EDUCATION - As members of the Community in Los Angeles, we are often asked why our organization supported the passage of state legislation requiring Ethnic Studies as a high school graduation requirement.
The answer is an easy one. It was the right thing to do at the time, and it is the right thing for our high school students today. In a state where many if not most school districts have a majority of their students coming from historically disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities, we supported (and still support) requiring high school students to have the opportunity to learn about THEIR history. The legislation as passed by the State Legislature, and the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum adopted by the State Board of Education as a result of the law, focuses on four ethnic groups in California – African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino, and Native Americans. The model curriculum adopted by the SBE seeks to educate students about the history and culture of these four groups, but to do so in a straightforward, objective manner, with school districts free to add courses on the history and culture of other ethnic groups with significant populations within their boundaries. The State Board of Education was quite clear in its Model Curriculum – the courses were to be taught by teachers to inform students, rather than proselytize one perspective or another, depending on the teacher’s point of view.
Of course, we are living in highly politicized times, and public education has strangely become a political battlefield. Many on both sides of the political spectrum have chosen to mischaracterize what the Ethnic Studies courses required by the legislation are, and what they should be.
From the right wing, we have pundits stating with great alarm that California schools will be teaching anti-American curriculum that seeks to paint our Founding Fathers and the history of our nation in negative brush strokes in an attempt to turn students against “the American Way”. Those critics are quick to accuse advocates of Ethnic Studies of injecting Critical Race Theory – a widely accepted approach in college curriculum that sees the racism and white supremacy that was so prevalent in the first century of the United States as the foundation for so many of the societal ills that our nation faces today – into our K-12 schools.
Those on the left criticize the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum because it did not incorporate rhetoric that puts the blame for today’s racial and economic problems entirely on the exploitation of colonies by the colonizing nations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some on the left also pushed to include rhetoric that was explicitly anti-Israel and arguably antisemitic into the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum – essentially labeling Jews who supported the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland of Israel as “colonizers”. This approach was rejected by the State Board of Education for a variety of reasons, including having little or nothing to do with the four “core” ethnic groups to be focused on, for use of inflammatory rhetoric, and a bevy of other reasons. Indeed, the SBE rejected the first draft of model curriculum for these and other reasons.
As we write this article, the LAUSD is moving forward with the development of a wide variety of courses that meet the high school graduation requirement adopted by the California Legislature, although it should be pointed out that the LAUSD moved to make Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement in 2014, well before the state legislature took action. In concert with a number of Los Angeles area Jewish organizations and advocates in Los Angeles is working with the school district’s Division of Instruction to ensure that new Ethnic Studies courses meet the LAUSD policy requiring curriculum to taught in a manner that emphasizes critical thinking skills rather than being taught from a particular political point of view. Furthermore, we have made it clear to the district that curriculum should be developed in a transparent and inclusive process.
Ethnic Studies is an important addition to the LAUSD and state of California’s list of high school graduation requirements. It is vital that courses that are adopted to meet that requirement meet the highest standards of rigor and objectivity. We applaud the LAUSD’s commitment to work with the community and look forward with enthusiasm to the expansion of ethnic studies course offerings.
(Mihran Kalaydjian is a consummate leading member of the community and a devoted activist. He has spearheaded numerous educational initiatives.)
(Gregg Solkovits is President of Democrats for Israel – Los Angeles and is a 36+ year Social Studies and English teacher.)