In summary

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California responds to a need that should not be abandoned.

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By Christine Sleeter, Pacific Grove

Christine Sleeter is professor emerita at California State University, Monterey Bay and a member of the National Academy of Education.

Re “4 forms of bias to avoid in designing ethnic studies for high schools”; Commentary, Dec. 15, 2020

In their commentary, Al Sokolow, Tony Tanke and a team of professors from UC Davis argue that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California has gone off “in negative and counterproductive directions” that are “divisive and designed to indoctrinate students.” Having been involved with ethnic studies for a long time, I take issue with their perspective, and particularly the first two “forms of bias” they present: First, making “a sharp division of the world into good and bad guys,” and second, offering “predetermined conclusions about the evils of the world.” 

Ethnic studies focuses on analyzing and understanding ways to eliminate institutional racism and impacts of colonialism. In the process, it also includes uplifting stories of persistence, heroism, achievement and cultural expression. But ethnic studies came into being because Native students and students of color deeply wanted – and still want – an education that helps them to analyze the conditions of racism that impacts on their lives and communities, in order to challenge those conditions at their roots. 

This focus is not about dividing the world into “good and bad guys” or constructing “evils of the world” students are supposed to learn to hate. Rather, it is one of making visible the workings of unjust systems, particularly racism. Why, for example, is COVID-19 ravaging Black, brown and Indigenous communities to a much larger extent than white communities? Why are Black and Brown men vastly disproportionately incarcerated? Why are infant mortality rates higher in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities than in white communities?

These are pressing questions for many of today’s youth, and in most school curricula, there is no designated space for examining them. Racism is barely mentioned, if at all, in textbooks, which set manifestations of racism in the past with no direct links to the present. Colonization is brushed over, sometimes reduced to the study of maps, or ignored altogether. Stereotypes that blame people of color, or superficial “fixes” to manifestations of racism fill in for an absence of any serious analysis of racism and colonialism. Problems of racial injustice go unsolved and resentments fester.

It isn’t bad people that need to be vilified, but rather unjust systems that need to be changed. Anyone can learn to help to make systems more racially just. White people can serve as allies and co-conspirators – and very often want to – but without engaging in ethnic studies, do not know what to do or how. 

In addition, students who have taken high school ethnic studies programs that focus directly on systemic racism and colonialism achieve on conventional measures of student achievement at higher levels than similar students who did not take ethnic studies. 

In 2011, I reviewed the research of the impact of ethnic studies on students for the National Education Association and updated that review in my co-authored book “Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools.” Contrary to claims that it is a divisive form of indoctrination, well-taught ethnic studies courses are highly relevant to students as well as academically engaging. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California responds to a need that should not be abandoned.

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