Social Studies

California’s Ethnic Studies Curriculum, Criticized for ‘Anti-Jewish Bias,’ to Be Revised

By Catherine Gewertz — August 14, 2019 9 min read
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California’s proposed curriculum guide in ethnic studies is being sent back for substantial revision after a pileup of criticism that it’s anti-Semitic and freighted with jargon and political correctness.

In a statement posted Tuesday, leaders of the state’s board of education said that its model curriculum “should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state,” but that the current draft, which was posted for public comment in June, “falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.” The final version will be an ethnic studies curriculum that “aligns to California’s values,” the board statement said.

In a hastily organized press conference Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, flanked by members of the legislature’s Jewish Caucus, said that the curriculum draft would be revised to reflect the experiences and contributions of Jewish Americans and all oppressed groups.

“To the concern that there is not enough balance in the model draft, we agree that there can be more work done to achieve balance,” Thurmond said. “We are being contacted by many other groups that feel their story needs to be told.”

The state board had planned to decide on a final version of the new curriculum guide by the end of March 2020, but Thurmond said extending that timeline is an option if significant revisions are required.

As the nation’s first state-level K-12 curriculum in ethnic studies, California’s curriculum is poised to be influential in classrooms not just in California, but around the country. The curriculum isn’t a mandate, but a guide for districts to develop their own ethnic studies courses. The state legislature is considering whether to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement.

Gaining Popularity

Reflecting national trends, the popularity of ethnic studies has mushroomed in California. The number of students enrolled in ethnic studies courses in the state soared from nearly 8,700 in 2014-15 to more than 15,000 by 2017-18.

A 2016 law in California, where non-Hispanic whites are a minority, required the state board of education to create a high school course in ethnic studies. An advisory committee of 18 teachers and professors, appointed by the board, wrote the draft and presented it in May to the Instructional Quality Commission, the body that advises the state board on standards and curriculum frameworks.

The plan had been to collect input on the draft through Thursday, then send it back to the state board of education and instructional quality panel for revision. But the draft curriculum has created such a furor that a bigger overhaul is now on the table.

The curriculum is a 500-page-plus tome including an overview and course outlines. Suggested course units and activities included the study of the “systems of power such as white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy” and of social movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

An accompanying glossary of terms included “cisheteropatriarchy,” which it defined as a system of power “based on the dominance” of men whose gender identity matches their biological sex, and “hxrstory,” defined as “history written from a more gender inclusive perspective. The x’ is used to disrupt the often rigid gender binarist approach to telling history.”

The package riled thousands of people. Even the lead author of a bill to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement came out against it. More than 13,000 people signed a petition alleging the curriculum was anti-Semitic. Conservatives attacked it for being anti-capitalist. More than 5,000 comments poured into the state public-comment portal.

‘Anti-Jewish Bias’

Perhaps the biggest catalyzing force behind the reworking of the curriculum came from the California legislature’s Jewish caucus, which includes Jewish and non-Jewish members. In a July 29 letter to Soomin Chao, the chair of the instructional-quality panel, the caucus members excoriated the proposed model curriculum as inaccurate, misleading, and written with “anti-Jewish bias.”

Despite a rash of recent anti-Jewish hate crimes, including shootings at temples in Pittsburgh in 2018 and near San Diego, Calif., in April, the curriculum omits “any meaningful discussion” of anti-Semitism, the letter said. It omits Jewish contributions to American culture, even as it includes such contributions from Americans of African, Native, Arab, and Latin descent, it said.

“We cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools,” the caucus’ letter said.

Among the letter’s signatories was Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat who is the lead author on the bill to require all high school graduates to take an ethnic studies course. Medina taught high school for 34 years, including Chicano studies courses in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, in the 1990s.

“It’s important that at the end of the day, the ethnic studies curriculum that makes it to the classroom, in front of students, is something that we can all be proud of,” he said.

He noted an irony: The need for ethnic studies typically arises when marginalized groups feel excluded from course studies. And yet, “what was presented by the model curriculum did some of the things we had in the past criticized: failure to include” all groups, he said.

