Civics advocates call for common ground in ethnic studies battles

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

A high school student listens to a presentation from his classmate.

Responding to acrimonious debates over history and politics nationwide and in California school boards, some of the state’s top civics advocates are urging schools to equip students with democratic principles and practices to counter the “growing anti-democratic forces that threaten the stability of our fragile republic.”

“Political extremists are calling for either whitewashing our country’s historic failures or focusing only on our country’s past and present shortcomings,” the statement from a new organization, Californians for Civic Learning, said. While schools may not be able to avoid “the uproar,” they can and should provide means “to navigate these dangerous tides,” the statement said.

The 10 signatories included Dave Gordon, Superintendent of Schools for Sacramento County; Bill Honig, former state superintendent of public education; Michelle Herczog, former president of the National Council on Social Studies, and two well-known principals, Michael Matsuda of the Anaheim Union High School District and Bob Nelson of Fresno Unified, the fourth largest district in the state. Californians for Civic Learning is a new, non-funded organization that relies on volunteers working to promote civic learning.

The three-page statement ends by calling on school boards, superintendents, school communities and businesses and civic organizations to support policies to teach civic education at every level with adequate instruction time and development. professional for teachers. The state currently requires students to take only one semester of a high school civics course.

The publication of the document to EdSource coincides with lively discussions at the local level about adopting ethnic studies curricula. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump continues to deny losing the 2020 presidential election, and his allies are repeating conspiracy theories and calling for bogus state recounts.

“What is happening is frightening, given the collapse of democracies around the world. People think (these scenarios) are impossible here, but they really aren’t, ”Gordon said.

After several projects that were extensively revised over two years, the State Board of Education in March adopted a compromise ethnic studies curriculum model that emphasizes black history, culture and oppression, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. He provided advice but left the content to be decided by local councils. So far in many districts this has not gone well. A course that the legislature intended to develop understanding and empathy among students of diverse backgrounds precipitated conflict among adults.

In politically conservative Ramona Unified in San Diego County, the school board adopted a civics course that promotes patriotism while tightly restricting what can be taught about racism.

In the progressive Bay Area district of Hayward, council broadly adopted the Liberated Ethnic Studies curriculum, the original and later rewritten outline of the state’s model curriculum. He has been widely condemned for his grim take on race relations, his leftist critique of capitalism, and his emphasis on white oppression and resistance movements against it.

The Californians for Civic Learning statement does not take sides; he criticizes both approaches while advocating the model curriculum adopted in ethnic studies.

“We reject the ideas of those who defend: the idea that America’s democratic ideals and institutions are irreparably corrupt; and ignoring the nation’s progress in becoming a more perfect union (admitting we still have a long way to go), ”it read.

Then he adds: “We reject the ideas of those who seek to: refuse to fight against persistent injustice and racism in the past and present; and pass dangerous laws and school policies prohibiting content that does not support their views.

Seeking a happy medium

Instead, the signatories call for common ground: “Students should learn when we have failed to live up to our ideals, such as slavery and discrimination, and the continued progress we are making.” to correct these ailments. The way to do this is through impartial instruction where students learn “to argue from facts and evidence without personal attack, while listening and understanding alternative points of view.”

Herczog said one of the motives for promoting civic education now is that superintendents, administrators and teachers find themselves “in the midst of culture wars.”

“We’re giving a perspective on what we believe in, ideas we don’t believe in to maybe help some of these educators, give them a blanket to say, ‘Hey, I’m not alone here. Here is another group that presents these ideas.

This perspective can come in handy in a place like Fresno, a purple region in a blue state that, Nelson said, “is at the intersection of a changing racial demographics and a changing political demographics where people are examining in depth their values ​​”.

“My honest feeling is that the most productive work that benefits children is somewhere between the extremes of the right and the left. So how do you teach children that sitting in your armed camp isn’t always the most productive use of your time because you alienate yourself from people who don’t see the world through your lens? ” he said.

