Californians Debate Controversial Ethnic Studies Curriculum

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A state-level debate over model lesson plans echoes a national battle over teaching racial justice.

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Shortly after taking office, President Joseph R. Biden revoked former President Donald J. Trump’s executive order establishing the 1776 Commission—an advisory body tasked with developing guidelines for “patriotic education” that was broadly criticized as an attempt to block curricula that focus on systemic racism. A number of states are still considering legislation to prevent educators from teaching any racially “divisive concepts.”

But not California. A bill introduced in the State Assembly last December would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. And in 2016, then-Governor Jerry Brown approved AB-2016, which requires the California Department of Education to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum. The final draft of that curriculum was unanimously approved last month.

The state has not missed out on the debate over how to teach students about the complex roles of race and ethnicity in American history, however. For some Californians, all ethnic studies curricula are exercises in radical leftist politics, not teaching tools. Many other Californians believe that ethnic studies teaches students necessary lessons about the experiences of marginalized communities—yet disagree on what those necessary lessons should look like and whose experiences should be highlighted.

AB-2016 does not include a definition of ethnic studies. Instead, it notes that a “culturally meaningful and relevant curriculum” benefits “pupils of color.” And it gives the Department of Education wide latitude to define “culturally meaningful and relevant” through a mandate to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC). The IQC advises the State Board of Education, the Department of Education’s policy-making body, on curricula and instruction.

Under AB-2016, the IQC “shall develop, and the state board shall adopt, modify, or revise” a model ethnic studies curriculum. In addition, AB-2016 calls for the IQC to work with ethnic studies professors as well as K-12 teachers with “experience or education background in the study and teaching of ethnic studies” and other “representatives of local educational agencies.”

In mid-2018, the State Board approved a set of development guidelines and appointed 18 professors, teachers, and local representatives to serve as a Model Curriculum Advisory Committee. In mid-2019, the Committee presented a draft curriculum to the IQC, which voted to amend the draft and then made it available for a public comment period.

The IQC received over 32,000 comments—many protesting whose experiences were covered in the curriculum and whose were left out.

Rather than move forward, the IQC withdrew the draft. Tony Thurmond, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, presented the IQC with recommendations for revision soon after. Speaking alongside six educators and activists, Thurmond urged the IQC to include more material on the experiences of Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The Superintendent also addressed concerns that the curriculum included anti-Semitic content.  Of the 20,000 public comments received before the comment period deadline, approximately 18,457 voiced objections to the curriculum’s description of Israel or to the lack of information about the Jewish American experience.

Facing discontent from within the Department of Education and from the public, the IQC revised the curriculum without involving the original committee members and curriculum writers.

In December 2020, the IQC made the revised draft available for public comment. The response was swift and passionate.

Some Jewish Americans applauded the new material on Jewish culture and history. Others contended that the curriculum was still anti-Semitic.

The editorial board of The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley campus, lamented that “the curriculum seems to dedicate uneven space to underrepresented minorities.”

Meanwhile, a group of the original committee members and curriculum writers requested that their names be removed from the revised draft. The revisions, they alleged, did not reflect the pedagogy or mission of ethnic studies.

For many ethnic studies scholars, the core purpose of the discipline is to explore the histories, philosophies, and cultures of communities that suffer enduring race-based oppression. Traditionally, ethnic studies encompasses African American Studies, Native American Studies, Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies, and Asian American Studies.

Framed in this way, a “culturally meaningful and relevant” ethnic studies curriculum would not strive to include everyone’s experiences. Rather, it would center on the perspectives of African American, Native American, Latina/o and Chicana/o, and Asian American communities to correct for the failure of many curricula to include them. In doing so, it would encourage students to investigate systemic racism.

Some critics of the revised curriculum agree with this understanding of ethnic studies, yet still propose that a truly meaningful and relevant ethnic studies curriculum must extend to include other groups that have also suffered oppression, such as Jewish, Sikh, and Armenian Americans.

For other critics, covering the experiences of more people is not enough. They contend that focusing on only some experiences is a form of harmful discrimination that teaches students to see each other only in terms of racial and ethnic conflict. A better ethnic studies curriculum, they argue, would not divide students into “victims” or “oppressors” based on their heritage.

But according to experts, this disapproval is based on a misunderstanding of critical race theory, a mode of analysis often employed in ethnic studies.

Critical race theory takes as its starting point the idea that racism is a feature of society and its institutions, rather than isolated acts by bigoted people. It does not hold that people are inherently victims or oppressors. On the contrary, critical race theorists recognize that race is not biological but socially constructed.

In addition, critical race theorists do not consider race in isolation. Leading critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw studies how race interacts with other aspects of identity, such as gender and class.

As the Biden Administration moves to support racial justice initiatives, more states may feel empowered to adopt ethnic studies curricula that resemble California’s program. The debate over what it means for a curriculum to be “culturally meaningful and relevant,” however, is unlikely to end any time soon.