California grappling with diversity in ethnic studies for high schools

Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The California Department of Education is finalizing a model ethnic studies curriculum designed to teach students in public high schools about the history, culture and contributions to American society of historically marginalized people.

Developing the model has taken five years, with two previous drafts criticized in thousands of comments from groups ranging from Sikhs to Korean Americans saying they were underrepresented or mischaracterized. Public comments on the third and final draft closed Thursday, with some groups still unhappy.


"We have welcomed the public's feedback during this process and anticipated robust dialogue," state education department spokesman Scott Roark told UPI in an email, adding that all feedback on the new draft would be reviewed.

The State Board of Education is required by law to adopt an ethnic studies curriculum by March 31.

Satisfying every group has proved to be daunting.


The draft curriculum focuses on four foundational disciplines: African American, Chicano and Latinx, Native American and Asian American ethnic studies. An appendix contains lesson plans and other resources for many more ethnicities.

Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, which works to strengthen community engagement, is disappointed that Sikhs are in an appendix instead of the Asian American curriculum section.

"There is still a misunderstanding of the Sikh American community and how often their story, especially in the early part of 20th century, really is part of the larger Asian American story," Singh said. "There is a feeling among those getting the information that there are too many groups to fit in but I think thematically, it's actually not a problem."

Public high schools are not required to offer ethnic studies. The model curriculum, ordered by the state legislature in 2016, will be a guide to help schools develop elective courses or lessons to include in history and social science classes to reflect student demographics in their communities.

Students of color made up about 78 percent of California's public school population in 2019-20, according to the state.

Singh said ethnic studies classes enrich all students.

"You have a better idea of the communities around you, you have a better sense of your own neighbors, you have a better sense of the city, the town, the county and even the state that you live in," he said.


'Cultural competency'

The first draft of the curriculum was released in 2019 for public comment. Eight organizations -- the Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian National Committee of America -- Western Region, American Hellenic Council, American Jewish Committee, Hindu American Foundation, Assyrian American Association of Southern California, Korean American Coalition, and the Korean American organization FACE (Faith and Community Empowerment) -- said the draft lacked "cultural competency" and did not reflect California's diverse population.

"We urge the California Department of Education to completely redraft the curriculum, which is replete with mischaracterizations and omissions of major California ethno-religious groups," the statement said. "The groups highlighted in the current draft should be recognized, but not at the expense of everyone else."

The Anti-Defamation League said in a 2019 letter to the education department's Instructional Quality Commission, charged with developing the model, that the curriculum fails to include Jewish American history in a meaningful way and neglected any discussion of anti-Semitism.

Seth Brysk, regional director of ADL's Central Pacific region, told UPI ethnic studies should include groups that are targeted by different forms of hate.

"In the year 2019, we recorded the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents that we've ever tracked in the four decades that we've been looking at this expression of hatred," Brysk said.


Public comments through July included nearly 19,000 expressing concerns about a lack of coverage of anti-Semitism and Jewish Americans and over the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which aims to pressure Israel to change its policies toward Palestinians. Some opponents of including BDS in the curriculum say the movement is anti-Semitic.

Nearly 9,000 comments supported coverage of Arab Americans and a handful called for coverage of Korean Americans, Armenian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans. The Department of Education counted each petition and letter as one comment, regardless of how many people signed them. Arab Resource & Organizing said its petition supporting Arab American studies had nearly 29,000 signatures.

More than 100 individuals and organizations supported the early draft, with some revisions, saying in an online Save CA Ethnic Studies petition that the curriculum was being attacked by groups with little to no experience in the discipline.

The education department said in a news release that it had recommended "removing all language that can be perceived as anti-Semitic" in a second draft.

After receiving a total of 57,000 comments by late November, the department put out a third draft in December with the recommendation that the curriculum increase the breadth and depth of the four foundational disciplines and update and expand instructional materials "that raise the voices of many identities whose experiences intersect with the core disciplines of ethnic studies, such as Arab Americans, Armenian Americans, Jewish Americans and Sikh Americans."


Arab, Jewish debate

Amer Rashid of the Council on American-Islamic Relations opposes moving Arab Americans from the Asian American group in the initial draft to a lesson in the appendix that "confirms and conflates stereotypes of the Arabs with the Muslims."

"It doesn't really note, too, the Arab American religious diversity or Arab American history in general," Rashid told UPI. "The Arab American appendix only talks about Islamophobia and Muslims in America. It doesn't really address Arab American issues or history in particular."

Lara Kiswani, executive director of Arab Resource & Organizing, said political interest groups and lobbyists influenced the move of Arab American studies to the appendix.

"Essentially, what was an ethnic studies curriculum that was drafted by experts in the field has now turned into a problematic 'all-lives-matter' curriculum," Kiswani said.

Members of the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front who participated in student strikes in the 1960s at San Francisco State and the University of California, Berkeley, which led to the creation of ethnic studies as a major, say Arab American studies should be included.

Arab and Muslim activists participated in the strikes and also were part of the fight for farmworkers' rights, according to a statement signed by dozens of strike participants.


"These histories and solidarities between Indigenous, Black and Brown people, including Arabs and Muslims, form the heartbeat of ethnic studies," the statement says.

Ellen Brotsky, a volunteer leader with Jewish Voice for Peace, said her group supports the original curriculum and that ethnic studies should focus on marginalized communities of color, including Arab Americans. She added there are members of the Jewish community who also belong to Arab, Black, Latinx or another community of color.

"Any lessons on Arab American studies do need to address the situation in Palestine, which has resulted in the immigration of Palestinian Americans to the United States because they've essentially lost their land and been forced to leave as refugees," Brotsky said.

She also said that anti-Semitism, which she defines as "violence and criticism against Jews for being Jews," should not be tied to criticism of Israel.

Brysk, though, said there are some who use Israel or Zionism as a proxy for their hatred against Jews.

The ADL said on its website that the third draft incorporates "many of necessary changes we sought" -- among them, the removal of "explicit anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias" -- but there is still work to be done before the curriculum is finalized in the spring.


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