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Marisa Silvestri listens to her student Oscar de la Torre during her ethnic studies class at Santa Monica High School in Los Angeles on March 28, 2023.
Lauren Justice / CalMatters
Marisa Silvestri listens to her student Oscar de la Torre during her ethnic studies class at Santa Monica High School in Los Angeles on March 28, 2023.

California high schools are adding hundreds of ethnic studies classes. Are teachers prepared?

On a rainy Friday afternoon at Santa Monica High School, ethnic studies teacher Marisa Silvestri introduced her class to the rap song “Kenji.” As singer Mike Shinoda narrated his family’s experiences in the Japanese American incarceration camps of World War II, Silvestri’s class fell silent. After the last bars of music filled the room, the class set to work analyzing the song’s lyrics, agreeing that Shinoda humanized a historical event some students previously knew little about.

Now in her second year of teaching ethnic studies, Silvestri said she has gone through several iterations of her curriculum — and she expects more changes to come in the future. She has studied California’s ethnic studies model curriculum, attended workshops at local universities and sought the advice of ethnic studies teachers from other school districts.

But Silvestri has never received a teaching credential in ethnic studies. Whether that’s important or not is a question California officials are weighing now that the state has become the first in the nation to require that high school students take at least one semester of ethnic studies before graduation.

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California needs more ethnic studies teachers, quickly. Under the new law, passed in 2021, high schools must begin offering ethnic studies courses in the 2025-26 school year, and students in the class of 2030 will be the first ones subject to the graduation requirement. As many high schools expand their course offerings ahead of schedule, universities are grappling with how to best prepare the next generation of teachers.

Some advocates and educators have called for the creation of a specific ethnic studies credential authorizing educators to teach the relatively new and politically fraught subject in middle and high schools. They say that without such a credential, the state risks having low-quality classes that can do more harm than good. But others worry that an additional requirement may make it even harder for the schools to find teachers for the subject.

State regulations allow teachers with a social science credential to teach ethnic studies, said Jonathon Howard, government relations manager for California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing. However, when ethnic studies is combined with other subjects, such as reading or art, teachers from other subject areas are also eligible.

“We have all these teachers who have great hearts, who are really social justice minded, who really want to do ethnic studies because they’re thinking about themselves as, ‘I’m a culturally responsive teacher,’” said Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge. “But that isn’t enough to give you the knowledge you need.”

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Ideally, Montaño said, teachers should have an undergraduate degree in ethnic studies, plus an ethnic studies credential that would show them how to translate their expertise into classroom curriculum.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo agrees. In February, she introduced legislation requiring the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to begin creating an ethnic studies credential by 2025.

“The social science credential program does not cover ethnic studies sufficiently,” Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said by email. “We maintain that at the present time there is no existing credential that sufficiently covers the depth and breadth of the multidisciplinary nature of Ethnic Studies.”

“The social science credential program does not cover ethnic studies sufficiently.” — Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles)

The commission would need authorization from the Legislature to begin developing a new credential, Howard said.

However, some school districts say the current flexibility around teacher requirements has worked to their benefit, allowing them to expand their ethnic studies course offerings ahead of schedule.

Santa Rosa City Schools has been offering ethnic studies courses since 2020 and will require students in the class of 2025 to have taken a full year of the subject before graduation. Because several classes, from English to dance, incorporate ethnic studies into the course material, all teachers are eligible to teach the subject, said Tim Zalunardo, the executive director of educational services. He added that this approach makes it easier for the school to recruit teachers who are excited and willing to teach ethnic studies.

“It provides flexibility on both the students and on the school’s course offerings,” Zalunardo said.

A controversial subject

Debates around ethnic studies are nothing new.

Ethnic studies began at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s as students pushed for the creation of classes dedicated to studying the histories and cultures of people of color. As the subject gained momentum – and criticism – across the nation, advocates began to push for its inclusion in K-12 schools.

In 2021, after two years of drafting and heated debate, the State Board of Education adopted an ethnic studies model curriculum that primarily focuses on the untold “histories, cultures, struggles, and contributions” of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Although districts are not required to use the curriculum, it provides schools with guidance on how to implement the subject and offers sample lessons.

Later that year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the new graduation requirement into law, even as parents and school board members denounced ethnic studies in Orange County and other areas of the state. Future teachers still remain divided on the necessity of the subject.

Christine Soliva, a graduate student in UC Riverside’s teacher education program, said some of her peers critiqued an ethnic studies class they took in the fall, challenging the importance of incorporating an ethnic studies framework into their math or science courses. She added that while she would pursue an ethnic studies credential if it were available, she is unsure if other teacher candidates would be equally receptive.

“It really is just like, are educators willing to take that next step to be able to think outside the box and challenge themselves and their ideals to look at curriculum and content through an ethnic studies lens?” Soliva said.

Marisa Silvestri talks with students during her Ethnic Studies Class at Santa Monica High School in Los Angeles on March 28, 2023.
Lauren Justice / CalMatters
Marisa Silvestri talks with students during her Ethnic Studies Class at Santa Monica High School in Los Angeles on March 28, 2023.

Former Assemblymember Jose Medina, who authored the legislation requiring ethnic studies in high schools, said he does not believe the controversy around the subject will prevent state leaders from having necessary conversations about how to best prepare teachers.

“I think, despite the controversy, the state will be well prepared to have teachers in place by the time of the requirement,” he said.

But not everyone shares Medina’s optimism.

