5 questions (and answers) about ethnic studies

In 2021, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the first model ethnic studies curriculum for California’s high schools.

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Focusing primarily on the often-underrepresented contributions and struggles of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans, this model curriculum is not mandatory for any school or district. Instead, it was created to offer local districts ideas and examples to consider if they choose to develop their own ethnic studies coursework.

With several Orange County school districts already offering ethnic studies, and others in the process of developing courses, we thought we’d share a few questions and answers on ethnic studies from OCDE’s curricular experts.

What is ethnic studies?

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and Indigeneity, with an emphasis on the experiences of people of color in the United States. Courses outline the contributions made by people of color in government, politics, arts, medicine, economics and other sectors.

Proponents of ethnic studies believe that by affirming the identities, struggles and contributions of all groups, students can expand their perspectives and better see themselves — and their peers — as part of the story of the United States.

Why did California adopt an ethnic studies model curriculum?

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring the State Board of Education to adopt a model curriculum for ethnic studies. The law said the state’s educational standards should be guided by core values of equity, inclusivity and universally high expectations. It also cited research showing the importance of culturally relevant curriculum.

The state board approved California’s ethnic studies model curriculum in March 2021 after four years, four drafts and more than 100,000 public comments. The 900-page document is “aimed at empowering students by illuminating the often-untold struggles and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a/x Americans, and Asian Americans in California,” according to the California Department of Education.

Is ethnic studies now required?

The short answer is not yet. Under the leadership of locally elected school boards and superintendents, several Orange County school districts have developed their own ethnic studies courses or are considering proposals. In most districts where ethnic studies courses have been developed, they are elective courses, meaning they are not required.

However, Assembly Bill 101, which was signed by Gov. Newsom in 2021, added the completion of a one-semester course in ethnic studies as a public high school graduation by 2029-30. Districts will be required to develop and offer an ethnic studies course by 2025-26.

Opponents of ethnic studies sometimes cite “Critical Race Theory.” Is the ethnic studies model curriculum based on this theory?

Critical race theory is not synonymous with ethnic studies, and a discussion of critical race theory may or may not be included in a district’s ethnic studies courses. That decision is made at the local level, but the term is rarely mentioned in California’s ethnic studies model curriculum. (It is defined in a footnote referencing an article from the American Bar Association, included in a list of topics for teachers to be familiar with, and mentioned in one example of a district-developed UC-approved course outline.)

Ethnic studies more broadly uses critical thinking to nurture an understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together in the United States, exploring core concepts such as equality, justice, race and ethnicity.

What should be the outcome of an ethnic studies course?

Proponents say the goal of ethnic studies is for students to better appreciate the contributions of people of many different ethnicities to American democracy, to better understand the work and struggle of so many people to put the American principles of equality and freedom into practice, and to better engage in the civic enterprise of ending racism and forging a society true to America’s vision of “liberty and justice for all.”

Update: This post was updated in October 2021 to include the signing of Assembly Bill 101. In response to growing interest, the California School Boards Association also issued a pair of FAQs on ethnic studies and critical race theory in July 2021.