Influencers Opinion

How should California approach teaching ethnic studies in public school?

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Should California public schools teach ethnic studies? If so, how should they approach such a sensitive topic with the most diverse student population in human history?

“One of the essential purposes of schooling is to craft a ‘Story of Us’ that is inclusive… and to arm our students with the critical thinking skills and the opportunity to see their personal story and struggle reflected in our collective conscious,” said California Charter Schools Association President Myrna Castrejon. “A key understanding of how identities are formed, contested and re-imagined, and how a personal narrative is formed against this social backdrop is much more important than merely check-listing a ‘heroes and holidays’ approach.”

A draft curriculum recently proposed by a State Board of Education advisory committee has been widely criticized for excluding a large number of ethnic communities.

“As the only Asian American female in the California Legislature, I certainly understand the positive impact ethnic studies can have on our students,” state Senator Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) said. “(But) the last thing we need is a deeply flawed curriculum that includes any form of anti-Semitism… or excludes communities that have enriched our state.”

Children Now President Ted Lempert cautioned that a single class could not adequately address such a complex topic.

“Learning about these challenges in only one course during high school will continue the marginalization,” Lempert said. “It’s not only essential that students study it; we also need to support kids within all of our various ethnic communities with culturally-trained, caring adults.”

State Senate Education Committee Chair Connie Leyva (D-Chino) agreed, calling for a greater emphasis on diversity among educators.

“Our diverse student body should be taught by, and exposed to, a diverse teacher workforce that gives voice — and a face — to issues faced by California communities,” Leyva said. “We should also look at how we are training teachers while they are still enrolled in teacher preparation programs, and ensuring that they are receiving an appropriate education themselves in how they teach these challenges.”

Deborah Kong, program officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, stressed that these issues should be addressed as early as possible with younger children.

“As state policymakers considered making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, much attention has focused on high schools and universities – but discussions of diversity and equity are also critical in the early years,” Kong said. “Research shows that children notice racial differences from a very young age, and if caregivers do not openly talk about race with children, kids will draw their own, often erroneous, meanings from what they see.”

Several influencers emphasized the need for such instruction continuing beyond high school.

“We educate the most ethnically diverse university student body in the nation,” California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White said. “We need to create welcoming and inclusive learning environments with programs and classes that are sensitive and responsive to cultural and individual differences, and with educators and academic leadership who reflect the diversity of their students.”

University of California President Janet Napolitano discussed the benefits of carrying these lessons beyond the classroom.

“Diversity in all its forms… is intrinsic to California, defining the state as a worldwide leader in embracing unique differences and encouraging a robust exchange of ideas and perspectives,” Napolitano said. “Students, aptly armed with knowledge of where we came from, will be better equipped to shape where we go — and apply the dynamics of the past to current national and political landscapes, in addition to their personal motivations and convictions.”

Rosalind Hudnell, former president of the Intel Foundation, warned of the economic consequences of failing to address these issues before students enter the workforce.

“Corporations have been spending millions for decades to close this gap of understanding and knowledge,” Hudnell said. “As someone who led one of these efforts I believe people who don’t lead diverse lives, can’t develop and lead diverse teams well.”

But perhaps the most valuable perspective was offered by Castrejon‘s son, ninth-grader Kenji Xavier Fujimoto, who advocated for ethnic studies as a counterweight to the current balkanized political landscape.

“Our current politics have made people go to their corners. We need better tools to talk to and understand each other better, not just a recitation of who contributed what,” he said. “This kind of class shouldn’t be just ‘for ethnic minorities’ or done in a way that allows people to opt out because it doesn’t concern them — it’s about all of us and the role we play in creating and imagining a California for all.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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