The battle over Ethnic Studies

by Carol Kocivar | March 17, 2024 | 1 Comment
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How should Ethnic Studies be taught?

High schools in California will soon be required to ensure that all students take a course in Ethnic Studies. What does that mean, practically?

California’s students are caught in a political battle over this question. Teachers and school leaders have been drawn into the fracas, too.

This post summarizes the current policies about Ethnic Studies, how we got here, and the issues that school districts are grappling with.

What is Ethnic Studies?

In the Ed100 blog
Ethnic studies: Why is it controversial?

Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary subject, which means that it involves many fields including history, literature, economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science.

The availability of ethnic studies courses in California dates back to 1968, when college students in San Francisco staged a strike to demand “a new curriculum that would embrace the history of all people, including ethnic minorities.”

As Ethnic Studies courses became increasingly prevalent in colleges, some high schools began offering it, too. In 2021, California became the first state to require a semester-long Ethnic Studies course to earn a high school diploma. Signed by Governor Newsom after multiple proposals and vetos, the law requires all school districts to complete implementation of the requirement for the graduating class of 2029-30 at the latest.

High schools must begin offering courses by no later than the 2025-26 school year. Will this be a difficult target to hit? It's hard to know. As of 2020, about half of California high school students attended a school where a course was offered. (Yes, that’s the most recent data available as of March 2024. California has dreadfully sluggish education data systems, but that's a subject for another post.)

What is the California model curriculum for Ethnic Studies?

In practice, all classes are based on a curriculum — a written plan for what will be taught and assigned. In California, like most states, the stories of historically marginalized people have often been left out of many US history courses.

The purpose of ethnic studies is to remedy this glaring omission and engage students in learning in a new way. Research indicates that providing students with lessons about their own cultures can increase attendance and improve grades. This effect was replicated in San Francisco, where the course was taken by students in ninth grade.

To provide teachers with direction, the California State Board of Education adopted an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum with public input. The model curriculum is designed to promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis of history, systems of oppression, and the status quo, and to generate discussions about what the future can hold. It focuses on four traditional ethnic studies that were first established in California higher education:

  1. African American studies
  2. Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x studies
  3. Native American studies
  4. Asian American and Pacific Islander studies

School districts can adapt the curriculum to address the demographics and diversity of their classrooms. However, the model recommends that “the adaptations should center on deepening or augmenting rather than scaling down any of the four disciplines.”

The authority to select curriculum lies with each school district.

In practice, ethnic studies is taught one class at a time. Each high school in the state of California needs to select and prepare faculty members to help students learn together about America’s ethnic diversity, history, divisions and unity. This preparation will take place under public scrutiny. California law requires that each district hold public discussion [see section (G)(IV)] about their planned curriculum. The Los Angeles County Office of Education has developed a useful guide for the process.

In California, the authority to select curriculum lies with each school district. Districts can either use the state model curriculum or select their own. The state can recommend curriculum, but the power to choose among available options — or to make their own locally developed curriculum — lies with school districts. All curriculum, however, must comply with state law:

Prohibited Instruction and Instructional Materials

Discrimination in instruction

“Instruction must not promote a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation, or any other protected characteristic.”

Discrimination in instructional materials

“A local governing board must not adopt instructional materials that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation, or because of any other protected characteristic.”

What’s the controversy?

Controversy swirls around the content of locally developed courses for Ethnic Studies. This is exacerbated by rising Islamophobia and antisemitism throughout the world. Ethnic studies courses explore the causes of racism and other forms of bigotry including anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The model curriculum received significant criticism during its development process. For example, The California Legislative Jewish Caucus said the draft reflected “an anti-Jewish bias.” A coalition of Armenian, Assyrian, Hellenic, Hindu, Jewish, and Korean civic groups said the draft advanced “a political agenda that should not be taught as unchallenged truth in our state’s public schools.”

The final version of the model curriculum was modified to try to address these issues. “Try” is the operative word, though. School districts will need to pay attention as they make their ethnic studies classes a reality.

Warning to school districts

Anticipating ongoing disagreements about what and how ethnic studies are taught, the ethnic studies law admonishes districts not to discriminate. Take a moment to read these guardrails because it gives you context for the controversy.

Nondiscrimination clause of California legislation requiring Ethnic Studies


Curriculum, instruction, and instructional materials for a course described in clause (ii) shall meet all of the following requirements:


Be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, pupils with disabilities, and English learners.


Not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of any category protected by Section 220.


Not teach or promote religious doctrine.

For districts that choose to use an alternative to the state's model curriculum, the law includes specific advice:

“To the extent that local educational agencies, including charter schools, choose to locally develop an ethnic studies program for approval by their governing board or governing body, it is the intent of the Legislature that local educational agencies not use the portions of the draft model curriculum that were not adopted by the Instructional Quality Commission due to concerns related to bias, bigotry, and discrimination.”

