Education

California ethnic studies curriculum would be a first in U.S. The state wants feedback

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The California Department of Education has posted a draft of its proposed ethnic studies curriculum – the first state-level curriculum on the academic subject in the country – and is asking for public feedback.

Until Aug. 15, members of the public can view the high school curriculum on the department’s website, fill out a feedback form and send it to ethnicstudies@cde.ca.gov.

The publication of the draft curriculum marks a step in the implementation of a bill passed in 2016 that requires the State Board of Education to develop an ethnic studies curriculum by 2020 to serve as a guideline for local school districts.

Districts would not be required to implement the model curriculum, according to the Education Department. Rather, “schools and districts may use it when developing an ethnic studies curriculum that best addresses local student needs,” the website says.

Since the draft was posted on June 14, the Department of Education has received 67 pieces of feedback as of Tuesday night, according to spokesman Scott Roark.

“Public comment is a vital part of the transparent regulatory process when developing curriculum,” Roark said. “Every comment will be read and evaluated.”

After the period for public feedback ends, the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory committee to the State Board of Education, will review all comments and amend the draft. The commission will then present the curriculum to the Board of Education tentatively in early 2020, when the board will choose to either to accept or make changes to the curriculum.

The draft – created by an advisory committee of high school teachers and college professors chosen by the State Board of Education – emphasizes the purpose of instituting ethnic studies in high school education.

“As the demographics continue to shift in California to an increasingly diverse population...there is a legitimate need to address the academic and social needs of such a population,” the introduction of the draft curriculum reads. “All students should be better equipped with the knowledge and skills to successfully navigate our increasingly diverse society.”

One of the advisory committee members who drafted the curriculum, Woodland Community College professor Melissa Moreno, said a challenge in writing the curriculum was making it easy to use for educators across the state.

“It was really challenging because we felt there was this long history and knowledge that we wanted to build on,” Moreno said, “but we were asked to create something basic and elementary for any teacher to pick up and utilize.”

The draft curriculum emphasizes that it’s meant to be modified for the specific circumstances of each local district: “Districts can use [the curriculum] as guidance for creating their own Ethnic Studies courses that reflect the student demographics in their communities.”

The draft provides sample courses in each traditional area of ethnic studies: Black/African American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies.

Noting that these four ethnic groups as “umbrella” groups may not represent more specific ethnic communities, the draft curriculum additionally provides sample courses for ethnic communities often grouped under “Asian Americans”: Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Elementary school teacher Jorge Pacheco Jr., another advisory committee member, said there was much disagreement in committee discussions on how to define the umbrella groups. Pacheco teaches at Gabriela Mistral Elementary School in Mountain View.

“Figuring out which communities fit where and how we could serve them justice on the curriculum was a large source of head-butting,” Pacheco said. The decision to create sample course outlines for Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders as models that teachers can use to create courses for other more specific ethnic communities was a way of addressing that concern.

Moreno said the committee also had long discussions over gendered language in the curriculum.

“We were really trying to do our best to honor the language that has been historically used, but also acknowledge contemporary language being used,” Moreno said, citing as examples the use of “Chicano/a/x” when saying “Chicano,” and the use of “herstory” or “hxstory” when saying “history.”

A glossary of words explaining the terms used is posted online along with the curriculum.

Pacheco said he sees the curriculum as guidance not only for educators in the state, but also for “other states to follow.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated July 31, 2019, to reflect the current job titles of Jorge Pacheco Jr. and Melissa Moreno.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.
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