As hundreds of high schools begin rolling out new courses in the coming years, the state may face a shortage of ethnic studies teachers, said Lange Luntao, the director of external relations at The Education Trust–West, a nonprofit that advocates for educational equity. Ethnic studies graduation requirements are already in effect at some of the state’s large school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Fresno Unified.

“I think one fear is that we’re going to open up enrollment for ethnic studies classes, and not have enough educators who have experience with this content,” he said.

Preparing future teachers

In the absence of an ethnic studies credential, California’s universities have developed a range of programs preparing students for teaching the subject. Some offer classes on ethnic studies teaching methods and curriculum development, while others place students in ethnic studies classrooms to gain firsthand experience.

At UC Riverside, students earning their teaching credential can pursue an ethnic studies pathway made up of elective courses dedicated to ethnic studies teaching methods and curriculum.

Karl Molina, a UC Riverside master’s student earning his social sciences credential through the program, works as a student teacher of high school economics, sociology and government in the Riverside Unified School District. Earlier in the school year, Molina introduced a sociology lesson named after rapper Tupac Shakur’s poem, The Rose That Grew from Concrete. He instructed his students to analyze Shakur’s poem and reflect on how the concepts of social and familial capital applied to their own lives. In discussions, students decided that capital was more than monetary wealth – it included the languages, cultures and aspirations that shaped their lives, Molina said.

“They were really, really into it,” Molina said. “I was really excited to get going and move forward.”

Karl Molina, 25, who teaches sociology with an emphasis on ethnic studies, stands near the classroom where he teaches at Romona High School in Riverside on March 28, 2023.
Pablo Unzueta / CalMatters
Karl Molina, 25, who teaches sociology with an emphasis on ethnic studies, stands near the classroom where he teaches at Romona High School in Riverside on March 28, 2023.

But as a student teacher, Molina has limited control over the course curriculum and had to cut his lesson short. If he were teaching in an ethnic studies classroom as part of a formal ethnic studies credentialing program, he said, he might have had more freedom to pursue it.

“We’re not indoctrinating these students,” Molina said. “We’re just telling them, ‘You have so much wealth. Here’s where your wealth is, and here’s what it does for you.’”

At San Jose State University, some students already have the opportunity to see ethnic studies taught in real time through an Ethnic Studies Residency Program that places students into an ethnic studies classroom for a full academic year.

In his residency at Evergreen Valley High School, Eduardo Zamora instructs his students to partner up, facing one another in concentric circles. He first asks students to answer a silly icebreaker – example: “Would you rather be in the history books or gossip magazines?” – before moving onto questions about recent lessons. In one instance, he asked students to share one-minute reflections on the documentary Immigration Nation and how it relates to their discussion on Central American migration and racism in the United States. The circles rotate so students talk to a new partner each time.

“They’re moving, they’re talking and it’s educational,” said Zamora, a student in San Jose State University’s teacher education program who is pursuing a social sciences credential.

He said he hopes to bring the same activity into his own ethnic studies classroom one day, adding that his residency has shown him the importance of building community and trust among his students.

“I believe it’s important to have a teacher who wants to teach the class.” — Jayla Johnson-Lake, sophomore, Santa Monica High School

Yet, while Zamora believes his residency program is preparing him well, he said an ethnic studies credential may be necessary for a widespread rollout of ethnic studies courses. Currently, San Jose State University’s residency program only takes three to four students a year.

“One of the students came up to us saying that our class was very diverse, bringing in perspectives of people of color. And then she mentioned that her history teacher ... said it’s easier to teach history just through ‘the normal way,’ I guess the Eurocentric way,” Zamora said. “So I think a specific ethnic studies credential is probably needed.”

Training the current workforce

As universities shape the next generation of ethnic studies teachers, districts are left with the challenge of preparing their current workforce to teach the subject.

In Elk Grove Unified School District, high schools have offered ethnic studies courses since 2020. But Robyn Rodriguez, a parent in the district and former Asian American Studies professor at UC Davis, said she’s concerned that Sacramento-area schools may be placing social studies teachers in ethnic studies classrooms without adequate preparation for the subject.

“You either see very watered-down versions of ethnic studies, or ethnic studies being very nominally implemented,” she said.

Rodriguez’s son is only in second grade, but she said she is already supplementing his language arts curriculum with other reading because the texts assigned were not from diverse authors. As for what ethnic studies might look like by the time her son reaches high school, Rodriguez said, “I’m absolutely worried.”

Silvestri, the Santa Monica High School teacher, said she is torn about the necessity of an ethnic studies credential, adding that she would not want it to prevent interested and passionate teachers from teaching the subject. However, she said, the credential could help streamline the professional development opportunities she has needed to seek out independently over the past few years.

The University of California’s California History-Social Science Project works to support people like Silvestri who are teaching ethnic studies for the first time. Dominique Williams, the project’s ethnic studies coordinator, offers workshops educating teachers about the history of ethnic studies instruction and shows them how they can teach historical narratives from new perspectives.

Williams draws on her own experience transitioning from teaching English and social studies to ethnic studies in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

“In hindsight, I think that there is more training that I could have had, that I’m now trying to make sure that teachers are getting as they start their own journeys,” Williams said.

As the debate surrounding ethnic studies teacher preparation continues, Jayla Johnson-Lake, a sophomore at Santa Monica High School, said a passion for teaching is just as important as any credential. Johnson-Lake said Silvestri’s ethnic studies class has surpassed her expectations, introducing her to new facts, such as the details of Japanese internment and how the Black Codes worked to restrict Black people’s rights in the post-Civil War era.

“I believe it’s important to have a teacher who wants to teach the class,” Johnson-Lake said.

Tagami is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.