The California State Board of Education approved an ethnic studies model curriculum on March 18. Although the ESMC can be used as an outline for California schools, MVLA, among other districts, is working independently.
MVLA is taking inspiration from nearby successful models, such as the San Francisco Unified School District, according to Social Justice teacher Julie Yick, who is completing her doctoral research about high school ethnic studies and is one of the teachers in charge of creating the MVLA’s ethnic studies curriculum.
A Stanford study that followed ninth graders through graduation found that students who took an ethnic studies class had a 1.4 point GPA improvement and increased attendance.
Yick said she sees the research behind the success of ethnic studies classes as a reason for implementation at the local level, also saying that civic engagement increases as a result of the class. However, she emphasized that the districts are allowed to make decisions that are not tied to the ESMC, She said the district plans to improve the curriculum because Jewish groups, allies of Martin Luther King Jr., and people opposed to critical race theory found issues in the model curriculum.
“We’ll be hearing input from a range of students, staff, parents, community members, acknowledging the Jewish community of course, and people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. We are inspired by such a diverse campus, and it is important that we hear all concerns,” Yick said.
Santa Clara County’s Office of Education has been leading sessions to educate teachers of a potential ethnic studies curriculum, but the school has not yet fleshed out the entirety of its curriculum. It will be a required class at the school, not implemented earlier than the 2022-23 school year, according to history department coordinator Madeline Miraglia.
Logistics regarding the grade level at which it will be taught are still being developed, but navigating around students who already have committed to taking an elective all four years, including AVID students, could require more planning, according to Miraglia.
Miraglia said she has had meetings with coordinators from other departments as a form of internal review. External review will be covered with the Educational Service Assistant Superintendent, which she said the district is in the process of hiring. She said she has been in communication with the interim director Brigitte Sarraf as of March, discussing the curriculum.
Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 331, which would make ethnic studies a requirement for high schools starting in the 2029-2030 school year, in October 2020. He cited a need for reform before a draft could be approved, and said he wanted to make sure the model curriculum was free of bias and discrimination. After multiple drafts, the model curriculum was approved on March 18.
California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was introduced with Bill AB-2016, a bill with the objective to prepare “pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.”
However, the original drafts of the ESMC were criticized for anti-Semitic perspectives and a one-sided portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seemed to encourage Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
The BDS movement is “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions,” according to the first draft of the curriculum’s “social movements” glossary.
“This is not representative of what the movement is really about...It sort of has an undercurrent of if you’re not on the side of that protest, you’re bad,” Laurie Balch, an MVLA parent said. “That kind of viewpoint is very shortsighted and will not give students the proper perspective to evaluate for themselves.”
English teacher Mia Newton, who is Israeli, said that while both sides are biased, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts should be discussed as impartially as possible.
“These days, it’s very easy to cling to the victim’s story. I think it’s difficult to push forth the narrative that Jews were the little guy and the victim for a long time, too,” Newton said.
Anna Maya, a high school student from San Diego, created a club that reached out to elected officials to convey concerns about bias in the first draft, concerning BDS and diversity.
As a Latinx Jew, Maya had qualms about the inclusion of her demographics in the first draft of the model curriculum.
“The fact that there was no mention whatsoever of us, not even in the Latinx section of the curriculum or the Jewish section of the curriculum is offensive to me,” Maya said.
According to Jewish Student Union president, Evelyn Yaskin, other minority groups that “we don’t usually talk about in school” should be included: Palestinians, Middle Easterns and Asian groups.These groups are represented in the final draft of the model curriculum.
Jewish groups and the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies were concerned that there was no centralized definition for anti-Semitism in the first drafts.
ACES suggested that the model curriculum implement the International Holocaust Rememberance Association’s definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Having a central definition for anti-semitism would reduce the amounts of prejudice and increase understanding of oppression, according to ACES.
Lia Rensin, a MVLA parent, joined ACES due to her opposition to critical ethnic studies. Critical ethnic studies goes back to the third world liberation front and its focus on anti-imperialist and anti-colonist beliefs. It clearly defines races as privileged or oppressed, according to Rensin.
“What happens is that Jews are now part of the dominant culture, simply because of their skin. Our entire history is erased because we’ve been oppressed since the very beginning,” Rensin said. “Jews have been strong proponents of dismantling racism and we’ve been that way throughout history.”
