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California Approves Historic Ethnic Studies Curriculum

On March 18, California’s State Board of Education approved an historic Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. The curriculum, which will serve as guidance for high schools across the state on how to implement Ethnic Studies education, has been developed and revised by the state board over the past four years. 

California’s new model curriculum will make it the first state to provide standard guidelines on how to structure Ethnic Studies education. While Ethnic Studies courses are already offered at schools throughout the state, including Berkeley High School (BHS), the curriculum will outline a universal set of topics for schools to cover. 

According to the State Board of Education, the curriculum’s recommendations will not be mandated for California high schools. Instead, individual districts and schools will have the option to implement portions of the curriculum. The board also hopes that the curriculum will support high schools that do not yet offer Ethnic Studies education, as it will offer a starting point for lesson plans and units of study. 

The model curriculum aims to educate students on the past and current experiences of minority racial groups. Its scope includes the histories of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans in the state of California, though it also seeks to address national topics. 

The curriculum does not come without controversy: educators, parents, and advocacy groups have recently weighed in on whether the contributions of specific ethnic groups have received adequate representation. Some Arab and Jewish groups criticized the model for what they saw as insufficient coverage of both groups’ stories and history. 

Sharif Musaji, a history teacher in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), believes that some critiques of the model curriculum misunderstand its purpose. 

“Ethnic Studies is a justice-centered lens through which we can analyze and process our histories and lived experiences,” Musaji said. “There is no way that any Ethnic Studies will satisfactorily cover every identity and historically relevant event, — especially in one semester — but that’s missing the point.” 

Musaji added that he believes every student should see themselves represented in their Ethnic Studies curriculum. He explained that, if successful, Ethnic Studies education could empower students to explore their own identities in and outside of the classroom. It could also encourage students to view the content of their other classes through the lens of Ethnic Studies, which would expand upon their understanding of justice. 

The model curriculum has also faced criticisms surrounding its coverage of historical issues, which some have argued reflect a political perspective. Musaji responded to these criticisms by highlighting the necessity of Ethnic Studies education during a politically divisive, racially consequential moment. 

“I think much of the recent controversy around California’s Ethnic Studies curriculum boils down to misunderstanding what Ethnic Studies is about,” Musaji said. “It’s about honestly and truthfully confronting history, understanding the myriad ways that certain identities have been privileged or oppressed over time, and the systems, institutions, and ideologies that perpetuate oppression, injustice, and inequality.” 

In a press release, the state board pointed to the positive impact that Ethnic Studies instruction can have on educational outcomes for students. According to the board, participation in Ethnic Studies classes has consistently improved rates of graduation and college attendance among students of color, as well as groups of all backgrounds. 

“The research has shown that Ethnic Studies programs have an undeniable positive impact for students of color,” Musaji said. “It can really change lives.”

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