OUSD Board of Education Supports California Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Including Arab American Studies, But May be Cut from State Curriculum

An image of a classroom.
A photo of a classroom via NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

UPDATE: On July 31, 2020, the State Department of Education (SDE) released a revised version of the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) that deleted Arab American Studies and Pacific Islander Studies.

On August 13, 2020, the state’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) will discuss the revised ESMC in a videoconference that anyone can view and participate in digitally. For information on how to join the meeting, go to: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/modelcurriculumprojects.asp. Details on how to make Public Comments (in writing, by email, or by phone) are included in this link. 

There is an effort underway to get the revised curriculum restored to some semblance of its original content. For information about this initiative, go to: http://www.savearabamericanstudies.org. Stay tuned for more information.

An image of a classroom.
A photo of a classroom via NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

At the heart of the current controversy around Ethnic Studies is Arab American studies, and in particular, teachings about Palestinian history. While the Oakland Unified School District’s board voted in late May in support of the California Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which includes Arab American studies, the state is now deciding whether to cut it out completely.

“Many of you are aware of the research around the effectiveness of Ethnic Studies, particularly a big study in San Francisco with 1,400 students, where they saw students who received Ethnic Studies in 9th grade went on to have higher attendance rates, higher GPA, and more credits earned,” Young Whan Choi, Manager of Performance Assessment for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), said, adding, “For those of us who have grown up in Ethnic Studies or experienced it ourselves, we can all testify to the importance of those experiences. I would not be who I am today without the experience of Ethnic Studies courses.”   

Choi spoke these words at an OUSD Board meeting in late May that lasted until 2 a.m. At this meeting, board directors were going to vote on whether to support the draft California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) as written, in the face of passionate support and dissent.

Choi added that the district has done a lot of work at the high school level with African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latinx studies, but there is still a lack of teaching of Pacific Islander and Arab American studies.  

“Consistently, it’s our Pacific Islander and Arab American students who have given us feedback that the curriculum is not reflecting their experience,” Choi said. “And we really have to take that to heart.” He acknowledged that it has been a challenge at the local level to develop that curriculum because it’s hard to access resources. “So, we are really relying on the state here to help us. A model curriculum would draw the kind of attention and, hopefully, the kinds of resources and networks that would allow us to address the needs of these students,” he said.

Choi also shared that, in 2017, the district surveyed hundreds of 9th graders who had taken an Ethnic Studies course. Arab American students most disagreed with the statement that these courses reflected their history and culture. 

As Shanti Gonzales, Vice President of the Board, said in an interview, the draft ESMC could help reflect the changing demographics of the district, due to the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. “We need to make space for these groups,” Gonzales said.

A logo that says "Save CA Ethnic Studies"
The Save CA Ethnic Studies coalition logo.

According to Gonzales, board directors received many emails about the board’s draft curriculum resolution, titled “1920-0246: Affirming Support of AB2016 California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft Created by Ethnic Studies Experts.” Gonzales said that she knew that the May 27 meeting would be a long one based on the volume of comments she had received—they were about evenly divided between those who supported the resolution and those who opposed it.  

History of California’s Draft ESMC

Ethnic Studies courses have typically been taught in colleges and universities, but they have also been taught in many high schools and some middle schools, including in some schools in OUSD. The draft model curriculum was designed to better reflect the student population in communities that K-12 schools serve in California. 

According to a January 2020 update from the CA State Department of Education (SDE), “The curriculum taught in our schools has not done enough to highlight and preserve the contributions of people of color and has actually minimized the importance of their role.” The update adds that the ESMC was developed to “encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together.” In the draft curriculum, there are four “foundational groups”: African American, Asian American, Chicana/o/x, and Native American. Arab American and Pacific Islander studies are subsumed under the Asian American foundational group and Central American studies are found in the Chicana/o/x foundational group.  

The draft ESMC was posted online in May 2019 and a public comment period lasted from mid-June to mid-August, 2019. Over 20,000 comments were received. Over 18,000 of these comments were critical of the draft curriculum because of its inclusion of a section on the plight of Palestinians at the hands of Israel and the related Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Palestinian Civil Society initiated over 15 years ago in an effort to bring international pressure on Israel to end its historical and ongoing oppression of Palestinians. 

