A panel of eight academic experts shared their insight on ethnic studies and California’s recently adopted model curriculum Wednesday during an online forum hosted by Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.
Presented by OCDE, the event titled “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Colloquium on Ethnic Studies” spanned about two hours, drawing an audience of educators, school administrators, students, parents, elected officials and community members.
The colloquium kicked off with presentations by D.A. Horton, an assistant professor and program director of the Intercultural Studies program at California Baptist University; Kimberly Young, a teacher in the Culver City Unified School District and a member of the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which oversaw development of the model curriculum; Dr. Emily K. Penner, assistant professor of Education Policy and Social Context at the UCI School of Education; and Dr. Talisa Sullivan, administrator for Equity and Access at the Riverside County Office of Education.
The latter half of the forum featured four local superintendents — Michael Matsuda of the Anaheim Union High School District, Dr. Gregory Franklin of the Tustin Unified School District, Dr. Andrew Pulver of the Los Alamitos Unified School District and Jerry Almendarez of the Santa Ana Unified School District.
Here’s what the speakers had to say on several key topics:
Why OCDE organized the colloquium
While noting the sharpened interest in ethnic studies — and pending state legislation that could make it a graduation requirement — County Superintendent Mijares pointed out that OCDE routinely hosts forums, webinars and professional-development trainings “to amplify best practices in the classroom and to share new developments at the state level.”
“In the case of ethnic studies, OCDE received several requests from school districts and school board members to provide an overview and to clear up misinformation,” Mijares said. “They understand that this is a service that we provide, and they trust our department to do so credibly, objectively and responsibly.”
Ethnic studies in the classroom
Citing the state’s History-Social Science Framework, Kimberly Young, a teacher and Instructional Quality Commission member, described ethnic studies as an interdisciplinary field of study that encompasses many subject areas including history, literature, economics, sociology, anthropology and political science. Its goal, she said, is to address content missing from traditional curriculum and to help nurture respect for cultural diversity.
“In my class, we engage in an accurate account of history while also focusing on student identity in order for students to not only see their identities represented in the history we engage with, but also to build empathy for one another through discussion and reflection,” Young said.
Their research looked at several schools where students with eighth-grade GPAs below 2.0 were assigned to take a pilot ethnic studies course in the ninth grade. The students who took the class saw attendance gains of 21 percentage points on average, Penner said. In addition, their GPAs rose by 1.4 grade points, and they earned an average of 23 more credits than their peers.
D.A. Horton of California Baptist University referenced Penner’s work, as well as a report linking ethnic studies with positive mental health outcomes. He also talked about a study on culturally based pedagogy for Native American Learners. The latter study by Teresa L. McCarty of UCLA and Tiffany S. Lee of the University of New Mexico showed that eighth-graders posted a 21 percent increase in their math scores, a 20 percent increase in reading scores and a 9 percent increase in writing scores from the previous year.
Ethnic studies, Horton said, improves academic outcomes by providing students with increased opportunities for honest dialogue, cooperation, empathy and team-building. He further characterized the field as demonstrating “the uniqueness of the United States of America by celebrating the cultures and the ethnicities that are present.”
California’s Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum
In March 2021, after four years and four drafts, the California Board of Education approved the first-ever ethnic studies model curriculum as a guidance document for teachers and administrators who are considering developing their own coursework. The resource, which can be found on the California Department of Education website, was created by a content-specific advisory committee and took into account more than 100,000 public comments.
“It does not impose a mandate on schools. It is not a complete classroom curriculum or instructional materials,” Young said. “It is very much intended to be a resource.”
Dr. Talisa Sullivan, administrator for Equity and Access at the Riverside County Office of Education, said a provision in the model curriculum outlines the support that’s necessary for administrators, as well as teachers. She said her agency is building a guide to support local efforts based on the document’s eight principles and outcomes.
The model curriculum “is really a simple read, and it’s really not like a novel but it’s one that you can go through chapter by chapter or moment by moment to kind of find great nuggets in there to see what it’s about,” she said.
Sullivan added that she and her colleagues at the Riverside County Office of Education are looking to build and sustain partnerships with other county offices and the University of California, Riverside.
