May 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Ethnic-studies programs grown in K-12 schools

Picture of students sitting in a circle in a classroom
Fourth-graders study English at the Star School, a charter school in Leupp, Ariz., that wants to revitalize Navajo language and culture. Photo: Douglas Curran/AFP via Getty Images

Curriculums in the U.S. have often left out the experiences of people of color, but more states are starting to incorporate ethnic studies courses into their classrooms.

Why it matters: Ethnic studies programs encourage a more expansive recounting of history that goes beyond European contributions to include Native Americans, Latino and Black experiences. Racial justice protests over the last year have pushed some states and school boards to rethink how history is taught.

The latest: The California State Board of Education in March unanimously approved a model ethnic studies curriculum for its K-12 students.

  • It focuses on "illuminating the often-untold struggles and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a/x Americans, and Asian Americans in California."
  • Of note: "The model curriculum would be voluntary guidance, not mandatory," the Sacramento Bee writes.

Where it stands: While California is the first to offer a statewide ethnic studies model, other states are taking a look at different approaches toward teaching ethnic studies.

  • Washington state adopted a resolution that lays out a process to develop an ethnic studies graduation requirement.
  • Oregon is developing ethnic studies standards.
  • Connecticut high schools will be required to offer courses in Black and Latino studies by the fall of 2022.
  • New Jersey schools are required to teach diversity, inclusion and equality courses in K-12 education.

Ethnic studies proponents say these programs allow people to speak to their own experiences and perspectives.

  • The National Education Association called ethnic studies "an anti-racist, decolonial project that seeks to rehumanize education for students of color."

The other side: Critics have said that ethnic studies programs promote anti-American propaganda and divisive rhetoric.

  • The Independent Institute, a non-profit research organization in California, said the state's curriculum "promotes divisiveness and indoctrination," adding that it fails to celebrate the "heritages and histories of all."

Flashback: In 2011, Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281 which banned any courses that either promoted the overthrow of the United States government or promoted resentment toward a race or class of people — specifically targeting ethnic studies courses.

  • The bill passed in the wake of a controversy over the Mexican-American studies courses offered in Tucson high schools.
  • The legislation was deemed unconstitutional in 2017 after a federal judge ruled that it had been passed for a "discriminatory racial purpose and a politically partisan purpose."

What they're saying: "We don’t want to make villains out of people, and at the same time history should be honest. History should account for people’s lived experiences," Leilani Sabzalian, who is Alutiiq and an assistant education professor at the University of Oregon, told Axios last year.

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