Middle school history teachers discuss a lesson plan on American history. (Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education, via EdSource)

With a March 31 deadline set by the Legislature looming, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a voluntary high school ethnic studies curriculum Thursday after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and two of the state’s civil rights heroes — labor organizer Dolores Huerta and social justice activist Karen Korematsu — urged them to during a daylong hearing on Thursday.

So did former Assemblyman Luis Alejo, whose 2016 law mandating the creation of the curriculum set off a four-plus-year process that led to one major rewrite and three revised drafts that produced guidance, but not a mandate, on how to create an ethnic studies course and what to include in it.

“Adopting the model curriculum today that is balanced, focused and bold is an extraordinary test that may not please everyone, but facing our history is an uncomfortable endeavor and making landmark educational change is never easy,” said Alejo, who is now a Monterey County supervisor.

The murders this week in Atlanta and a rise in violence against Asian Americans, along with the shooting deaths by police that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, added a sense of urgency in passing what will be the nation’s first ethnic studies curriculum.

As one of several hundred public commenters, given one minute of testimony, said succinctly, “More delay is more hurt.”

Alejo, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Shanine Coats, the department of education administrator who shepherded the curriculum through multiple drafts, acknowledged that disagreements remain.

But warning that the “perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” Weber said the state board should not “dillydally” and follow calls for rejecting the latest draft and trying yet another time, “because we have done the work. You have done the work. You have basically developed a strong curriculum, and it is time for California to move forward with this curriculum on behalf of our school students.”

Local school districts hold the keys

Moving forward in this case means passing the baton to local districts, who will have the choice of picking and choosing from among the dozens of lesson plans or creating a different mix — tailoring an ethnic studies course based on their distinct student demographics and what they’re hearing from the public.

State board member Cynthia Glover Woods, a liaison to the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory group to the board that helped draft the model curriculum, said that the document is intended to “help districts strengthen existing courses or develop their own.”

She and others characterized the model curriculum as “the first step in the conversation.”

But based on many of the passionately compressed one-minute testimonies from more than 250 commenters at the hearing, some of those conversations will be difficult and angry, reflecting unresolved disagreements over what should be taught in ethnic studies and whose stories should be highlighted.

Jewish and Arab Americans have been fighting since the first draft in May 2019 over the definition of anti-Semitism, whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be included in a lesson and whether lessons on Arab Americans should be placed under Asian studies or somewhere else in the curriculum. Those fights, reflected in dozens of remarks, will now go local.

The goal of ethnic studies is to increase understanding and respect among all students while focusing on the often overlooked history, struggles and cultures of the four racial and ethnic groups that have been the foundation since ethnic studies programs were created five decades ago: Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Indigenous Americans.

The model curriculum includes goals and principles and sample lessons. Consistent with the state board’s instructions, ethnic studies “shall promote critical thinking and a rigorous analysis of history, the status quo and systems of oppression,” Glover Woods pointed out.

But critics have charged that the writers of the curriculum narrowly defined critical analysis through the prism of critical race theory. It is a specific legal theory that seeks to explain root causes of racist government policies, like exclusionary zoning and public school assignments. They complain that attributing all actions, implicit and explicit, to white oppression would pit students against one another, create tensions and undermine ethnic studies’ goal of empathy and racial progress.


The model curriculum mentioned but did not define the much used and often misunderstood term “critical race theory.” State board President Linda Darling-Hammond proposed, and the board approved the insertion of this definition as a footnote:

“Critical race theory (CRT) is a practice of interrogating race and racism in society. CRT recognizes that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions that replicate racial inequality — codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy.” — Janel George (2021), “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory,” American Bar Association

Dozens of public comments expressed this concern on Thursday. The New York-based Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism has targeted critical race theory, elevating California’s ethnic studies to a national debate over what it calls a new form of intolerance.

But state board President Linda Darling-Hammond defended critical race theory and, in the only change to the draft curriculum that the board approved on Thursday, added a definition missing in the document. Critical race theory, she said, is a way to look for root causes of disparities tightly tied to race, whether post-slavery Jim Crow laws, discriminatory lending laws or inequitable funding and staffing of low-income schools. It is not, she said, “demonizing” people by race or setting groups against one another.

Sensitive topics

The burden, though, will be on teachers who will have to lead difficult conversations on sensitive topics like critical race theory and implicit racial biases. At Darling-Hammond’s encouragement, Gov. Gavin Newsom has included $5 million specifically to aid teachers as they learn how to teach ethnic studies.

Thurmond emphasized that students have said repeatedly during focus groups that they want ethnic studies. “Our students said to us that they wanted to see representations of themselves. They asked us why they didn’t learn about their own histories in school,” said Thurmond, who organized a series of webinars on intolerance and anti-Semitism separate from the curriculum last year.

Both Weber, who was a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State for 40 years before becoming a state legislator, and Albert Camarillo, emeritus professor in Chicano Studies and Mexican American history at Stanford University, cited the benefits of ethnic studies.

“I have seen firsthand in working with the teachers and working with the students that transformative nature, the motivation that is gained by students, engaging with ethnic studies,” Camarillo said.

“A well-taught ethnic studies curriculum is beneficial to all students, regardless of race, that every student’s life is enhanced by the knowledge of ethnic studies, about learning about the four major groups that they have interacted with,” Weber said. “It transforms and changes their lives.”

Hundreds of California high schools already offer ethnic studies courses. Los Angeles and Fresno are among the districts that are considering adding ethnic studies as a graduation requirement.

Newsom vetoed a bill last year that would make it a requirement statewide over dissatisfaction with earlier drafts of the model curriculum. But the sponsor, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, has reintroduced it this year and, with the state board’s stamp of approval on Thursday, Newsom will face pressure to sign it.

* Story originally published by EdSource.