The Jewish Caucus, and Jewish oganizations, also took issue with the way the curriculum depicts Israel and the Palestinian-led “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement that’s designed to pressure the country to change its approach to Palestinians. Likening BDS to movements such as BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, the curriculum says it is a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”

“The glossary ... parrots more BDS talking points while offering no critical perspectives about this campaign of hate, which seeks to end Israel’s existence,” Batsheva Kasdan of Los Angeles said in remarks submitted through the state’s public-comment portal.

Fuel for Hatred?

Shoham Nicolet, the CEO of the Israeli-American Council, which set up an online petition to collect opposition to the curriculum, said he fears the curriculum could stoke anti-Jewish sentiment.

“If you are Israeli-American kids, like mine, the classroom wouldn’t be safe for you anymore,” he said. “You couldn’t be comfortable in a public school when discussions about Jews and Israelis are presented in a very biased, one-sided way.”

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat who’s vice-chairman of the legislative Jewish Caucus, said Jews and Israeli-Americans aren’t the only group that feels cheated by the curriculum. Koreans, Armenians, Hindus and others have also raised objections, he said.

“It reads a lot more like propaganda and indoctrination than something that will encourage folks to do critical thinking, broaden their perspectives,” Gabriel said. “In some ways, the draft is inaccessible and flawed. Anti-Jewish bias is only one part” of the problem.

Critics of ethnic studies say it promotes divisiveness, is anti-American, and could push out other electives students want. But backers say it’s high time for students to study their country, and analyze its power structures, from the perspectives of traditionally marginalized groups. They argue that the need for cultural awareness is greater now than ever, with hostility and hate crimes escalating.

California’s ethnic studies curriculum argued, also, that culturally relevant coursework can revitalize and sustain students and teachers, help schools connect better with students of color, help students “tell their own stories” and prepare them to think critically about the world, and empower them to be socially and politically engaged.

The draft curriculum aims for an “interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with an emphasis on experiences of people of color in the United States.” Its main idea is to teach students the “hxrstory, cultures, contributions, perspectives, and experiences of groups that have been overlooked, hxrstorically marginalized, and often subjected to invisibility within mainstream courses.”

‘An Exercise in Groupthink’

But the curriculum immediately drew fire. Conservatives took issue with the representation of capitalism as “a form of power and oppression.” An editorial in a local Southern California newspaper, the Pasadena Star News, said it’s “beyond troubling that capitalism is included on the roll call of oppression,” and urged the state board to “start over” on the curriculum.

The Los Angeles Times lambasted the model curriculum for jargon and political correctness. Good ethnic studies courses are crucial for students, it said, but this draft—an “impenetrable melange of academic jargon and politically correct pronouncements"—is “in bad need of an overhaul.”

“Too often the proposed ethnic studies curriculum feels like an exercise in groupthink, designed to proselytize and inculcate more than to inform and open minds. It talks about critical thinking but usually offers one side and one side only,” the newspaper said.

The pushback against California’s ethnic studies curriculum is not the first dustup over K-12 studies in the field. Tucson, Ariz., schools closed a popular Mexican-American studies program in 2012 when the state’s then-governor, John Huppenthal, said it conflicted with a state law prohibiting courses aimed at a particular ethnic group. A judge later found that state law discriminatory. It took four years of back-and-forth in Texas to decide to write standards for a Mexican-American studies course.

More than 250 districts in California already offer ethnic studies courses, and some, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, already require them. Other states and districts are also beginning to require ethnic studies—or studies of specific groups within that discipline, such as African American studies—as well. Philadephia and Bridgeport, Conn., are two examples of districts pursuing those approaches.

A 2017 law in Oregon required the state to develop standards in ethnic studies, but did not include development of a curriculum. Those standards have been drafted and will be circulated before being presented to the state board next year, said department of education spokesman Peter Rudy.

See also:

California Governor Signs Law to Create First State Ethnic Studies Curriculum

Learning About Identity: A Student’s Case for Ethnic Studies

Photo: Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, center, speaks beside Superintendent Tony Thurmond, right, at a news conference Aug. 14 in Sacramento, Calif. California’s public education chief is seeking changes to what would be the nation’s first statewide K-12 ethnic studies curriculum. --Don Thompson/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.