Many of these comments also criticized the lack of inclusion of Jewish Americans, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism in the draft ESMC. (The  Holocaust and anti-Semitism are addressed in depth in California’s Model Curriculum for Human Rights and Genocide.)

Because of the massive public response to and criticism of the draft ESMC, the State Department of Education has backtracked on plans for the publication of the curriculum and is revising it. 

Why has there been so much interest in and impassioned response to the draft curriculum? Members of some groups, such as Pacific Islanders, Arab Americans, and Central Americans, are concerned that they will be excluded or removed from the ESMC curriculum when it is revised. In fact, the OUSD resolution includes a statement reflecting this concern. But, the issue that led to so much public response relates to Palestine and Israel. The draft includes a unit on teaching about the Nakba/Catastrophe, when approximately 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their historic lands when Israel was created after WWII and the Holocaust. 

A Short History of Palestine and Israel  

After WWI, Palestine, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, was handed over to Britain under a League of Nations mandate. In the late 1930s and after WWII, major powers, including Britain and the U.S., strictly limited the number of Jewish refugees who were allowed to enter their countries, despite the actions of the German government under Hitler.

Since the late 1880s, European Jewish Zionists urged Jews to move to Palestine and this effort gained strength in the post-WWII years. Despite the often-cited phrase that Israel was created on “a land without a people for a people without a land,” Israel was actually created from a land in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lived. This is a phrase that had its origins in British Christian Zionism in the mid-1840s, which believed that the second coming of Christ required that Jews return to the Holy Land and convert to Christianity (or die, if they didn’t). Today, Christian Zionists in the U.S. are amongst the strongest supporters of Israel. 

In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Jews (the creation of the state of Israel) and one for Palestinians. As Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, pointed out in his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Jewish European colonizers received more than half the land, despite the fact that Palestinians were by far the largest population. Not surprisingly, Palestinians and neighboring Arab states did not agree to this plan and, even before Israel was established in 1948, war broke out. In this war, almost 800,000 Palestinians were violently expelled from their homes and became refugees.  Many were killed when they resisted removal. Whereas Israel and its supporters call the 1948 war the War of Independence, Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba/Catastrophe.

Over 70 years later, there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees, many still living in camps. Israel has not allowed Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, in contravention of international law and the right of return of refugees. Today, it is not unusual to hear Palestinians say, “We didn’t cause the Holocaust, but we’ve been made to suffer for it.” 

Between 1948 and 1967, there were several wars between Israel and surrounding Arab countries and in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights. Israel continues to hold control over these lands, often with great military force. Israel has also established permanent Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, in contravention of international humanitarian law, which states that occupying forces may not permanently relocate their own civilians in an occupied land.  

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has a short, animated film explaining the historical context of today’s Palestine/Israel conflict

It is the 73-year history of Palestine/Israel that many supporters of the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum wish to see retained in the revised version and pro-Israel critics of the curriculum wish to see removed.

Since 1967, the U.S. has provided enormous financial and political support to Israel. For example, in fiscal year 2019, the U.S. provided $3.8 billion in foreign military aid to Israel and pledged $38 billion between 2019 and 2028. Israel, which has the fourth most powerful military in the world, also benefits from U.S. loan guarantees. In contrast, the U.S. promised $75 million in humanitarian aid to programs in the West Bank and Gaza, but the Trump administration has refused to release these funds. The U.S. has also held up payment of approximately $300 million in aid to Palestinian refugees through UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) 

What Did OUSD Board Meeting Virtual Attendees Say about the Resolution?

It was late in the evening, 12:35 a.m., when the public had an opportunity to speak about the resolution. Although over 100 people had signed up to speak during Public Comments, only about 30 people were able to, despite the board agreeing to extend the Public Comments time a couple of times. Speakers included students, community members, and representatives of organizations from both within and outside Oakland. Each speaker had one minute.  

