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Opinion: California’s ethnic studies curriculum gets another edit

A parent and child visit Santa Barbara Mission
Santa Barbara Mission. The ethnic studies curriculum is lacking substance on California’s Mission Indians.
(San Diego Union-Tribune)

The California Department of Education has come out with its latest, latest version of the model curriculum for ethnic studies. On Sunday, the Times editorial board found the third version much improved from previous drafts, but still not quite there. Now, the department has issued its edited version of that edition, which makes some welcome additional changes.

The huge expanse of pages devoted to the Korean American experience has been whittled down to a size more proportionate with other groups. Addressing a baffling shortcoming, there’s more mention of systemic racism, which was almost ignored in the third version. The new model also dropped the strange references to white privilege among the Jewish population — not that the issue doesn’t exist, but the previous version made it sound as though Jews were the primary group with advantages, which is a dangerous trope.

This version goes before the State Board of Education next week, where it will probably be approved because it’s at the very least not terrible and the board is under deadline to get something approved by the end of the month.

Make no mistake, this is a far more balanced version than the abominable first draft that came out in 2019. That document appeared bent on dividing kids as badly as our society is riven and indoctrinating them into one end of the political spectrum.

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The new one focuses more on fact and discovery and on fostering more informed and tolerant viewpoints. As a learning tool, it provides an exciting and rigorous set of sample lessons. Many of those lessons tackle important topics that teenagers might never have learned otherwise. They tend to be rigorous; if they’re followed by teachers, students will be getting some real education here that includes research, analysis, writing and presentation.

But that’s a big “if.” This is just a model curriculum; school districts would be free to pick and choose from it or toss it all aside and do their own thing.

Given the up sides of the new draft, the board might as well approve it, but I can’t help but think the authors could have come up with something more polished. After all, the state is probably going to require a semester course of ethnic studies in high school. Let’s get it as right as we can. Even focusing, as it should, on the four groups that historically are the topic of ethnic studies — Black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans — the curriculum is thin on too many key topics. That’s partly because the re-writers of the curriculum were so determined to make it more about empowering marginalized groups and building bridges to understanding — worthy goals — that they jettisoned some important material about mistreatment of the people involved.

The effort to save an Ohlone burial site in the East Bay is studied at length and certainly brings up some important issues about Native Americans, but it seems a shame to focus on that to the exclusion of the treatment of California’s Mission Indians as well as the horrific human rights abuses heaped on Native Americans nationwide.

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Systemic racism is now mentioned a few times more, yet the model doesn’t look at this topic specifically or in any depth. Similarly, there’s now barely a whisper about white privilege. And these issues are at the cornerstone of race relations today, with certain groups deprived of many of the advantages that give white people easier access to good educators and careers.

More than anything, I wish there were more direction for schools. We set standards for most courses in this state. Flexibility is good, but if we’re going to require students to study one of the most important issues of their time, shouldn’t there be certain minimum standards for what they need to learn?

It’s been a long, arduous path to this point, and it was always a given that some groups would feel shorted or insulted. This model curriculum could have been a lot worse; in fact, it was a lot worse. Now, it’s pretty good, but I wish that the state, on such an important subject, would go for brilliant.


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