State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond will recommend that the curriculum “highlight the contributions of Jewish Americans.” (Photo/Flickr-Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond will recommend that the curriculum “highlight the contributions of Jewish Americans.” (Photo/Flickr-Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ethnic studies curriculum needs ‘substantial’ revisions, officials say

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Following public outcry from Jewish groups and sharp criticism in the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets, California education officials are distancing themselves from a draft curriculum for a high school course in ethnic studies and pledging it will see “substantial” revisions before final approval.

In a statement released Monday, officials with the State Board of Education said the model curriculum, developed under the supervision of an 18-member state advisory committee and released for public comment in June, “falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”

The Board of Education, which sets statewide academic standards, has final authority over the model curriculum.

“Ethnic studies can be an important tool to improve school climate and increase our understanding of one another,” read the statement from board president Linda Darling-Hammond, vice president Ilene Straus and board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon. “A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all.”

A 2016 law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown mandated the development of an ethnic studies curriculum for high school students. Public schools would be encouraged but not required to implement it.

UC Berkeley defines ethnic studies as the “critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color.” The discipline has been shown to improve grades for disadvantaged students.

Following the public release of the more than 300-page draft model, Jewish groups unleashed an avalanche of criticism. Lawmakers with the California Legislative Jewish Caucus said the curriculum reflects an “anti-Jewish bias,” does not meaningfully address anti-Semitism, is sharply critical of Israel, is supportive of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and seems to use an anti-Semitic trope with the inclusion of a rap lyric that supporters of Israel “use the press so they can manufacture.”

Concerns specific to the Jewish community were addressed in a statement released on Tuesday by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who also scheduled a press conference for Wednesday, Aug. 14 at the California Department of Education in Sacramento. Sen. Ben Allen, chair of the Jewish caucus, is expected to attend.

At the press conference, the superintendent will discuss the ethnic studies curriculum draft “and possible amendments to the draft that will better reflect the contributions of Jewish Americans and address anti-Semitism,” according to his statement.

As the administrator overseeing the California Department of Education, a body independent of the board, Thurmond does not have direct authority over curriculum but can make recommendations.

In an interview with J. on Tuesday afternoon, Thurmond, a former East Bay Assembly member who was elected superintendent last November, said his agency would be offering strong recommendations to the Instructional Quality Commission, which is responsible for making amendments to the draft.

“You can bet that our staff is making all kinds of recommendations to the IQC,” he said.

Thurmond said his office would recommend that the curriculum “highlight the contributions of Jewish Americans,” particularly in “the struggle for justice and for civil rights and human rights.”

“We also understand that historically, there have been high levels of anti-Semitism. And there are currently, as well,” he said.

In the interview, Thurmond also shared concerns about how the draft addresses the topic of Israel. In a proposed course on Arab American studies, for example, the creation of the State of Israel is referred to as the “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” without any background information about the creation of the Jewish state. The 1948 War of Independence, as it’s known to Israelis and many American Jews, is referred to in the draft as the 1948 Palestine War.

BDS, a controversial effort to marginalize Israel, modeled after the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, is included in a course glossary and offered as a social movement for study, along with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

After J. explained the definition of the term “Nakba” to Thurmond, the superintendent said he was drawing a large circle around the word.

“I want you to know that as we’re talking, I’m circling that on my draft right now,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, there should be no reference to the creation of anyone’s homeland as being catastrophic. There’s no place for that in public education.”

He said his recommendations would seek to imbue even-handedness into the Israel discussion.

“There are references that appear to be critical of Israel without also providing positive statements about Israel,” Thurmond said.

“On that point, I’d like to be really clear. The Department of Education is making several recommendations to the IQC that we believe would provide greater balance to this entire curriculum.”

Public comment on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is open until Aug. 15. Instructions for submitting a comment can be found here. The Instructional Quality Commission is scheduled to revise the draft, based on input, on Sept. 19 and 20. By law, the State Board of Education’s deadline for adopting the curriculum is March 31.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.