Concerns about critical race theory
The consensus among Wednesday’s speakers was that ethnic studies is not synonymous with critical race theory, which up until recently was an obscure academic term describing how race intersects with U.S. laws and institutions.
Young said the term is mentioned only sparingly in the state’s model curriculum, including once as a legal definition provided for educators.
It’s defined, she said, “because as teachers we would want to be educated, especially coming back to school after this school year where a lot of students are paying attention to what’s on the news. We would want to be educated ourselves on what critical race theory is from its actual definition.”
What should be included in history classes
While Superintendent Mijares said ethnic studies should not be conflated with critical race theory, he said history courses should not omit structural injustices, and he referenced as an example the landmark school desegregation case that originated in Orange County.
“Mendez v. Westminster was filed because local students of color were barred from attending school with white children in the 1940s,” he said. “This did not happen because of a single racist school administrator. This was a policy that promoted racial discrimination, impacting students who are still alive today.”
“Together, we were able to end school segregation for the betterment of all people, bringing us closer to America’s vision of ‘liberty and justice for all,’” Mijares added. “That is a part of our history that should be celebrated rather than concealed.”
Young and others encouraged parents to engage with educational leaders at the local level to ensure that what’s being taught in the classroom is representative of their communities.
Ethnic studies as a graduation requirement
In California, legislation is being considered that would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement by 2030. The bill known as AB 101 is currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Even if it passes, the state will not impose its own ethnic studies curriculum, Mijares said.
“Similarly, neither OCDE nor the Orange County Board of Education has the authority to set curriculum for local school districts,” he said. “Again, that power lies solely with districts under the leadership of their school boards and superintendents.”
Sullivan said the Riverside County Office of Education is also closely watching the legislation and will be prepared to support its local school districts with resources.
Ethnic studies programs in Orange County
The Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously in June 2020 to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement by 2023. Currently it’s a standalone course, but the district is in the process of creating ethnic studies coursework that can be taken across multiple disciplines to meet the requirement, Superintendent Jerry Almendarez said.
He noted that the board first approved elective ethnic studies courses for three SAUSD high schools in 2015.
“The recurring theme I think you’re hearing from a lot of the district superintendents is that our students are really demanding access to see themselves in the curriculum that they’re engaging in,” he said, “and so one of the reasons that our board has taken this step is to meet those needs of our students, but also our parents are demanding it as well.”
“No longer are we competing regionally or locally, but we’re competing globally, and that’s why it’s important for our kids to understand other cultures and become diverse in that respect,” Almendarez added.
In the Anaheim Union High School District, stand-alone ethnic studies courses have been offered for the past five years, including dual-credit options with community college partners. But ethnic studies will be a requirement starting with the class of 2026, AUHSD Superintendent Michael Matsuda said.
Matsuda said the courses can help build trust in schools and other institutions by affirming identities, connecting people and presenting an honest picture of the country’s history. He said the ultimate barometer of social justice in society is “access to meaningful and purposeful jobs.”
“We are at a critical juncture in this country in terms of trust — trust in institutions, trust in things like law enforcement, trust in government, trust in religious institutions, trust in the ability to get jobs and trust in our public schools,” Matsuda said. “And I’ve been challenging our staff, our leaders, to really look at ‘How do we rebuild trust?’”
OC districts that recently added ethnic studies
Los Alamitos Unified School District Superintendent Andrew Pulver said his students initiated the conversation about ethnic studies, which will be offered as an elective course in the fall for juniors and seniors at Los Alamitos High School. He said many students of color said they weren’t seeing themselves in the curriculum.
“Students, by their own volition, are choosing to enter into this course,” said Pulver, whose staff worked with other school districts and examined curricular best practices.
Tustin Unified Superintendent Gregory Franklin said his district will offer its first ethic studies courses this fall as electives, with a couple sections at each TUSD comprehensive high school.
Franklin said engagement and learning thrive when students feel comfortable bringing their full identities to the classroom and can see their cultural heritage reflected in the stories they read and the histories they learn.
“We’re focusing on our kids being proud of who they are, sharing who they are with others, and appreciating that,” Franklin said. “We want to be advocating and really being proactive about being inclusive, that our schools — just like our society — are made for everybody.”