People who opposed the resolution, such as 17-year-old Jonah, said that they endorsed Ethnic Studies, but not this draft curriculum. “It spends an outrageous amount of time bashing the only Jewish state in existence,” he said, adding, “If this resolution passes, my Jewish friends and I are likely to feel ostracized, marginalized, and scared to speak out in class.” Other speakers expressed opposition to the inclusion of Palestinian perspectives, including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, 

During Public Comments, all but a handful were in support of the draft. Speakers who spoke in support of the draft curriculum came from many backgrounds and included Jews and Arab Americans. “As a long-time resident of Oakland and a member of the city’s Arab and Palestinian community, I urge you to stand in support of Ethnic Studies and adopt this resolution. Our community has continually come under attack by voices that drum up fear and xenophobia, often based on misinformation. And I believe that this is the case today. It is truly unfortunate that our culture, our history, our desire for dignity must once again endure censorship and erasure. I urge you to adopt this resolution tonight,” said one of the speakers, Mohamed Shehk.  

What Now?

When asked if teachers will be able to use the draft curriculum now that the school board has voted to approve it, Gonzales said, “The state adopts a curriculum and some teachers use it and some teachers don’t. So long as they address the (state) standards, teachers have the option to design any units.” That is, state curricula are not required, but are available for teachers to use, which will be the case in OUSD with the draft ESMC.  

If teachers aren’t mandated to teach a given curriculum, why has there been such an uproar over the ESMC? Many oppose the draft model curriculum because it addresses the negative impact of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 on Palestine and Palestinians, including up to today. 

Many supporters of the draft curriculum comment on the importance of all students seeing their own histories and cultures. “Arab youth are feeling targeted and silenced,” said Jody Sokolower, a former social studies teacher and currently program coordinator of “Teach Palestine” at the Middle East Children Alliance’s (MECA). “And the histories of their home countries and their experiences in the U.S. rarely appear in the curriculum or in the classroom,” she added.

Whereas many supporters of Israel have asked that the draft curriculum remove references to Palestinians and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, there are also many people and groups who support the ESMC as it stands and do not wish it to be watered down. 

“At a time when Arab Americans are facing increased Islamophobia from the Trump administration, I applaud OUSD for taking the initiative to lend its voice in support of the CA Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft,” wrote Lara Kiswani, Oakland resident and director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), to the OUSD school board. “It is unconscionable that outside interest groups are trying to remove Arab American studies from CA schools. The Arab American experience, including the struggle for social justice in Palestine, is essential to the advancement of Ethnic Studies and its mission to ‘prepare students for an international, multicultural world.’” 

A coalition of organizations, including AROC and JVP, have issued a call in support of the draft curriculum.

Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway has lived in Oakland for over 35 years. She is a long-term educator — a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education.


  1. Your ‘Short History of Palestine and Israel’ is biased and inaccurate, to say the least. Read ‘From Time Immemorial ‘ by Joan Peters for an accurate history of the area known as Palestine.

  2. The recently released Kairos Palestine statement by major Christian leaders under the Occupation, would certainly affirm the upholding of human rights for Californian Muslims and all Arabs!
    Anti-semitism is a great evil; so is the devious misuse of the label to wrongly silence those speaking out against the massive, daily (and nightly!) assaults and dispossession foisted on indigenous Palestinians! This travesty must cease!

  3. It’s hard to understand how an Ethnic Studies Curriculum based on Truth is controversial. I understand that it can be embarrassing, accusatory, or indicting to the “powers that be,” like it has been with the removal of the confederate statues and monuments. But hanging onto falsehood with all our might does not make them true. We must teach truth before reconciliation, healing and policy changes can happen. Great article!

  4. Kudos to Ms. Samway for outstanding journalism, in the presentation of often suppressed realities. Indeed, if teachers are not forced to follow ESMC guidelines, why is there such a rush to condemn the suppressed stories of maligned and oppressed minorities? Thanks to Ms. Samway for an eye-opening report!

  5. Thank you Katharine Davies Samway for this great article about the importance of schools to teach and foster a culture of coexistence and respect for all ethnic groups, including Arab and Palestinian .History and culture.

  6. I comment Katharine Davies Samway for such an in-depth article on this crucial issue re: ESMC and the need to include Palestinian representation in the ways expressed here. This is an enlightening article on many levels. So well written, compassionate, intelligent and offering ways for the community and public at large to know details we cannot find anywhere else. May the outcome be as she hopes.

  7. Great article. A thorough study of the controversy concerning the ethnic studies curriculum.

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