Ethnic Studies Could Become a High School Requirement in California

By Marielena Castellanos

Participants in the Chicano Movement march in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Courtesy photo

An effort to engage students of color in the state’s high schools is underway with a newly proposed state bill to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement across the state.

Assemblymember Jose Medina from Riverside, who is a former high school teacher, along with five other state representatives including San Diego Assembly Member Shirley Weber introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 331 at the state Capitol at the end of last month.

If approved, the bill would require high school students to take an ethnic studies course beginning in the 2023-24 school year. The curriculum would be developed by the Instructional Quality Commission and would be modified or revised by the State Board of Education.

“Knowledge of our history plays a critical role in shaping who we become. When I was growing up, the history of those who look like me was not represented in the classroom. As a former Ethnic Studies teacher, I saw firsthand how much more engaged my students were when they saw themselves reflected in the coursework,” said Assembly Member Medina.

A similar bill, also introduced by Medina, was almost passed last year, but was vetoed by then Governor Jerry Brown.

Governor Brown said some school districts already required ethnic studies and that he was reluctant to implement another requirement in fear of overburdening high school students, as his reasons for opposing the bill.

The Mercury News reported last August that a pilot program was passed instead, allowing a small number of school districts to choose to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. The schools will apply for the program this year and are expected to report their findings in 2024.

Governor Brown did approve legislation back in 2016 to develop an ethnic studies curriculum for high schools in the state, but it is not a requirement.

Last year, students of color made over half of the state’s 6.2 million population enrolled in public schools. More than two million of those students speak a language other than English in their homes.

“At a time when the national climate drives divisiveness and fear of otherness, Ethnic Studies can play a critical role in increasing awareness and understanding,” Assemblymember Medina also said. He added, “California is one of the most diverse states in the country and we should celebrate that diversity by teaching a curriculum that is inclusive of all of our cultures and backgrounds.”

A recent review of research on ethnic studies programs and curricula commissioned by the National Education Association (NEA) stated ethnic studies grew from a desire to counterbalance both inaccuracies and the predominance of Euro-American perspectives that underlie mainstream curricula and also as a means to engage students of color.

The NEA’s research also found two studies that showed that lessons teaching about racism and successful challenges to it, improve racial attitudes among white children, allowing them to see how racism affects everybody and offering them a vision for addressing it.

Studies have also shown students enrolled in ethnic studies courses do better at school. One study showed attendance increased and grade point averages improved for students within the San Francisco Unified School District who took ethnic studies courses.

The San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in the state, began exploring ways to include ethnic studies courses in its classrooms back in 2015.

“I think that once it becomes a required policy, districts will take it more seriously. The reason why implementing ethnic studies in public schools has been a long and difficult battle is because it challenges the status quo. Ethnic Studies in order to be implemented with fidelity and to be successful is to be part of the main curriculum and not just an elective,” said Guillermo Gomez, a teacher with the San Diego Unified School District, who has been involved with efforts to implement ethnic studies courses in San Diego’s classrooms.