California public schools may soon have a model for teaching ethnic studies, but not before more controversy over its proposed curriculum. Now, after hundreds of revisions, the original writers of the curriculum are demanding their names be removed from the document that the state is hoping to approve next month.
The group of 20 ethnic studies educators across California who wrote the curriculum sent a letter to the state Board of Education saying the state’s revisions have made changes to their lesson plans and are no longer reflective of the original mission of ethnic studies.
“Significant parts of the curricular text do not fully reflect the work of past or present Ethnic Studies teachers/educators,” the letter read. “Ethnic Studies knowledge, framework, pedagogy, and community histories have been compromised due to political and media pressure. Our association with the final document is troubling because it does not reflect the Ethnic Studies curriculum that we believe California students deserve and need.”
Theresa Montaño is a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge and one of the original creators of the curriculum. Her group said the revised version ethnic studies program, as they feel it promotes an “all lives matter” approach to learning about racialized communities and fails to fully represent the lived experiences of several American communities.
“In an ethnic studies course, you make an attempt to center the racialized communities of color whose histories, whose voices, whose experiences, for hundreds of years have been revised or repressed,” Montaño told CapRadio.
The board has been grappling with how to create a ethnic studies model for all California public schools after the passage of a 2016 bill authored by Assemblymember Luis Alejo that required the state to create a model curriculum for ethnic studies.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last year vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. In his veto message, he cited the controversy surrounding the proposed curriculum, which he said “was insufficiently balanced and inclusive and needed to be substantially amended.”
The creators of the draft argue that the current curriculum does not center the voices of racialized communities, and instead puts an emphasis on including “all” voices and perspectives. Montaño argued, this is exactly the opposite of the mission of ethnic studies.
“When I teach my Chicanx Studies course, while I will entertain multiple perspectives, my main focus is the Chicanx perspective. It’s not that I’m not inclusive, it’s whose voice and whose vision and perspective I teach it from,” Montaño said. “Some folks don’t like to hear it’s not about you at this time, it’s about these groups at this time.”
The model has been scrutinized since it’s creation in 2019, when critics argued that it was anti-Semitic and politically correct. It was later revised to be more inclusive while focusing on the four groups central to ethnic studies: Asian, Black, Latinx and Native Americans. But other groups like Arab Americans pushed for more representation in the model.
Critics argue the state’s handling of the Arab American history section in particular is concerning. The section was originally part of the Asian American history portion of the lesson plans, but has since been moved to the appendix. The removal of the section particularly about Palestine stemmed from critics saying it was anti-semitic to highlight a Palestinian narrative. While there are still references to Palestine, the revised curriculum does not have any Palestinian narratives which were originally included.
“The revisions have been made as a result of caving to racist and Islamophobic pressure,” Lara Kiswanie, professor of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and founder of the state’s Arab American Studies Coalition said. “There’s a lesson plan on racism post 9/11 that doesn’t make any mention of Arab, Arab American, to us, that’s just completely outlandish.”
In response to the controversy around revisions to the curriculum — and, in particular, the exclusion of Arab American history and voices of Palestinians — the board has said the model lesson plans have undergone over 200 revisions and currently includes the perspectives and takes into consideration over 57,000 public comments.
“We believe that students should graduate from the California K-12 system as independent thinkers able to evaluate, analyze and synthesize complex information,” the board wrote in a statement to CapRadio. “That means students should have the skills necessary to access information from a balance of sources and perspectives and form their own opinions. This is in alignment with SBE guidelines, state standards and the history/social studies curriculum framework.”
Critics of the curriculum have included the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, who have argued that the original draft imposed a “narrow political ideology” and promoted a “militant, anti-Western agenda.”
Now, with hundreds of revisions done, and a possible approval looming, Lia Rensin, the alliance’s director, said her organization is happy with the changes made.
“Our biggest concern with the curriculum has been its foundational approach — the underlying theory of that is that all white people further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color,” Rensin said. “So it frames the entire curriculum in terms of victimhood and oppression.”
She adds that she didn’t believe that narrative could lead to constructive classroom discussions.
“You can empower kids without telling them that they’re victims and that the kid sitting next to them is their oppressor because of the color of their skin,” Rensin said. “It paints everyone with this single paintbrush.”
But Montaño, one of the writers of the original draft, felt not acknowledging this oppression would negate the purpose of having an ethnic studies curriculum to begin with.
“That’s what’s happened with this Ethnic Studies curriculum, it’s, ‘Let me see how you are comfortable with it to the point that BIPOC communities are diminished,’” Montaño said. “This has brought together communities of color in such a way that they’re fighting for the validity, the authenticity and the voice of Ethnic Studies from the perspective of BIPOC communities, that’s what we’re fighting for.”
The model curriculum with revisions by the state’s Instructional Quality Commission is now set to be approved in March. While it won’t be mandatory for teachers to use, it will serve as a guide for the state’s 1,037 public school districts if educators would like to teach ethnic studies.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the author of the AB 2016. It was authored by Assemblymember Luis Alejo.
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