Balch felt that a Caucasian Jew in a classroom would be put in a difficult position according to critical race theory: being placed as an oppressor for being white, yet forced to reconcile the history of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The theory as a whole, defining races as privileged or oppressed, is “itself a racist perspective,” according to Balch.
Critical ethnic studies also openly supports BDS, which Rensin said she sees as “taking out the nuances of a very complex struggle between two groups. In a constructive ethnic studies approach, both sides would be presented.”
MVLA’s curriculum is less centered on the debate about constructive and critical ethnic studies.
It is not a “paradigm of unit planning and curriculum...It is a broader political conversation,” Yick said. “We’re more focused on what students will connect to.”
As for Jews who have advocated for justice, Yick feels that they should be an important part of the MVLA curriculum. “Central to ethnic studies is looking at peaceful, non-violent civil rights struggles...there are important contributions of different allies including Jews, Asian-Americans and the Latinx community in tandem with African American civil rights leaders,” Yick said.
Besides the anti-Zionist issue, individuals were upset that resistors such as John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Elie Wiesel were excluded from the first draft of the curriculum due to their “passive and docile” means of resistance, according to the writers of the ESMC.
“[I] have great concern for the perversion of history that is being perpetrated by the ethnic studies model curriculum,” Dr. Clarence Jones, a speech writer and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., wrote. “I ask that the ESMC be rejected unless and until changes are made to correct these falsehoods and distortions.”
Instead of these civil rights leaders, Marxist and militant leaders were included, possibly drawing from the origins of ethnic studies from the third world liberation front, a group referenced multiple times in all drafts of the curriculum, including the current curriculum.
Yick emphasized the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. as “really foundational in guiding the civil rights movement.” In MVLA’s curriculum, she additionally wanted to make sure that Rosa Parks, high school students, college students, non-violent committees and notable figures (including Philipinos) in Chicano/a/x movement were not glossed over.
The ESMC’s lesson plans focus on four areas: Black/African American studies, Chicano/a studies, Native American studies and Asian American studies.
They have added lesson plans to include Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ethiopian and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as mentions of diversity: Black Jews, American Jews, Latino/a/x Jews and Native American Jews. The final draft also includes new lesson plans for Sikh Americans, Arab Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The BDS lesson was taken out from the curriculum in the second draft and remains omitted.
Antisemitism is one of the lesson plans in the final draft, and IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is included, in response to the advocacy from Jewish groups.
Los Angeles high school student Jaden Penhaskashi, who is an intern at StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization that has taken action against the model curriculum, believes that this comprehensive definition of anti-Semitism is necessary. A plain definition wouldn’t help individuals to know what prejudices to be aware of, said Penhaskashi, referencing anti-Semitic instances that he saw being brushed off as jokes.
The final draft references explicit anti-Semitic incidents historically, such as attacks from the KKK, anti-immigration tactics, Holocaust-surrounding prejudice and more recently, as targets of hate crimes as recent as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018.
In a section titled Reflections on Jewish American Identity, as of the third draft, notable and diverse American Jews are mentioned and quoted, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diane Feinstein, Asian-American rabbis and the often polarizing Julius Lester, who was seen as a race traitor and anti-Semitic (prior to his conversion).
Yaskin suggested Holocaust survivors and advocates from Jewish groups as role models in the curriculum.
The draft includes the statement that “light-skinned Jews simultaneously experience white privilege on the basis of their appearance and prejudice discrimination and systematic antisemitism on the basis of their Jewishness.” The draft notes that overt anti-Semitism is more likely if the individual is “visibily Jewish.” Jews of color experience both racism and anti-Semitism, according to the curriculum.
StandWithUs intern Aiden Moseley said he thinks that racial prejudice and anti-Semitism should be separate parts of the curriculum, with an area about Jews and an area about white people. He said he still thinks that Jews should not be only looked at as being “white and rich.”
Upon viewing changes in drafts, multiple organizations have withdrawn concerns, including the Jewish Caucus. The Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California called the third draft of the curriculum a “significant improvement” and was glad the lesson plans were included. The Israeli American Council also approved the third draft.
This curriculum is just a roadmap, however, and MVLA’s decisions will remain independent, with a heavy reliance on community feedback, according to Yick.