“We have to create a counter-narrative that somewhere between multicultural education and critical race theory, there is something really good for kids where they see themselves in learning. That’s what ethnic studies are supposed to do, ”he said.

Manuel Rustin, who helped oversee the creation of the Model Ethnic Studies program as a member and current chair of the Education Quality Commission, said the Californians for Civic Learning statement was generally correct, but misrepresented the way some educators would have approached the subject of race.

“It certainly comes closer to the idea of ​​’middle ground’ than most have tried to express it. They stand up against whitewashed history and they encourage educators not to hesitate to teach the truth about racism, ”he said.

But the assertion by the statement that some educators “instill collective guilt in today’s children” and “believe that any identity is the only lens through which to see our history” lends credibility to the story. idea that this is actually happening, he said. Rustin, a high school history and ethnic studies teacher in Pasadena Unified, said he had never heard of an educator teaching this.

Honig, who also chaired the Education Quality Commission when the history and social studies framework was adopted in 2016, agreed that the practices are not widespread, but have taken place, and the statement cautions against this approach.

Tyrone Howard, professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, where he founded and directs the Black Male Institute, said he welcomed the strong voice of the new civic education organization, but amid incidents of violence and backlash against communities of color, he sought a stronger, bolder statement and a more diverse group of signatories.

Three times in the Californians for Civic Learning statement, the authors recommend using the California History-Social Science Framework as a guide to finding common ground and as “a useful tool in combating extremist pressure groups.”

The 2016 document not only provides a comprehensive level-by-level guide to what to teach in American history, but also how to help students develop the historical skills of critical thinking, independent inquiry, examination. from multiple perspectives and argumentation from evidence.. The state council, advising the Education Quality Commission on the drafting of the model ethnic studies curriculum, said it should “where appropriate be consistent with content and educational changes” in the framework of history and social studies.

Rustin and Honig, who contributed to the framework by chairing the Education Quality Commission, praised the document. The same goes for Dan Thalkar, professor of history and ethnic studies in the United States at Los Angeles Unified, who said that this complements the teaching of ethnic studies. But because there has not been regular funding to train teachers in the framework, it is “grossly underutilized,” he said. “I haven’t met a lot of other history teachers who have looked at him.”

More conflicts to come?

Like other districts, Fresno Unified is in the process of writing its own ethnic studies curriculum, and the committee responsible for writing it has struggled, as has the state’s Education Quality Commission. , with conflicting visions of what it should be, Nelson said.

Internal tensions in Fresno will soon recur throughout the state if, as expected, Gov. Gavin Newsom enacts Assembly Bill 101, drafted by Assembly Member Jose Medina, D-Riverside, demanding that all high school students take one semester of ethnic studies. studies. While not effective until the 2029-30 class, Newsom’s signing would free up $ 50 million in the 2021-2022 state budget for county education offices and districts develop their own program. That’s 10 times what Gordon, Herczog, Honig and others have asked the legislature to fund civic education – so far, to no avail.

Competition for funding could be intense. Advocates of the Model Liberated Ethnic Studies program include contributors to the much-criticized first draft of the State Model Program. They disowned the final version for watering down their vision and got a head start last summer to sell their version to teachers and districts. Now, competing versions are emerging, like FAIRstory, by the New York-based Foundation against Intolerance and Racism, whose advisers include authors John McWhorter and Andrew Sullivan, psychologist Steven Pinker and journalist Megyn Kelley. It promotes its “balanced” curriculum which teaches historical and contemporary racism while “presenting an honest and accurate view of our nation’s history while emphasizing constructive principles that inspire optimism for the American future. “.

Herczog’s advice is that the districts move slowly because the money will be available for several years. “Invest time now to lay the groundwork with your teachers” on how to conduct classroom conversations on controversial topics “without things blowing up,” she said. “Teachers are more and more nervous about doing this. Everything is a lightning rod right now.

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