Proposed Ethnic Studies Curriculum in Massachusetts Sparks Controversy

Summary

Massachusetts teachers unions along with various ethnic and racial organizations are advocating for an Ethnic Studies curriculum in public schools similar to what now exists in California. The bill raises concern about the potential spread of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish content in our schools. The first state mandated Ethnic Studies curriculum in California was embroiled in controversy due to the inclusion of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocacy against Israel and the insertion of antisemitic tropes, while denying that antisemitism existed. The inclusion of anti-Israel advocacy in the first draft of the California curriculum reflects the unfortunate reality that the Ethnic Studies discipline is riddled with anti-Israel activism. At least one of the educators involved in promoting the anti-Jewish curricula in California is now involved in the Massachusetts effort.

The best deterrent to antisemitic seepage into the curriculum is to ensure the participation of scholars and not academic political activists and to seek input from mainstream representatives of featured ethnic groups. The Standards Revision Committee proposed in the original Ethnic Studies Bill failed to designate any recognized historian of American ethnic groups as a potential member.  The Bill also failed to underscore the need to survey members of the ethnic groups it would want to emphasize in Massachusetts about the social or political organizations that members of these ethnic groups think best reflect their views and traditions.  Such a survey should be completed before members of a Revision Committee are chosen.

Massachusetts needs to procede cautiously and not succumb to pressure to mix trendy political activism with carefully developed academic content. Massachusetts students have consistently outperformed the rest of the nation since its 2003 State Standards were implemented.  This success reflects the quality of the 2003 standards.  Already, a revised version of the standards published in 2018 compromised the 2003 standards by altering carefully devised content in response to political pressure.  

It is important to recognize that changes to the existing curriculum come at a cost; any addition of new elements into the curriculum requires subtracting existing content. 

Introduction

On February 2, Massachusetts released proposed education bills from the State Senate and State House of Representatives Joint Committee on Education. Among the proposals under consideration was S365/H584, which recommended establishing an oversight committee and funding for an Ethnic Studies Curriculum in the state’s public schools (the dual designation reflects the Senate and House versions of the same bill). While the language of the bill was removed shortly afterwards, pressure for an Ethnic Studies curriculum will continue.  The full text of the original bill can be found here.

The proposal advocated for an Ethnic Studies curriculum distinct from lessons already taught as part of the existing history and social studies curricula. As the bill’s original language indicates, this is a relatively new notion, fueled by recent social unrest and associated political agitation.

Such a curriculum is especially worrisome for those concerned about the spread of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish content in our schools. It comes in the wake of the nationally reported controversy over the inclusion of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocacy against Israel in California’s state mandated ethnic studies curriculum. That curriculum, the first such in the nation, was rife with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel content. The curriculum was revised and improved after citizens had been alerted to the problem and sent thousands of complaints to California’s Department of Education and the resulting publicity prompted politicians, including the governor, to join in the criticism.
 
The authors of the initial anti-Israel curriculum were incensed at the education department’s rejection of their version and undeterred in seeking to peddle it to school districts. They have successfully introduced into multiple school districts all or parts of the original anti-Israel curriculum.
 
There is potential for a similar situation to emerge in Massachusetts. The language of the proposed bill raised concerns about injecting contentious politics into classrooms. Of particular concern was the involvement in the Massachusetts ethnic studies process of at least one individual who is associated with the anti-Israel version in California.
 
The Massachusetts ethnic studies curriculum is currently being piloted in five Boston public schools, but the materials, books, handouts, films and lesson plans are not available publicly. The lack of transparency is worrisome.
 
The proposed Ethnic Studies Curriculum is likely to be unsound educationally given the precedent set by the California model and the paucity of studies demonstrating measurable benefit to students. The few studies cited by ethnic studies endorsers claiming to show benefit have been roundly criticized for employing flawed methodology and for drawing firm conclusions from limited data. A recent Boston Globe Magazine article touted one of these flawed studies without giving any indication of the limited conclusions admitted even by the authors of the study.

