How ethnic studies requirement could hurt California students
There is no question that ethnic diversity is core to America’s exceptionalism. There are 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles alone. We are a nation of immigrants from every corner of the globe and embrace this fact. Injustices, prejudices and aggression have occurred, but the strength of the American culture is to learn, adjust and work together.
At a crucial time when job skills are evolving, and traditional jobs are being eliminated, California lawmakers are considering a bill that weakens the state Education Code by diverting valuable resources away from curriculum that will help our students succeed in a rapidly changing world. Assembly Bill 331 mandates adding an ethnic studies class to graduation requirements. The prosperity of California — and our nation — requires a renewed emphasis on teaching basic skills that Assembly Bill 331 fails to deliver.
Today’s students are more “woke” than any previous generation. They are far more plugged in, far more aware and far more respectful than adults. They excel at LGBTQ and ethnic sensitivity. What they lack are vital reading, writing and math skills that will give them a shot at jobs in this economy. This is especially important in our digital age. Members of all ethnicities have excelled in science, arts and business. Let the successes speak for themselves.
California’s public schools were once ranked among the nation’s best. But the largest network of public schools in the country is now one of the worst-performing. According to the 2018 Quality Counts study reported in Education Week, only 29.2% of fourth-graders in the state are proficient in math and only 27.8% are proficient in reading.
In an era of unprecedented challenges such as climate change, digital security and privacy, our state legislators are adding another educational mandate that will prevent our teachers from allocating resources effectively towards the most critical parts of an education: reading, writing and math, where California students continuously underperform.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “U.S. companies are increasingly paying up to retrain workers as new technologies transform the workplace and companies struggle to recruit talent [emphasis added] in one of the hottest job markets in decades.”
As a businessman and co-inventor of mobile check deposit used by 80 million Americans, I experienced firsthand the challenges of recruiting the talent we needed, especially in STEM disciplines. As an advocate for digital inclusion, we need to provide our students with the training to take full advantage of technology as these tools gain in popularity and provide broad access to important services. This is the challenge that the California Teachers Association and state Board of Education should prioritize.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in “The Second Machine Age” that we are at the tipping point of accelerated innovation. The convergence of high-speed networks, global access to computing devices (smartphones) and the ubiquity of data will spawn myriad new businesses and economic prosperity — but only for those who can keep pace through education. Assembly Bill 331 diverts valuable time and resources from mission critical education.
Elimination of Assembly Bill 331’s graduation mandate does not diminish the importance of ethnic histories. I support an inclusive and balanced history and civics curriculum that teaches the importance of myriad ethnic struggles and inclusive contributions to the American Experience. The understanding of history is foundational to our appreciation of our unique rights and privileges as Americans. Our Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Northwest Ordinance — which first mandated freedom of religion, free universal education and prohibition of slavery before our Constitution was ratified — should be celebrated as groundbreaking events along with the challenges we have faced as citizens.
Assembly Bill 331 is a feel-good curriculum that, upon reflection, doesn’t feel so good. By focusing on the inequities of past centuries, the bill does not prepare students for the 21st century. Education seeds, industry grows. Let’s use the resources planned for Assembly Bill 331 to strengthen the skills of our next generation to succeed in this economy. It’s a daunting task, and perhaps unpopular with some, but one which our elected officials, the teachers union and public must be willing to address with a disciplined approach to teaching 21st-century skills.
DeBello is the former chairman, president and CEO of San Diego-based Mitek Systems.