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Education Matters: Ethnic studies do-over

Approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, Assembly Bill 2016 requires the adoption of a course of study designed to “highlight the contributions of minorities in the development of California and the United States.”

The bill “would encourage” schools with grades 9-12 to offer a course in ethnic studies based on a model curriculum to be developed by the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC).

The key word there is “encourage.”

Initially, a course in ethnic studies was optional. Technically it still is, but another bill – AB 331 – would make a semester of ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation for all public schools (charter schools included).

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AB 331 is currently stalled in the state Senate, on hold in the appropriation committee’s suspense file.

The IQC [https://www.cde.ca.gov/be/cc/cd/iqcmembers.asp] is responsible for advising the State Board of Education (SBE) on matters related to curriculum and instruction.

According to AB 2016, the IQC is to submit the model curriculum to the SBE by Dec. 31, 2019, and the state board “shall adopt the model curriculum on or before March 31, 2020.”

The SBE appointed members to serve on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee [https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/mcacapps2018.asp], tasked with creating the model ethnic studies curriculum.

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Guidelines for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, issued by the Calif. Dept. of Education (CDE), specify that the first draft should “undergo a public review and editing” by the IQC before being recommended to the SBE.

Since the draft curriculum was released, the SBE, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, numerous state lawmakers and thousands of public comments have registered strong dissatisfaction over the contents.

Guidelines

The CDE states that the curriculum should:

 Promote the values of civic engagement and civic responsibility

Align to Calif. Common Core state standards

 Promote self and collective empowerment

Encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together, highlighting core ethnic studies concepts such as equality, justice, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, etc.

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 Include information on the ethnic studies movement, specifically the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), and its significance in the establishment of ethnic studies

Promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis of history, systems of oppression, and the status quo

The curriculum, according to the CDE, should also “be inclusive, creating space for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or citizenship, to learn different perspectives.”

The first draft of the model curriculum apparently missed target objectives by a wide margin.

On August 12, SBE President Linda Darling-Hammond issued a statement, saying, “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

“A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” the statement reads.

Many are now skeptical whether that noble goal can be accomplished.

Serious objections

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Ethnic studies has traditionally focused on only four areas of study: Black/African American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies.

But limiting the discussion in this way has triggered negative reactions from other ethnic groups.

Objections to the draft curriculum came from many quarters, including groups representing Hellenic, Armenian, Hindu, Korean, Greek and other races, religions, cultures and nationalities.

In particular, Jewish constituents – and lawmakers themselves – raised a chorus of objections, with charges of blatant and deliberate anti-Semitism in the draft curriculum.

A letter sent to Soomin Chao, chair of the IQC, from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus states that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) is “inaccurate and misleading … in a manner that reflects an anti-Jewish bias.”

The letter highlights four areas of anti-Semitism in the draft curriculum:

1. It effectively erases the American Jewish experience, despite “significant contributions of Jews to California’s history, politics, culture and government.” This exclusion, called “deeply insulting and harmful,” appears to be “intentional” and reflects “the political bias of the drafters of the ESMC,” according to the letter.

2. It omits any mention of anti-Semitism, including from the glossary, even though the ESMC notes “the importance of studying hate crimes, white supremacy, bias, prejudice and discrimination…” The letter states that this “glaring omission is deeply troubling, especially against the backdrop of a recent surge in violent anti-Semitic incidents.”

3. It denigrates Jews. As an example, the ESMC recommends song lyrics that reinforce “a classic anti-Semitic trope about Jewish control of the media.” Why, the letter asked, would California “want to actively promote a narrative about Jews that echoes the propaganda of the Nazi regime.”

4. It singles out Israel for condemnation “that is both out of context and factually inaccurate.” Inclusion and endorsement of the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement “goes significantly beyond the disciplinary boundaries of American ethnic studies.” The one-sided references to BDS “present a single viewpoint on an extraordinarily complex international political dispute.” Including BDS “raises further questions about the drafters’ anti-Jewish bias and effort to institutionalize the teaching of their own narrow political ideology.” The ultimate goal of BDS, say many pro-Israel groups, is to eliminate the state of Israel.

The letter, signed by Sen. Ben Allen and Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, concludes by saying, “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.”

The letter is co-signed by 14 Assembly members and state Senators, including Assembly member Jose Medina who authored AB 331.

Hijacked curriculum

A lecture and discussion in San Diego a few weeks ago was offered by StandWithUs, a non-profit pro-Israel education and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, to provide more background on the issue.

Speaker Max Samarov, SWU’s Director of Research and Strategy, said the original purpose of AB 2016 was to highlight under-reported communities and teach about the ways those communities experience racism and discrimination.

“The Jewish community has a direct stake in that,” he said.

The problems with the draft curriculum provoked much anger and caused Jews and supporters to “mobilize in a way I’ve never seen,” Samarov said. “That unity generated, last time I checked, over 5,000 public comments.”

About the creation of the state of Israel, one attendee said, “I can’t stop you from calling it The Tragedy [Nakba in Arabic], but we can stop you from learning that that’s the only narrative.”

Concerns, now that revisions are necessary, center around the make-up of the committee doing the revisions, since they are the same people who generated the first draft, Samarov said.

“There’s a big difference between understanding differences and political indoctrination,” he said.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, in an Aug. 7 letter to IQC chair Chao, wrote to express alarm over the draft curriculum, protesting the “shocking omission of information about American Jews and anti-Semitism, its use of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, and its blatant anti-Israel bias.”

The letter was signed by 83 civil rights, human rights, religious and education organizations, and raised “a much deeper and graver problem, namely that an educational curriculum can be hijacked by those pushing a political and hateful agenda.”

She wrote that more than one-fourth of the 18 advisory committee members “have publicly expressed animus towards Israel and its supporters, with some members openly supporting BDS.”

Rossman-Benjamin, a former faculty member at the University of California Santa Cruz, is co-founder and director of AMCHA, an organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses.

Next steps

Medina recently said that his bill should be put on hold for this year, giving extra time for revisions to the draft curriculum.

Assembly members who also signed on as authors to Medina’s bill are: Richard Bloom (also a co-signer to the letter from the Jewish Caucus), Rob Bonta, James Ramos, and Lorena Gonzalez and Shirley Weber from San Diego County.

Given how much of the curriculum needs revisions, it’s difficult to see how an acceptable model curriculum can be approved by the IQC by the end of the year, as required by AB 2016.

A worthy goal, no matter how commendable the intent, can have unintended consequences. So many valid objections may make the realization of this goal an impossible dream.

One SWU attendee bemoaned the fact that America used to be considered a Melting Pot, but now, someone noted, it’s more like a fruit salad, with every group separate in the mix.

With so many groups feeling that their particular heritage has been neglected or misrepresented in the draft curriculum, the state is in a pickle.

The drive for an ethnic studies curriculum has become instead a study in ethics.

Given this quagmire, an “ethical studies” course may be a viable option. Perhaps in each class, students could instead be reminded of the quintessential rule for ethical speech and conduct: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

After all, everything boils down to The Golden Rule.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com


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