California Forum

How to foster tolerance in California? Make ethnic studies a graduation requirement

An ethnic studies class focuses on racism at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco on January 22, 2018. (Josh Edelson/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
An ethnic studies class focuses on racism at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco on January 22, 2018. (Josh Edelson/Los Angeles Times/TNS) TNS

Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2016, which is set to create the first statewide model curriculum on ethnic studies by 2019. No other state had ever approved such a bill to help standardize the courses that arose 50 years ago out of the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in 1968.

This year, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, himself a former ethnic studies high school teacher, is championing a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in all California public high schools.

Medina has introduced AB 2772, which would require public high schools and charter schools to offer a course in ethnic studies beginning in the 2021–22 school year. It also would add a course in ethnic studies to high school graduation requirements in social studies commencing with the 2023–24 school year. Last month, the Assembly Education Committee gave the bill its first approval with a bipartisan 5-1 vote. It now must get out of the Appropriations Committee.

California is home to the largest and most diverse student population in the nation. Students of color in our public schools account for 76 percent of the population and speak 90 languages. Given California’s growing diversity, it is especially important that students build knowledge of the various racial and ethnic groups in our state and their shared American identity.

In doing so, students gain an encompassed outlook on other cultures while learning respect and tolerance. They also get an opportunity to learn about their own heritage in the context of California’s rich history, and to understand how they can change their communities in positive ways.

AB 2772 will also help close the achievement gap by reducing student truancy, increasing student enrollment, reducing drop-out rates, and better preparing youth to be college prepared and career ready. The National Education Association found that “there is considerable research evidence that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.”

A 2016 Stanford University study showed that ethnic studies courses helped high school students increase their educational outcomes, attendance and credits earned. Researchers discovered that students’ GPAs improved by 1.4 grade points, attendance rose 21 percentage points, and class credits earned increased by 23.

Unfortunately, of nearly 1.7 million high school students, fewer than 9,000, or less than 1 percent, had access to an ethnic studies course in 2013-14. While our state now offers bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D courses and degrees at our most prestigious colleges and universities, ethnic studies in high schools has not come as far along.

In the last few years, local grassroots efforts, led by the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, have created a strong, growing movement to standardize ethnic studies district by district. School boards have begun to require ethnic studies for graduation and approved expansions of such courses at their high schools, including in Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego.

Other states also have moved to require ethnic studies in high school, including Oregon and Indiana. If California is serious about preparing our students to succeed in diverse university and workforce environments and for jobs in a global economy, we must provide them with the knowledge of the diverse people that make up our great state and the rest of our world.

Luis A. Alejo is chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, a former Assembly member and a sponsor of AB 2772.Reach him at AlejoL@co.monterey.ca.us.

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