California’s Ethnic Studies Quagmire

California’s Ethnic Studies Quagmire

A year ago, when then-candidate Tony Thurmond mulled over the challenges that would await him were he to become California’s next State Superintendent of Public Instruction, one might imagine that reducing the persistent achievement gap dividing Asian and white students from their black and Hispanic peers, shoring up the finances of economically troubled school districts facing impending insolvency, and slowing the growth of charter schools – Mr. Thurmond was, after all, the preferred candidate of the state’s teachers unions – would have topped his list. The Israel-Palestinian conflict…or whether kimchi, or matzo ball soup may properly be called “ethnic foods?” Not so much. And yet, after little more than eight months on the job, these seemingly-out-of-left-field issues have taken the form of what could become as thorny and incorrigible a problem for California’s public education system, as the Middle-East conflict, itself.

How did this happen?  The story begins with the passage, in 2016, of Assembly Bill 2016, a measure requiring the state’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to develop a model curriculum in ethnic studies, to be presented to the State Board of Education (SBE) for consideration, no later than December 31, 2019, and adoption no later than March 31, 2020.  Also included in the legislation was the requirement that the IQC provide a public comment period of not less than 45 days before delivering a draft document to the SBE.

In July, 2018, the SBE adopted a set of Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Guidelines, intended to “direct the work of the contracted primary writer(s) and the Model Curriculum Advisory Committee when it convenes in February-April 2019 to create a first draft of the curriculum.”  In January, 2019, 18 persons were named by the SBE to serve as Advisory Committee Members.  As is required by the underlying legislation, a majority of the committee members are K-12 teachers “…  who have relevant experience or education background in the study and teaching of ethnic studies.” The majority of the remainder are professors of ethnic studies drawn from the state college and university systems.

Raising the stakes on the project, Assemblymember Jose Medina (D. – Riverside) introduced legislation in January of the current year that would require the completion of a semester-long course in ethnic studies, to be based upon the model curriculum established by AB 2016, as a requirement for graduation from high school commencing with the 2024-25 school year.

A prescient observer might well have seen the seeds of eventual discord planted amidst the guidelines intended to shape the contours of the model curriculum.  On the one hand, the prescriptions call for the curriculum to:

  • include accurate information based on current and confirmed research;
  • promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis of history;
  • encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together;
  • Promote the values of civic engagement and civic responsibility; and,
  • Be inclusive, creating space for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or citizenship, to learn different perspectives.

At the same time, the guidelines contained elements that offered a glimpse of the academic and political undercurrents that would later surface, and lead to turmoil.  The model curriculum was to:

  • promote self and collective empowerment;
  • highlight core ethnic studies concepts such as equality, justice, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, etc.; and,
  • Include information on the ethnic studies movement, specifically the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).

When, in June, the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was released for public comment, Californians received a swift lesson in how ‘Ethnic Studies’ has been transformed from a dispassionate field of academic inquiry to something more closely resembling a movement whose membership is limited by self-referential assumptions concerning race, power, and exploitation.  In place of a curriculum grounded in accurate information, designed to promote critical thinking, and reflective of inclusiveness, developers instead produced a document described in a Los Angeles Times Editorial as an “impenetrable melange of academic jargon and politically correct pronouncements.”  A brief excerpt from the document’s introduction may prove illustrative:

“Ethnic Studies also examines borders, borderlands, mixtures, hybridities, nepantlas, double consciousness and reconfigured articulations, even within and beyond the various names and categories associated with our identities.”

Whole ethnic groups, among them California’s Armenian, Greek, Hindu, and Irish populations are barely mentioned, or altogether excluded. It was, however, the virtual exclusion of Jews, the omission of references to anti-Semitism, and clearly biased references to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that invited the strongest expressions of displeasure.  As this San Francisco Chronicle article notes, outside of its appendices, the draft curriculum mentions Jews exactly four times:

“Once in reference to ‘Lionel Cohen and his famous Lionel toy trains,’ once in relation to the history of Arabs in the U.S., and twice in relation to Arab stereotypes about hating and wanting to kill Jews.  There is a lengthy section addressing stereotypes of various groups. But not a word about Jewish stereotypes. Nor about the Jewish Holocaust. Anti-Semitism barely registers and is not in the glossary.”

What does appear in the glossary (and elsewhere), however, is a positive description of the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, described by the authors of the document as “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”  Moreover, the draft curriculum devotes considerable attention to the status of Arab-Americans, noting the stereotypical manner in which they are often portrayed, calling out the prejudicial treatment of Muslims, and promoting Palestinian national aspirations.

Remarkably, the draft model curriculum drew more than 5,000 public comments, as well as myriad responses delivered via print and social media.  Perhaps most significantly, in a July 29 letter addressed to the Chair of the Instructional Quality Commission, California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus called out the draft model curriculum, charging that it “effectively erases the American Jewish experience…omits antisemitism…denigrates Jews…and singles out Israel for condemnation.”  The authors conclude their letter with the following observation:

“It would be a cruel irony if a curriculum meant to help alleviate prejudice and bigotry were to instead marginalize Jewish students and fuel hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community.  Without significant edits, the ESMC will do just that.”

The push-back placed state education leaders on their heels.  State Superintendent Thurmond joined leaders of the Legislative Jewish Caucus at an August 14 news conference, and placed a news release on the California Department of Education website in which the public was advised that, “…the CDE will pursue all options to correct the issues, including meeting with other stakeholder groups, asking the legislature for more time if needed to complete the draft and if needed, starting a new draft.”

In an August 12 press release, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond (joined by two other Board members) was less equivocal, acknowledging that “…the current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned” and announcing that, “…a new draft will be developed for State Board of Education review and potential approval.”  To relieve pressure, Assemblymember Medina, author of the measure that would make a semester-long course in Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement, has made AB 331 a “two-year bill,” meaning no action can be taken upon the measure prior to January, 2020.  A provision hastily inserted into a budget bill at the tail end of this year’s Legislative session has also extended the deadlines required by AB 2016 by a year – meaning that the curriculum writers now have until December 31, 2020 to deliver a revised product to the State Board of Education.

Supporters of the draft model curriculum are digging in.  As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a letter sent to the CDE by the California State University Council on Ethnic Studies explains that Ethnic Studies intentionally focuses on “people of color, African American/black, Asian American, Latino/Raza and Native/Indigenous Americans.”  An ad hoc online “Save CA Ethnic Studies” petition campaign declares:

“After 50 years of struggle and work for this moment, it cannot be taken away from us at this last second – doing so would be an act of institutional racism. Our students deserve an authentic Ethnic Studies curriculum. The voices and guidance of communities of color and Native people must remain at the heart of it.”

Just how the conflict over the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will play out is anyone’s guess.  Though the draft curriculum has stirred up a hornet’s nest and produced tensions that aren’t predictably partisan, there is also potential for good. However fleeting the moment, a set of fundamental education policy questions has caught the eye of the public:  What is to be taught in the state’s public schools?  Who is responsible for making and implementing curriculum?  How, and to whom are such persons and structures held accountable?

Superintendent Thurmond and State Board of Education Chair Darling-Hammond face a daunting task in attempting to referee the creation of a revised Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that will prove acceptable to equally passionate stakeholder groups espousing highly disparate views.  At this late stage, avoidance – so often the preferred means of deferring, if not resolving conflict – is no longer an option, though time has been purchased to permit tempers to cool.  Still,  hard decisions remain to be made, and some will be discomfited  when the process has run its course.  Democracy can, indeed, be messy.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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