Governor Newsom’s Education Policy Advisor has further warned school districts about using materials that do not comply with state law:

“We have been advised… that some vendors are offering materials that may not meet the requirements of AB 101 [2021-22]. Before any curriculum or instructional materials for ethnic studies courses are selected, we strongly encourage you to closely scrutinize them to ensure that they meet the requirements.”

Get a feel for the controversy

A semester of Ethnic Studies involves many hours of discussion and interaction, involving individual students and faculty members. The curriculum guides the discussion. The table below quotes from two organizations that have deep differences in perspective about the purpose of the course. These are not the only perspectives — just two that have attracted notable attention.

In their words: Quotes from two contrasting views about how ethnic studies should be taught

Liberated Ethnic Studies:

Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies:


“More than 50 Ethnic Studies educators and activists from throughout California, committed to contesting white supremacist notions of academic knowledge, convened to develop and implement a Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” (LESMC).


“A diverse, nonpartisan coalition working to remove narrow ideological agendas from Ethnic Studies, enabling curricula that inspire mutual respect, fight racism, and celebrate ethnic accomplishments.”

“Values rooted in holistic humanization and critical consciousness shape the guiding principles.”

“A constructive curriculum that builds understanding, inspires mutual respect, confronts racism, and celebrates ethnic accomplishments.”

“Celebrate and honor Native People/s of the land and Communities of Color, share stories of struggle and resistance, and intellectual, historical and linguistic knowledge.”

“Empower students to dream big, overcome challenges, and be motivated, engaged community members.”

“Center and place high value on pre-colonial, ancestral, indigenous, diasporic, familial, and marginalized knowledge.”

“Build mutual respect, self-confidence, awareness, intergroup understanding and empathy.”

“Critique empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.”

“Elevate ethnic groups, their backgrounds, and contributions without denigrating others.”

“Challenge imperialist/colonial hegemonic beliefs and practices on ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized levels.”

“Openly and honestly address racism and discriminatory treatment.”

“Connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice to ensure a truer democracy.”

“Present a range of political perspectives and approaches to bringing about change, including strengths and weaknesses of each.”

“Conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promote collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.”

“Equip students with the skills to understand and analyze multiple points of view on relevant topics, so that they can develop their own opinions and present well-articulated, evidence-based arguments.”

“Cultivate empathy, community actualization, cultural perpetuity, self-worth, self determination, and the holistic well-being of all participants, especially Native People/s and People of Color.”

Video examples of the disagreement

It’s useful to hear the different perspectives in this debate directly. These videos help convey the sensibility and message associated with each.

Liberated Ethnic Studies testimonials:

Killing America movie trailer:

Lawsuits and lively public meetings

Throughout California, school districts are facing strong objections to how they are teaching Ethnic Studies and how they are protecting the rights of students to a safe school environment. This controversy has increased public engagement at school board meetings and added to discussions of what and how academics should be taught in schools. For example:

  • In Hayward, the district contract with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium was condemned, saying the model and “its leadership have a record of promoting antisemitism, anti-Israel narratives, and other forms of bias.”
  • In Sequoia Union High School District, instruction about the Israel/Hamas conflict brought enraged community members to a board meeting saying a lesson contained anti-semitic propaganda.
  • In Oakland and San Francisco, school districts are under investigation for civil rights violations based on discrimination complaints involving shared ancestry.
  • In Los Angeles, the Deborah Project has filed a lawsuit to stop Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium materials from being used in the Los Angeles public-school system, and to enforce California law requiring that all public school teaching materials be made public.”
  • In Santa Ana, ethnic studies courses discussing Palestine were put on hold.
  • In Berkeley, a complaint has been filed against the school district for “failing to take action to end nonstop bullying and harassment of Jewish students by peers and teachers since Oct. 7.”

Legislative response

Citing the alarming rise in hate incidents and recent spikes in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents, Senator Harry Stern has introduced SB 1421 Educational Equity. The bill proposes to create a California Office of Civil Rights capable of investigating complaints of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying, including allegations of homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.

He has also introduced SB 1277 genocide education establishing a statewide teacher professional development program on genocide, including the Holocaust.

To address the lack of training for teachers, Assembly member Wendy Carrillo has introduced AB 1255, a bill that proposes to create a task force to develop criteria for a teacher credential in ethnic studies.

Learn More about California’s Model Curriculum for Ethnic Studies


The Model Curriculum

Chapter 1

Introduction and Overview

Chapter 2

District Implementation Guidance

Chapter 3

Instructional Guidance for K–12 Education

Chapter 4

Sample Lessons and Topics

Chapter 5

Lesson Resources

Chapter 6

UC-Approved Course Outlines

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
enangriffin March 19, 2024 at 1:00 pm
Excellent presentation of the problems all schools face and should address.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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