to implicit or unconscious bias, and they bear a burden for the racist practices of their forefathers. I also think this is unfair because our country has a very strong history of liberal values and a significant number of white people in our country have been horrified by racism, its … Read More

      Bakari,

      I’m opposed to Critical Race Theory in school curriculum. My understanding is CRT will teach children that white students are inherently racist, due to implicit or unconscious bias, and they bear a burden for the racist practices of their forefathers. I also think this is unfair because our country has a very strong history of liberal values and a significant number of white people in our country have been horrified by racism, its practices and have gone to great lengths to combat it, e.g, the civil rights movement, the Civil War, WWII, the abolition of slavery in Northern America in the early 18th century I believe…

      To be clear, I have no issue with a subject like this being discussed among college students. However, I have a huge issue with this being taught to my 8 year old daughter. I believe a state employee telling her she is racist because she is white is actually a civil rights violation. The concept is patently racist.

      I’m sharing my concerns with you because, for one I want to get smarter on the topic. I certainly don’t know everything on it. It’s difficult to get good information on this topic because it’s become so vitriolic.

      In short, I’m concerned with protecting my daughter and her friends who … well are a diverse group. She goes to Washington Elementary in San Diego. The introduction of CRT to kids will be damaging to their relationships.

      My best to you. I get that this looks like CRT is not coming to elementary school. I just want to discuss this, get smart and share my views concerns.

      Jason

  17. Fred Jones 9 months ago9 months ago

    Fantastic, thorough and well summarized article, John. Bravo!

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 9 months ago9 months ago

      Agreed!

      • John Fensterwald 9 months ago9 months ago

        Thank you, Fred and Paul.

  18. Paul Muench 9 months ago9 months ago

    Good luck future students of California public schools, the adults are about to pass the buck to you!