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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

California eyes ethnic studies requirement

Ethnic studies will not be a graduation requirement — yet – -in California, reports Elizabeth Castillo on CALMatters.

Citing the estimated $400 million cost, sponsors of a bill to require ethnic studies for high school graduation agreed to a pilot program instead. Ten to 15 school districts will opt in to requiring a semester of ethnic studies as early as 2022.

Photo: Matt York/Associated Press

A 2016 law “already encourages high schools to offer an elective course in ethnic studies, and requires the state to create a model curriculum for the class by 2020,” writes Castillo. However, only 1 percent of students statewide take ethnic studies.

“I don’t know how a person can say they’re educated without knowledge of other groups, other cultures, other histories,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, a former ethnic studies teacher.

Some San Francisco high schools require low-achieving ninth graders to take ethnic studies. A 2016 Stanford study found significant gains in attendance, grades and credits for low achievers, especially boys and Latinos. The study compared students with grade point averages just below 2.0 with those just above 2.0, the cutoff for mandatory enrollment. The study didn’t assess whether ethnic studies helps students with average or higher grades.

Ethnic studies could increase student engagement and academic success, argue Luis A. Alejo, a former state legislator, and Jose Lara, a high school social studies teacher and organizer with the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition.

. . . students gain a better understanding of other cultures while learning respect and tolerance. Additionally, ethnic studies courses provide students with the opportunity to learn about their respective cultures in the context of California’s rich history, while also helping them understand that they can change their communities in positive ways.

In my youth, I worked as a research assistant for a woman writing a U.S. history curriculum for the California Youth Authority (juvenile prison) schools. Or was it an ethnic studies curriculum? I asked her. She didn’t know. A committee of African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American and Native American representatives — and a Female American — were driving her crazy. I don’t think gays got a rep back then. Nor did European Americans.

Despite my past trauma, I’m fine with ethnic studies as an elective. It might engage the interest of some students. I don’t believe in a statewide mandate. San Francisco’s well-designed, well-implemented program is taught by motivated teachers, the Stanford researchers noted. Require it at every high school in the state and the quality will be eroded. (I feel the same way about requiring everyone to take a coding class.)

It’s also hard to see how a model curriculum will work statewide. California has schools that are heavily Asian and others that are nearly all Latino. Will there be different versions of ethnic studies for different minority groups?

Inevitably, some parents will see the course as indoctrination in identity politics.

Indiana now requires high schools to offer an ethnic studies elective, but districts report nobody’s signing up, writes Shelby Mullis on Chalkbeat.

Oregon is developing social studies standards that “incorporate the history and contributions of people of color and social minorities,” including “women, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

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