By Eunice Namkoong, Policy Fellow
On Monday, September 27, the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE) hosted a panel discussion called “Connecting Across Lines of Difference”. Currently, the D.C. Social Studies Standards are being revised to ensure they are culturally responsive, anti-racist, impart important social studies content in the early grades, strengthen student knowledge of democratic principles and values, and promote civic engagement.
The purpose of the panel was to hear, discuss, and gain insight from academics and social justice advocates on practical advice for introducing students to a wider range of cultures and perspectives and propelling themselves and their peers to be reflected in the social studies standards and curriculum. The idea to host a panel discussion grew out of anti-Asian rhetoric related to the Coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as recent developments in California, Virginia, Illinois, and Texas around establishing ethnic studies state guidelines, reviewing and revising curriculum, and engaging students.
The panel was moderated by Ward 2 Representative Allister Chang and featured the following panelists who provided insights, guidance, and practical advice:
- Dr. Ravi Perry, Howard University
- Catherine Shieh, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
- Dr. Thomas Dee, Stanford University
- Dr. Sade Bonilla, University of Massachusetts Amherst
You can watch a recording of the panel on the State Board of Education’s website here [link recording].
Defining and Establishing Importance of Ethnic Studies
The panel discussion opened with a conversation on how to prepare students to understand difference—and on how ethnic studies is actually defined.
Both Dr. Perry and Dr. Dee defined ethnic studies to be the study of non-white people populations, histories, and cultures with a strong emphasis on critically engaging students in those theories and histories that center populations that have been historically marginalized.
“We start with the person. That is why there is an emphasis on who is taught and who is centered,” stated Dr. Bonilla. She further highlighted that ethnic studies centers on studying identity to understand the context of prejudice around society.
On the other hand, Shieh took a different perspective as she explained that her experience as a practitioner revealed to her that we have been asking the wrong questions regarding ethnic studies. “There sounds like it’s [ethnics studies] a lot about understanding and knowing…but ethnic studies is about how much does it spur people into action,” stated Shieh.
Shieh discussed the importance of being aware of the nuances in the questions we ask, which ultimately can affect how we convert thought into action. “We should be asking questions like why do we study certain people? How are people affected by our political, social, and economic systems? And how much do we want to dismantle the systems, disparities, and privileges?” stated Shieh.
Decision-making Processes for Creation of Standards
In February 2021, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) launched the D.C. Social Studies Standards Technical Writing Committee. The Technical Writing Committee has been charged with reviewing and revising the social studies standards and will submit a revised draft to the State Board in November 2021.
When asked about the revision process, Dr. Dee stated he would recommend a two-point plan. The first step is to adopt an improvement-science mindset in which the committee is constantly evolving and adapting to new iterations. Secondly, he recommended that teachers are supported effectively throughout all levels of implementation.
“If we are sending teachers into the classroom to have honest and critical conversations about some of the most painful episodes in U.S. history, it calls for teacher craft of particularly high order. Have an inquiry mindset and invest in thoughtful ways to support teacher capacity,” stated Dr. Dee.
Dr. Bonilla echoed that last point as she claimed that the key is to include teachers in the creation of the standards. “Teachers are responsible for having these conversations with students. Therefore, it is incredibly important to support them through that development,” stated Dr. Bonilla. Both the State Board’s Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee and OSSE’s Technical Writing Committee include a number of current Pre-K–12 educators.
An integral aspect of evaluating progress is having a solid indicator of success and quantifiable metrics.
When asked how the State Board should evaluate whether they are doing a good job and/or if what they are doing is working, Shieh stated that the State Board should start by evaluating how their curriculum material is conveyed.
“Sometimes ethnic studies solely focuses on unfairness and oppression. Non-white people are defined by depression and history of victimhood or losses of non-white people. It is important that non-white people are viewed as complex, multi-dimensional, brilliant, and flawed people while also making sure we are not tokenized,” stated Shieh.
On the other hand, Dr. Perry addressed logistical steps that the State Board could take. He claimed that courses do not have to be separate to address each ethnicity, such that the concept of intersectionality can be lost when each ethnicity study is isolated. Secondly, he mentioned that the goals and measure of success are achieved when we reach a certain level of critical analysis that fits the particular age group.
“It is much easier to become separated when there are separate courses. Sustainability is also key. This is why ethnic studies should be considered a discipline and not just a forum or a discussion,” stated Dr. Perry.
When asked for a final recommendation to aid the Technical Writing Committee and the Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee, each panelist expressed sentiments of hope and relayed the importance of this work.
Dr. Dee reiterated the importance of an improvement-science mindset and creating a psychologically safe space in which students can risk being engaged and motivated. A step towards this direction would be to create distinct standards for different grade levels. Furthermore, he emphasized exploring the concept of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement versus an elective course, or both.
Shieh urged the committees to carefully consider the geographic location and community responses. “What would having an “A” in ethnic studies look like for you? If a student gets an “F” in ethnic studies, what does that mean?” questioned Shieh.
Furthermore, she emphasized that when crafting standards related to ethnic studies to not permit nor perpetuate the racializing of issues and to realize that understanding differences is only the tip of the iceberg.
Bonilla advocated for leaving room for flexibility for teachers and not overprescribing a standard. A strong ethnic studies experience might look different for different classrooms.
Finally, Dr. Perry concluded the evening by discussing the importance of nomenclature and explaining to people what ethnic studies is, the inclusion of community voices through the entire decision-making process, and not giving up hope.
“It [ethnic studies] is not something that will be finished once the standards are implemented; you are going to have to continually sell the message and might be surprised by who you will have to sell it to,” stated Dr. Perry.