In summary

The ethnic studies curriculum will be a historic win for communities and students that public schools have traditionally ignored.

By Shirley Weber, Special to CalMatters

Shirley Weber is the California Secretary of State, Secretary.weber@sos.ca.gov. She served previously in the state Assembly and is professor emeritus of  Africana studies at San Diego State University.

Movements that uplift the voices of marginalized people have historically met with resistance by those protecting the status quo. Even the establishment of the nation’s first ethnic studies department at San Francisco State University required a prolonged strike by students to move a stubborn and, at times, violent university administration to relent to their demand for representation. 

My journey advocating for ethnic studies stretches over nearly five decades, from building the Africana Studies program at San Diego State University in the 1970s, to authoring legislation that will make ethnic studies a graduation requirement throughout the California State University system. 

As a department chair, I repeatedly confronted efforts to downgrade or eliminate Africana Studies and other ethnic studies departments. As a legislator, I successfully defeated attempts to water down the ethnic studies coursework California college students will engage with. 

Despite decades of resistance to ethnic studies, a National Education Association review of research supports what those of us in the discipline have known all along: a well taught Ethnic Studies curriculum is beneficial for all students, regardless of race. 

These benefits include more engagement in learning by students of color, higher critical thinking skills as students grapple with new perspectives, and the development of greater social cohesion as students begin to understand the experiences of their peers of color. And to ensure these benefits, it will be critical to integrate an ethnic studies curriculum earlier in the educational life of students. 

Since 2016, California has been engaged in the development of a Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California high schools. It has been a rigorous process that has included significant stakeholder input, multiple revisions and, at times, rancorous debate. The current draft plan does what a model ethnic studies program should do. It will provide an honest accounting of the experiences of people of color and – more importantly – it will inspire action in countless young scholars who will see their stories represented in the classroom. 

Though not a mandated curriculum, the instructional guide that the California Board of Education will vote on this month will give educators the tools they need to illuminate the struggles and contributions of historically oppressed communities: African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x peoples and Native Americans. 

That is why as a member of the State Instructional Quality Commission I voted to support the recommendations integrated into this latest draft model. 

As to be expected, there are critics of the curriculum on all sides. But I would not have staked my years as an ethnic studies instructor and advocate by voting for this model if I did not believe it maintained fidelity to the principles of the discipline and would benefit the students of California. 

The criticism will continue, but I think it would be instructive for detractors to listen to what young people are saying. Last summer, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond invited me to moderate an online conversation with high school students to gain their perspective on ethnic studies. The takeaway from this conversation is that youth are unequivocally ready to embrace ethnic studies and that they need us to foster classroom instruction that encourages them to learn and that empowers them to create lasting change.

California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will be a historic win for communities and students that public schools have traditionally ignored. I would encourage support by advocates and state education leaders. 

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Other commentary on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

Students need ethnic studies that is true to the legacy of the discipline

Let’s aim toward an authentic ethnic studies discipline

Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is what our students need in this moment  

California students will fight for the ethnic studies education we deserve

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

Meaningful representation of Sikh Americans in ethnic studies would show progress for inclusion

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

Ethnic studies will help students become better informed citizens in our diverse democracy

High school ethnic studies – the third version

4 forms of bias to avoid in designing ethnic studies for high schools

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