Whose History? Our History! California’s Ethnic Studies Requirements

MYLES CRANDALL—1968 was a year of protest and innovation. Coalitions in California, led by students of color, organized with demands including admitting more students of color to colleges, hiring more diverse faculties, and funding scholarly programs centered on the contributions and needs of minority communities. Following months of protests, San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley created ethnic studies programs.

Over fifty years later, racial justice protesters in 2020 prompted California legislators and Governor Newsom to enact Assembly Bill (AB) 1460. This legislation requires students at all California State University campuses, the largest university system in the nation, take at least one 3-unit course in ethnic studies to graduate. The law takes full effect for students graduating from college in the 2024–25 academic year. Shirley Weber authored the original bill. Weber stated that racial justice protests “demonstrate the necessity of understanding the experiences and perspectives of these historically marginalized and oppressed groups who have nonetheless contributed to the building of our county.”

No singular definition exists, but broadly, ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and culture grounded in the experiences and perspectives of people of color. Thus, ethnic studies courses utilize history, literature, philosophy, math, science, and the arts through “scholarship created by people of color and about people of color.” Many U.S. courses emphasize at least one of four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Latino/a/x Americans. California’s AB 1460 §1(b) recognizes these four groups in its definition of ethnic studies.

California Assembly Bill (AB) 101 will require public high school students to take a one semester ethnic studies course to graduate. Governor Newsom signed the bill into law on October 8, 2021. The new law amended the California Education Code by adding ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement and providing four different methods for schools to satisfy the requirement. This law will take full effect for the high school class of 2029–30.

What will students learn in ethnic studies courses? In March 2021, the California State Board of Education approved a statewide ethnic studies model for educators. The model is not mandated. Under AB 101, schools can locally develop their courses and plan. This ensures, as is generally the case in school systems, that curriculum and instruction will vary widely. There are concerns that some schools may dilute or misrepresent ethnic studies material. However, flexibility is critical to effective ethnic studies education. Teachers and community members craft curricula that is culturally responsive to students. This implements academic tools to assess and understand local issues before students take action to address community needs. A uniform curriculum would fail to serve the diverse cultures, histories, challenges, and opportunities across the state.

The new law draws on success from prior experimentation. In 2010, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) passed a resolution creating a pilot program for ninth grade students at five high schools. Five themes guided the courses: love and respect, hope, community, solidarity, and self-determination. The courses utilized culturally relevant pedagogy to engage with students who felt marginalized, or ignored, by traditional curricula. The courses relied on people from multiple racial and ethnic groups to examine history and politics. Classes encouraged students to explore their individual identities. Students designed and implemented a service-learning project in their community. Researchers at Stanford University found that these courses increased student attendance, grade point average, credits earned, graduation rates, and college enrollment.

California is the first state to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. California is the most populous state in the country with over 39.5 million residents. In 2020–21, California public high schools (grades 9–12) enrolled over 1.9 million students. Less than one-quarter of California public high school students identify as white. Education decisions in California impact research and the creation of education materials. However, students in different states learn different versions of history as textbooks are altered to meet different states’ standards.

California’s new law contrasts with efforts in over twenty-five states to restrict education on racism, bias, and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history. On June 10, 2021, Florida’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to ban lessons from mentioning critical race theory (CRT) or using The New York Times’ 1619 Project in public schools. Some critics of these new restrictions view them as politicizing racial justice, mischaracterizing CRT, which is generally not taught in K-12 education, and pushing educators out of the profession.

This is all happening a decade after Arizona lawmakers passed HB 2281, which targeted the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson High School. The bill threatened to pull funding from schools with ethnic studies classes. In 2017, U.S. District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima issued a permanent injunction banning enforcement of the law. Judge Tashima held that Arizona’s law was motivated by racial discrimination and violated students’ constitutional rights. On July 9, 2021, Arizona Governor Ducey signed legislation prohibiting instruction about unconscious bias or responsibility for historic acts of racism. Teachers who violate Arizona’s new law can lose their teaching certification and schools can be fined for noncompliance.

Meanwhile, other states have joined California in encouraging students to grapple with race and diversity. In December 2020, Connecticut enacted a requirement that all high schools offer African American Studies and Latino Studies starting in 2022. In June 2021, Maine passed a law requiring integration of African American history in U.S. and state history courses. Oregon predated these efforts in 2017, when Governor Brown signed a law to develop ethnic studies standards and incorporate them into existing state social-studies standards.

America’s public-school systems are diverse and multicultural. Yet, many high school courses remain centered on Europeans and white American men. By mandating ethnic studies courses, California is investing in relevant and inclusive curricula. This legislation heeds the calls of educators, former students, and current students for an education that represents and empowers all of us.