Friday, August 08, 2008

Lawmakers scramble to change curriculum

By Mike Dorsey | Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO — How many students know that a 1946 California court case on segregation actually set a precedent for the widely heralded Brown v. Board of Education?

The case of Mendez v. Westminster is one of the great triumphs in California legal history — five Latino parents challenged a white private school in court for admission and won, leading to desegregation of all schools in the state.

"All Californians should be proud that we were the first state in the nation to desegregate," said Assemblywoman Mary Salas, D-Chula Vista.

Still, their tale is completely left out of textbooks in California's public school system. Salas would like the story to be told in history classes across the state. Her bill, AB531, would require that Orange County case and its role in desegregation of both California and the nation be included in the next revision and adoption of history-social science courses. The bill has cleared both legislative chambers and awaits a final concurrence vote in the Assembly.

And she isn't the only one looking to make changes in what students are taught.

As a state commission prepares to make final recommendations for the curriculum for history and social sciences next year, California's lawmakers are scrambling to send their brightest ideas through before the bell rings — some looking to introduce teaching methods designed to politically motivate students, others revealing historic events kept hidden from the state education system.

Experts say there is a growing concern among legislators that students are not getting all the material they need — and that there is much history yet unplowed and issues to be explored.

Another bill that gives new life to an issue from the 1940s is AB3084, co-written by Assemblymembers Paul Cook, R-Yucaipa, and Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.

Their measure encourages instruction to include an accurate history of the contributions of Filipino American veterans who fought in the U.S. Army during World War II — specifically asking for oral or video histories complete with testimony of those involved.

"What they went through on our behalf is almost mind-boggling to me as a history professor," said Cook. "As an educator, I have a little bit of heartburn with the state dictating the curriculum, but as someone who has been on committees in the past, looking for inclusion of broad, relevant topics and in teaching American history, omitting the role of Filipinos in U.S. history is like, are you kidding me?"

The bill, currently on the Senate floor, also contains an urgency clause. The clock is ticking, said Cook, and we can only learn valuable lessons from the veterans themselves for so much longer.

"It would be a travesty to lose all of these," he said. "Like civil rights and huge moments in American history, by neglect they'll fall out of American history books."

Even the methods by which history is taught are being addressed by legislation. A bill currently working its way through the Legislature, SB1254, aims to invigorate youths' interest in history and current affairs through interactive teaching methods.

"All the stats show that over the last 20 to 30 years, knowledge of students and younger people of American history, government and current affairs has fallen dramatically from earlier eras," said Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Carlsbad, the bill's author.

The main objective, he said, is giving students an analytical mind-set toward history rather than simply memorizing facts.

"They're going to be asked to vote, and they should learn more about how to analyze issues across the spectrum — not just one point of view, but all across issues," Wyland said.

He said we must focus on the "formative period" that is high school because it is an intersection of decreased schooling, with the majority of students not going too far after graduating, and of increased civic responsibility with the ability to vote at the age of 18.

Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, has introduced a bill that would require the State Board of Education to be flexible to changes needed when content standards are deemed out of date — rather than having to wait a decade when the curriculum commission meets. Content standards are what educators expect students to learn at each grade level in eight different subject areas.

The Antioch Democrat's bill, SB1097, would create a content standards review panel for each subject area. There is currently no system that reviews updates of the standards.

"Students may have learned answers to the outdated curriculum and passed the test very well," Torlakson said, "but may not have relevant information as to what they'll need in the next 10 years if we're missing key new standards."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on any of the four bills, though in previous years, he has been against bills that tweak the state curriculum, saying in the veto of one that "current law provides necessary flexibility for schools to provide instruction on anything not expressly prohibited by the Education Code."

AB531 and AB3084 are two of several bills that could affect what's taught in California history/social science classes. Here are other proposals that would affect curriculum:
SB1214: Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles -- unconstitutional deportation of Mexican citizens during the Great Depression.
AB1502: Ted Lieu, D-Torrance -- instruction on personal financial literacy.
AB1863: Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena -- role of Italian-Americans in California and the United States' development.
AB2034: Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles -- more information about American Indians, emphasis on California American Indians.
AB2064: Juan Arambula, D-Fresno -- more information on the Vietnam war, and the Secret War in Laos.

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