By Mark Powell
Gov. Gavin Newsom made the right decision when he vetoed Assembly Bill 331 that would have required all public high school students in California to take at least one semester of ethnic studies in order to graduate.
Approximately 33% of California’s 6.3 million students do not even meet the minimum state standards in math and English, and a whopping 72% of high school students did not meet standards on the California Science Test. So now is obviously not the right time to pile on another high school graduation requirement.
In fact, these school performance statistics are simply unacceptable. Educators need to refocus their efforts on the basics, especially with the possibility that thousands of California students will be measurably behind in school due to learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
When the academic impacts of a transition to remote learning caused by COVID-19 are taken into account, the average student could fall seven months behind academically. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for Black students and 9 months for Latinos, according to an analysis by consulting group McKinsey & Company.
We also know that many school districts will be strapped for cash in the near future, and many needed to borrow money to avoid budget cuts this year. It’s going to take a lot of money to implement a mandated ethnic studies curriculum, and that money could be better spent on programs and services to help bridge the achievement gap.
Differences in the performance on math, reading, and science tests between disadvantaged and advantaged students, also known as the achievement gap, have remained essentially unchanged for nearly 50 years—and that’s absolutely unacceptable. A new approach is needed now more than ever.
Implementing ethnic studies, before we even know what our schools will look like in the future, is premature and ill-advised. COVID-19 has changed our traditional model of public education forever, and parents realize that learning is no longer restricted to the classroom, so we need to take extra care when looking at new graduation and course requirements.
What we do know is that, from this point forward, school districts will need to offer students a distance-learning option, and should also provide distance learning training and IT support for parents so they can facilitate their children’s instruction. This hybrid school model may be what is needed to help bridge the achievement gap.
Adding on an additional graduation requirement at this time could prevent more students from receiving a high school diploma. Rather than rushing, an ethnic studies graduation requirement is something that needs to be experimented with sensibly, considering all aspects and outcomes, and parents must be involved every step of the way to make sure the curriculum and implementation are fair, just, and equitable.
Thanks to the hard work of the California Department of Education, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is headed in the right direction, but many groups are still being left out, and that is unacceptable. Ethnic studies has always focused on giving a voice to those who have historically been ignored, misunderstood, or marginalized, and without question African American, Latino American, Asian American, and Native American students deserve to have their stories better represented in our education system. However, on the issue of inclusion, the curriculum still needs improvement.
Making ethnic studies a mandated graduation requirement for public school students is not what is needed; rather, individual school districts need more local control to determine if they want to implement an ethnic studies course as a high school elective. Giving students, parents, teachers, and school administrators more authority over required courses is more crucial than ever, and it’s important that we get this right the first time.
Many generations of students are depending on us to provide an ethnic studies curriculum that will give voice to the voiceless, contribute to healing our racial and ethnic divisions, and uplift all communities in our state. I encourage parents, students, educators, and all concerned Californians to give the decision making power back to the local school districts so they can determine what curriculum is best for their students.
Local control of education is a concept that has become embedded in American culture. It is generally accepted that decisions about the education of students in a public school district should be made by those who are closest to the site and not politicians.
Mark Powell is a member of San Diego County Board of Education. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Board of Education or the San Diego County Office of Education.