The accepted process for adopting new curricula allows for public scrutiny and comment

If Massachusetts were to adopt such a curriculum, it would be only the second state in America after California to do so. It is important to acknowledge the ongoing controversy in California with such a curriculum, including criticism even from teachers and parents from those groups that would supposedly receive more attention in the curriculum.  The process has been divisive and costly and has greatly exacerbated tensions for the Jewish community.

The haste and pressure to add ethnic studies to K-12 education runs counter to the usual deliberative process for revising public school curricula. Any addition of a major (and controversial) curriculum should be assessed according to measurable education standards and evidence of its benefit to students. The public needs to see this information and have an opportunity to comment as has been the accepted process for many years. In California, the curriculum was sprung on the public without the chance to evaluate it ahead of time. Massachusetts should avoid tampering with public school education that has not been subject to full and open public scrutiny.

The existing Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Framework already pays ample attention to slavery and the experience of minorities

The Massachusetts History and Social Studies Learning Standards from 2003 provided substantial coverage of slavery and the experiences of racial, religious and ethnic minorities in America. Nevertheless, these standards were revised in 2018 to increase the emphasis on both African Americans and women. This elicited criticism from the National Association of Scholars that “the 2018 Revision eliminates the standards-based and curricular linkage to the already developed Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test for U.S. history, while substituting meaningless expectations for each grade.”

Nevertheless, it is evident from the Massachusetts Department of Education website that there already is in place mechanisms to address current themes of racism and cultural responsiveness. A top heading on the website goes to a section on Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading and new supplementary material contains numerous examples from racial and ethnic minorities.

A review of the history standards reveals that topics of slavery and the contributions of African Americans to American culture and politics receive such substantial coverage that it has comes at the expense of illuminating the contributions of other groups like Irish Americans, Italian Americans and Jewish Americans. Standards developers were intent on demonstrating responsiveness to current public sentiments. The revisions raise concern that there is now insufficient emphasis on those elements essential to illuminating the American creed as stated in the 2018 Revised Standards and reproduced here:

 

“Our cultural heritage as Americans is as diverse as we are, with multiple sources of vitality and pride. But our political heritage is one—the vision of a common life in liberty, justice, and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (more than) two centuries ago.
 

The original proposal threatened to further disconnect Massachusetts curricula with the states own stated educational goals. As originally embodied in S365/H584, the new curriculum proposal was vague and open-ended. It was not a multicultural celebration of the backgrounds of all who have joined and enriched the American people and nation, affirming the motto “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many one. Instead, it invited into our schools those whose purpose is to inculcate children with the prevailing doctrine in contemporary Ethnic Studies which does not align with the traditional goals of American education. It promoted division, resentment and difference by insisting that individuals should view the world through the prism of their racial group identity – as oppressor or oppressed. This is not consistent with the American ethos of individual freedom and opportunity and it is in opposition to the goals of Massachusetts education.

Why tamper with a curriculum that since 2003 has put Massachusetts students at the top nationwide?

Massachusetts has a long and proud history in public education. In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature initiated reforms to improve Massachusetts schools through the Massachusetts Education Reform Act.  At the end of 1995, John Silber, former President of Boston University, was appointed chair of the State Board of Education and was tasked with completing the state’s standards.  In 1996, Sandra Stotsky was hired to serve as co-chair of the committee to develop the state’s first English and Language Arts standards.  In April 1999, serving as Senior Associate Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education, Stotsky assumed responsibility for developing K-12 standards in the major subjects as well devising teacher licensing regulations.   These efforts came to fruition in 2003, with new State curriculum standards in English-Language Arts, Math and Social Studies/History. 

Since the 2003 standards were implemented, Massachusetts has boasted the top performing public school system in the nation in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing.  Notably, Black and Hispanic students were narrowing the achievement gap with White and Asian students. This is in large part because the state was committed to instituting rigorous curriculum standards at all grades and held schools accountable through MCAS exams. The 2003 curriculum was carefully devised and there should be considerable caution in further tampering with such success.

Ethnic Studies curricula have no track record of quality scholarship and benefit to children

Existing Ethnic Studies curricula (such as California’s) are not academically sound.  Advocates of such curricula point to just a few studies to bolster their claims. These studies have been criticized for utilizing flawed methodology and drawing conclusions from too limited data.

