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California is still debating ethnic studies in public education. Can the state finally get it right?

A pair of "Project Safe Zone" T-shirts pinned to a wall espouse equality.
A pair of T-shirts, on a wall inside an ethnic studies classroom at Santa Monica High, espouse equality.
(Los Angeles Times)

After more than a year of roiling controversies over how to teach ethnic studies in K-12 through college classrooms, discord erupted anew last week over course content and how to meet legal requirements, with many wondering: Can California get it right this go-round?

The state’s top instructional-policy makers for K-12 education painstakingly debated hundreds of changes to a draft model curriculum for ethnic studies during two days of meetings, just months after a stinging veto by Gov. Newsom, who refused to sign a bill requiring ethnic studies in high school without clear course guidelines in place.

At the heart of the current tensions is how to create a curriculum that is faithful to the discipline of ethnic studies — which focuses on the experiences and contributions of Asian, Black, Latino and Native/Indigenous Americans — while also accommodating myriad additional groups who demand inclusion and say their stories have been marginalized.

At California State University, where an ethnic studies course is now mandated by state law for all undergraduate students, faculty are sparring with the administration over how best to meet that requirement.

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“This is more than just a curriculum, this is more than just ethnic studies,” Julia Jordan-Zachery, president of the Assn. for Ethnic Studies, said. “These are ... larger issues that we’re grappling with at a societal level that we haven’t figured out how to manage, and they’re just playing out on this scale.”

The discussion remains charged because it is essentially about issues of power and representation, said Jordan-Zachery, who is also chair of the Africana studies department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

California is required by law to create an ethnic studies “model curriculum” by March 31, 2021, for use as a guide by K-12 schools and districts that wish to offer to such a course. A separate bill to require that all public high school students complete at least one semester of ethnic studies failed with Newsom’s September veto, but the author has vowed to reintroduce it. The course mandate and model curriculum could serve as examples for the rest of the country.

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Ethnic studies have traditionally been defined as focusing on the experiences, histories and contributions of the four previously mentioned racial/ethnic groups, which have been marginalized and oppressed in the United States. Coursework emphasizes inquiry and encourages students to “tell their own stories” and engage in social justice.

Since the first draft of the model curriculum was published in 2019, it has been assailed as being anti-capitalist, biased in favor of or against certain groups, and full of politically correct and obscure jargon. Jews, Armenians, Sikhs and other groups called for inclusion or a larger presence in the materials.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has spent considerable political capital and staked part of his legacy on creating a robust model curriculum, publicly calling for ethnic studies to retain its focus on the traditional four disciplines and opposing Newsom’s decision to veto the high school requirement.

Thurmond is “trying to deal with lots of folks with lots of very strong opinions, often conflicting, and people feel very deeply about this stuff,” said Assembly member Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), incoming chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which opposed the first draft of the curriculum. “That’s a tall order.”

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After reviewing thousands of public comment letters, the California Department of Education recommended about 200 edits to the latest draft of the curriculum.

“We’re walking a balance of how to tell stories of what we would call core ethnic studies but also a nod to other groups that experienced oppression, and a way for districts to have ... ultimate flexibility,” Thurmond said in an interview ahead of the meeting.

He repeatedly emphasized that the curriculum was not prescriptive. “It is a menu of choices that can be considered,” he said. “The guide ... is not saying that you must take these sections or you must take these lesson plans or that you must do it in this order.”

Members of the Instructional Quality Commission — the state’s top instructional-policy makers — heard hours of public comment at a virtual meeting last week, where parents, educators, Jewish Americans, Armenian Americans, Arab Americans and ethnic studies scholars, among others, took issue with portions of the work.

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They offered arguments for and against definitions of anti-Semitism that included criticism of Israel, advocated for the inclusion of more groups and implored policymakers to honor the half-century-long fight for ethnic studies in schools.

Commissioners exhaustively reviewed the edits, considering for example how best to define the concept of “race” and what sources to cite, whether capitalism rightly belongs on a list of forms of oppression, and how to incorporate field-specific terminology without a glossary.

They discussed at long length adding to an appendix, or “bridge,” following the curriculum’s main chapters sample lesson plans about Arab, Armenian, Jewish and Sikh Americans — a move that mollified some and incensed others over being relegated to the margins.

Some raised concerns about adding lessons focused on ethnic groups that did not have an explicit tie to the four core racial/ethnic groups. “It’s a very political decision that’s being made, not necessarily an academic one,” said Assembly member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), a longtime Africana studies professor. “I don’t mind the politics of it, but at the same time … we should be able to academically and honestly show the connection that’s there.”

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Others argued that framing language in the curriculum and appendix would ensure any such lesson would be situated within the appropriate academic context, and a majority of commissioners ultimately voted in favor.

With the approved edits and additions, the draft curriculum will go to its last period of public comment beginning in December, and then on to the State Board of Education for final review.

At CSU, the question of how broad ethnic studies should be was somewhat settled by law this summer, but faculty and administrators continued to debate at a board of trustees meeting where a course should fit in among students’ other graduation requirements, and who should decide what courses qualified.

Officials expect the debates to continue. Jordan-Zachery said that concessions would have to be made but warned against watering down what is taught. She advised policymakers to frame ethnic studies not as a zero-sum game but as a way of adding to students’ understanding.

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“We will get ethnic studies as a symbolic effort but not a substantive effort if we’re not careful,” Jordan-Zachery said. “Find a way to show the complexities of American life ... and not shy away from the fact that these things are contested, that there is no one right answer.”

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.


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