Posted on March 24, 2021

California Approves Ethnic Studies Curriculum for K-12 Schools

Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2021

Ending years-long and often divisive debate over ethnic studies coursework in California’s K-12 schools, the State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously approved a model curriculum to guide how the histories, struggles and contributions of Asian, Black, Latino and Native Americans — and the racism and marginalization they have experienced in the United States — will be taught to millions of students.

The new curriculum embraces an approach to ethnic studies that focuses on the four core groups but evolved to accommodate a breadth of experiences, including lessons on the Jewish, Armenian and Sikh communities in the U.S.

Although criticism still emerged Thursday, the curriculum approval culminates two years of difficult discussions, protests and rewrites over which groups should be included and how their stories should be presented. Drafts were alternately pilloried for being left-wing propaganda or capitulating to right-wing agendas, and defended as providing an essential means for students of color to see themselves reflected in public school curriculum. {snip}


For now, the model curriculum serves as a guide for school districts that want the option to offer ethnic studies. But its lessons stand to become a flashpoint for debate again in the months ahead, as a bill to make a high school ethnic studies course a graduation requirement — believed to be the most far-reaching law of its kind nationally — makes its way through the Legislature.

The final vote came four years, four drafts and 100,000 public comments after state law mandated that educators create a model studies ethnic studies curriculum.


The first draft of the curriculum was besieged by controversy and criticism, in large part from Jewish groups and legislators who objected to its treatment of Jews, exclusion of anti-Semitism as a form of hate, and mention of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions protest movement against Israel. Others, too, argued it was heavy on academic jargon, filled with left-leaning ideology and a controversial glossary that included definitions of terms like “hxrstory” and “cisheteropatriarchy.”

Other ethnic groups, including Armenian Americans, Sikh Americans and Arab Americans, also variously protested their exclusion or the terms under which they were included.

Another focal point of debate was “critical race theory,” a lens to examine how race and racism are embedded in institutional and systemic inequities. Frequently attacked by former President Trump and misinterpreted as creating divisions among groups, critical race theory is seen by ethnic studies practitioners as inseparable from the field, and the board recommended adding a definition to clear up misconceptions about it.

The curriculum now includes a discussion of anti-Semitism in a sample lesson about Jewish Middle Eastern Americans and an additional sample lesson about Jewish Americans , both submitted by Jewish educators, in a section on “inter-ethnic bridge building.” Armenian and Sikh Americans are included in that section as well. So are Arab Americans — a sticking point, as Asian American Studies faculty have long considered Arab Americans to fall under the umbrella of their discipline.


But all of the ethnic studies teachers and experts initially appointed by the State Board of Education to draft the curriculum have asked to withdraw their names from it.


Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge and a member of the advisory committee, said in an interview that, due to the heavy influence of public comments, the curriculum had moved further and further away from ethnic studies, removing core concepts and terms, and much closer to a multicultural social studies or history course.

“While we would argue that ethnic studies is for all students and we do honor multiple perspectives in our classrooms, the content should be on the racialized communities of color,” Montaño said.