Furthermore, the language used by ethnic studies academics and advocates makes clear that their goals are political rather than for sound educational purposes. This is implicit in the hyper-political language of the original S365/H584 bill (see the wording of the bill below, following this article) read out of committee on Feb. 2, 2022.

Notably missing from the proposed Standard Revision Committee were any historians of America’s ethnic history. This gap is especially puzzling in light of the scholarship in this field that came out of Harvard University.  The Committee should include reputable historians, such as one of the many contributors/writers to the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin.

Ethnic Studies as a stand-alone subject is dominated by adherents of Critical Race Theory, a subset of Critical Theory pedagogy. Advocates of Ethnic Studies Curricula emphasize racial differences and promote oppressor versus oppressed narratives that set schoolchildren against each other and give rise to negative sentiments that are detrimental to achieving longstanding educational goals. An environment infused with such an ideology is likely to be inhospitable to Massachusetts’ Jewish students.

Anti-Israel Indoctrination

The proponents of the anti-Israel version of the California curriculum now identify their curriculum as the Liberated Ethnic Studies curriculum. It depicts Zionism – the national liberation movement of the Jewish people – as a form of racist oppression and invokes various anti-Jewish stereotypes. In its glossary, meant to be comprehensive, it failed to even include antisemitism. But the glossary did find room for a lengthy and favorable description of the BDS movement, concealing from students that BDS calls for the elimination of the Jewish state.

For the Jewish community and others wary of political agendas in education, what is most disturbing is that many of the proponents of the ethnic studies curricula are advocates of BDS. The first draft of the California curriculum included unabashed anti-Israel advocacy and several instances of antisemitic tropes, while denying the existence of antisemitism. If the frameworks recommended by the original bill are adopted in any new or revised bill, we are likely to encounter similar contamination of the curriculum. It’s apparent already that one of the consultants to the Massachusetts curriculum is closely associated with the radical curriculum in California.

Conclusion

Massachusetts educators have gone to great lengths to handle with sensitivity the historic plight of America’s minorities, with a particular emphasis on the experiences and contributions of African Americans.  Especially in light of the recent documented setbacks to children’s education, the proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum, with its susceptibility to anti-Israel and antisemitic content, has no place in Massachusetts education.

 

The following articles are helpful for understanding the issue:

It’s Ethnic Studies ‘Ground Hog Day’ This Time in Massachusetts

Castro Valley school board approves contract with ‘liberated’ ethnic studies group
 
Why No One Should Accept a “Critical Ethnic Studies” Curriculum. Least of All, Jews
 
Ethnic studies department slams president for welcoming ‘Zionists’ to campus

 

Proposed Massachusetts Senate Bill S365  (The language of the bill has since been removed, however, political pressure to implement an Ethnic Studies Curriculum in Massachusetts public schools remains.)

Whereas, the events of 2020 including the Covid-19 Pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have elucidated the emergent nature of the social, economic and health disparities caused by racial inequity, including but not limited to: police brutality, profiling and murders of Black and brown people, anti-Asian violence, vast inequity in health care access and job safety during the pandemic – and the ensuing unnecessary deaths. Whereas the insurrection of January 6, 2021 revealed the imminent danger posed by rampant disinformation and white supremacy to the safety and integrity of our nation. Whereas racial educational disparities and white-centric history have fostered lies, systemic inequality and outright violence, it is in the best interest of the Commonwealth that education in dismantling racism be taught to all students, that teachers and school counselors be trained in pedagogy and practices that uplift students of all ethnicities and backgrounds, that truth and reconciliation regarding slavery, genocide, land theft and systemic racism is centered, that students of color and students from immigrant and indigenous communities may find their rightful place reflected in the history they learn, and that all Massachusetts students are given the chance to develop into informed, engaged members of society.

