How states are strengthening ethnic studies courses

Goal should be to improve all students' understanding of different cultures, experts say
By: | November 27, 2019
In the absence of a state-mandated ethnic studies curriculum, administrators and teachers can, for example, revise their book lists to include more writers of color.In the absence of a state-mandated ethnic studies curriculum, administrators and teachers can, for example, revise their book lists to include more writers of color.

The state of Texas appears likely to add an African American studies course to its expanding ethnic studies curriculum. A high school class that highlights Mexican American culture was approved a little over a year ago, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The African American studies course, as developed by Dallas ISD educators, starts with African civilizations prior to 1619, rather than the arrival of African slaves in America, according to the Chronicle. 

“You cannot look at African Americans solely as being enslaved,” University of Texas at Austin history professor Daina Berry told a state board, according to the Chronicle. “They were living in communities that were just as sophisticated as the communities that we see in Europe. But all of these aspects are often ignored in contemporary media and textbooks.”

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California, meanwhile, continues to grapple with an ethnic studies curriculum that is being revamped after it was criticized as anti-Semitic, among other problems. The state’s board of education could vote on a revised version, which will become a high school graduation requirement, in 2020, according to The Sacramento Bee. 

Some felt the original curriculum was too critical of Israel and took a biased approach to the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, both supporters and opponents of the proposal have agreed the new curriculum should cover issues of anti-Semitism while not removing Arab-American studies or Palestinian history, The Sacramento Bee reported.

California’s ordeal highlights many of the challenges states encounter when trying to implement ethnic studies, District Administration reported in October. Along with navigating the debates about designing lessons, district leaders also must find additional funding and add professional development.

“Ethnic studies is not just about children of color; it’s about improving all students’ understanding of the cultures that they interact with in their local communities,” Harry Lawson, director of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights department, told DA.

“Ethnic studies is a center point for a lot of the goals that we have for public education,” Lawson said. “It isn’t only about academics; it’s about social and emotional learning, interaction, and being culturally competent, and recognizing and celebrating diversity.” 

So far, Vermont and Oregon are the only states to require ethnic studies classes.

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In the absence of a state-mandated curriculum, administrators and teachers can revise their book lists to include more writers of color. Organizations such as Teaching Tolerance and the Center for Civic Education offer full lessons.

This time of year, district leaders may also grapple with how to recognize fall and winter holidays.

Schools can acknowledge Christmas, but teachers must give equal attention to the customs of other religious and ethnic groups, as well as to the beliefs of atheists, David Barkey, national religious freedom counsel at the Anti-Defamation League, told DA this fall.

“You could have an assembly with ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and other Christmas songs,” Barkey said. “It’s constitutional, but very exclusionary for kids who don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Indeed, the holiday season presents an opportunity to teach students about different belief systems, Benjamin Marcus, a religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, told DA.

“What’s critical is that those holidays are not used as an excuse to proselytize,” Marcus said. “No student should be made to feel that they are not a full member of the academic community because they don’t celebrate those holidays.”

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