First draft of state ethnic studies curriculum ‘falls short,’ board says

Ethnic studies
A student’s ethnic studies project on display at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum “falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned,” said state education leaders as more ethnic organizations called for revisions Tuesday.

Earlier, the draft sparked opposition among many Jewish groups, who have been joined by organizations representing Armenians, Greeks, Hindus and Koreans in calling for changes.

The draft curriculum is being developed as state lawmakers are poised to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in high schools.


But the draft did not meet the goals to 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,” state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond, Vice President Ilene Straus and Board Member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said in a statement.

They declined a request by The Times to elaborate on their concerns. The board is scheduled to approve a final version by March.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) also plan to address the furor over the curriculum in a joint appearance Wednesday in Sacramento. Deadline for public comments is Thursday.

Allen said he fully supports an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation and believes it’s appropriate for the focus to remain on California’s four major communities of color: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and indigenous communities.

But he said the current draft is too narrowly drawn — excluding the word “anti-Semitism” from the glossary, he said, even as it appropriately includes “Islamophobia.” He also said it fails to cover the experiences of other ethnic communities, such as Armenians, Italians and Irish, who also suffered bigotry.

“I continue to be amazed that in a curriculum that has so much about bigotry and hatred of all sorts of different forms that there was not a single mention of anti-Semitism in the glossary,” Allen said in an interview. “It’s an extraordinary omission.”

He said he spoke to both Thurmond and Darling-Hammond about the concerns of the Legislature’s 16-member Jewish Caucus and they “totally understand that this is a flawed curriculum and that it needs fixing in a very sensitive way.”


Other critics say the draft curriculum is biased against capitalism and filled with too much political correctness, including the glossary, which includes terms such as “herstory and “hxrstory” instead of “history” and “cisheteropatriarchy.”

Yet such precise words are vital to the academic language, said R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, who co-chaired the ethnic studies model curriculum advisory committee.

“ ‘Cisheteropatriarchy’: a system of male, straight, conforming-to-assigned sex system of power. What’s a better term to describe that? Or does naming the experiences of those who experience this marginalization still not matter?” said Cuauhtin, who co-wrote the book “Rethinking Ethnic Studies.”

California lawmakers also are debating a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the 23-campus Cal State University system. Overall, requiring ethnic studies at high schools and Cal State would affect more than 6.5 million California students.

Cuauhtin said he would be open to changes to the curriculum as long as they further the goal of increasing understanding of marginalized communities of color and do not diminish five decades of work of those who established the field of ethnic studies. San Francisco State University launched the nation’s first ethnic studies program in 1969.

If communities are unhappy with the model curriculum, he said, they should speak up. The committee added Pacific Islanders, Central Americans and Arab Americans to the curriculum at the request of those communities, he said.

Mihran Toumajan, the Western regional director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said the draft lessons should include the Armenian genocide and the community’s cultural contributions to California. Although the state already requires that schools teach about the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, he said, those lessons should be incorporated into as many curricula as possible, he said.

“Our goal is big tent, don’t leave anyone out,” he said.

One of the major points of friction involves inclusion in the curriculum of the movement to push boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel for the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians. Some Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace-Bay Area, support its inclusion while others, such as the American Jewish Committee, oppose it.

Allen said he thinks it’s fine to include. “I’m not afraid of that debate,” he said, but it needs to be presented in a more balanced way.

Cuauhtin, for his part, took issue with allegations that the curriculum ignores anti-Semitism and the American Jewish experience. One proposed exercise calls on students to write from the perspective of an oppressed Jewish person, Cuauhtin noted.

In any case, he said, the draft curriculum is just that — a draft — with inevitable controversies and changes.

“Revisions are part of the process by design,” he said.