SECTION 1. Chapter 29 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 2FFFFF the following section:-

Section 2GGGGG. (a) There shall be established and set up on the books of the Commonwealth a separate fund to be known as the Anti-Racism and Equity in Education Trust Fund. The fund shall be administered by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education through consultation and recommendation by the Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education. The fund shall be credited with: (i) revenue from appropriations or other money authorized by the general court and specifically designated to be credited to the fund; (ii) interest earned on such revenues; and (iii) funds from public and private) sources such as gifts, grants and donations to further civics and history education and professional development. Amounts credited to the fund shall not be subject to further appropriation and any money remaining in the fund at the end of a fiscal year shall not revert to the General Fund. No expenditure made from the fund shall cause the fund to become deficient at any point.

SECTION 2. Chapter 69 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 1Q the following section:-

Section 1R.  (a) There shall be a Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education which shall consist      of the following members: 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association; 1 member appointed by the American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts; 1 member appointed by the Boston Teachers Union; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs; 1 member appointed by the the Collaborative of Asian American, Native American, Latino and African American Institutes of the University of Massachusetts Boston; 1 member appointed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; 1 member appointed by the North American Indian Center of Boston; 1 member appointed by the NAACP, Boston Branch; 1 member appointed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Community Action Network; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance; 1 member appointed by the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth; 1 member appointed by the Cape Verdean Association of Boston;1 member appointed by the Asian American Commission; and 1 member appointed by the Parents Union of Massachusetts.                                                                                                          

(b) The Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education shall work with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in identifying, analyzing and making recommendations to:

(i) Develop curriculum materials with a social justice perspective of dismantling racism and to advise the department on improving the history and social sciences framework.

(ii) Ensure that ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history, and unlearning racism is taught at all grade levels using a critical approach and pedagogy that is age-appropriate. 

(iii) Advise the department on ways to ensure equity in the Massachusetts Test for Education Licensure; and   

(iv) Ensure that teachers and school counselors have access to professional development that fosters equitable, inclusive curriculum and pedagogy and practices that support racial justice.

(c) The Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education shall advise the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on how best to support and promote efforts to increase, support and retain teachers and school counselors of color in our public school workforce.

(d)  There shall be a Anti-Racism and Equity in Education grant program developed and administered by the Commissioner in collaboration with the Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education for all public schools and school districts to promote racial equity and racial and ethnic studies within and across school districts. The Commissioner, working with the Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education, may expend funds from the Anti-Racism and Equity in Education Trust Fund, hereinafter the trust fund, established in section 2GGGGG of chapter 29 for these grant programs and allocations. All grant applications shall include: (i) a statement of the prospective curriculum or program and the expected impact; (ii) a preliminary estimate of the cost; and (iii) a mechanism for determining how the proposal may be effectively replicated.

The Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education and the Commissioner shall, from time to time, review and make recommendations on the improvement of the design, oversight or implementation of the grant program.

The Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education may receive and consider reports and input from expert individuals, educators, school administrators, school counselors, parents, community-based organizations, voluntary education organizations and other relevant public and private organizations recognized as having expertise consistent with this section.

The Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education may facilitate funds and other resources to districts, universities, and community groups. Programs eligible for these grants would require funds for work in these categories: (i) professional development training; (ii) for the review of current curricula and standards through a lens of dismantling racism; (iii) for the development of educational materials; (iv) for the collaboration with institutions of higher education and other stakeholder organizations; and (v) to ensure that every public school and school district has the opportunity to apply for grants.

(e)  Public schools and school districts awarded funds pursuant to this section shall work with the Commissioner and the Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education to: 

(I) analyze the effectiveness of their initiatives; 

(ii) analyze the social studies and history curricula and framework through a lens of racial justice; and 

(iii) amend the social studies and history curricula and framework.

(f)  Money in the trust fund may be used to support the replication of effective practices and the dissemination of best practices generated through the competitive grant program.

(h)  Annually, not later than December 1, the Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education and the Commissioner shall report to the clerks of the house of representatives and senate, the joint committee on education and the house and senate committees on ways and means on the fund’s activity. The report shall include, but not be limited to: (i) the source and amount of funds received; (ii) the amounts distributed and the purpose of expenditures from the fund, including but not limited to, funds expended to assist school districts in meeting the requirements in this section; and (iii) anticipated revenue and expenditure projections for the following year.