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California Keeps Expanding School Curricula. What About Improving Key Subjects?

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Adding new topics to California school curricula take away from basic academic skills that are already lagging, says Dan Walters. (Shutterstock)
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Last week, the attorney general’s office completed paperwork for an initiative that, if qualified for the 2024 ballot and approved by voters, would require California’s nearly 6 million public school students to take a course in personal finance.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

The proposal, by an organization called Californians for Financial Education, is the latest of several efforts to make personal finance a required subject.

“California has lagged behind the rest of the nation when it comes to personal finance education,” Tim Ranzetta, a financial executive in Palo Alto and founder of the organization, said in a statement. “Only 1% of California students are required to take a personal finance course as a condition for graduation compared to 48% nationally.”

New Course Requirement Proposals Almost Yearly

Ranzetta’s proposal is also the latest of many efforts to add specific topics to California’s school curricula. Scarcely a year passes without new proposals to expand required coursework, either as standalone classes or woven into other required classes.

new state law, dealing with media literacy exemplifies the latter. Beginning next year, the state’s schools must modify existing curricula to include skills in differentiating legitimate journalism from fake news meant to sway opinion, prompted by the proliferation of social media with dubious validity.

“I’ve seen the impact that misinformation has had in the real world — how it affects the way people vote, whether they accept the outcomes of elections, try to overthrow our democracy,” Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Menlo Park Democrat and the bill’s author, told CalMatters. “This is about making sure our young people have the skills they need to navigate this landscape.”

Another new requirement, this one for high school graduation, is ethnic studies, which the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom decreed after years of often heated debate over what should be taught and how.

The first draft of a model curriculum basically suggested that high school students be indoctrinated into believing that anyone in America not a white male is oppressed.

“At its core,” the draft initially declared, “the field of ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with an emphasis on experiences of people of color in the United States,” adding, “The field critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, that continue to impact the social, emotional, cultural, economic, and political experiences of Native People(s) and people of color.”

In response to criticism, particularly from Jewish legislators who said the draft was antisemitic, it underwent two revisions before being adopted as a graduation requirement beginning in 2030. It still contains tinges of left-wing dogma.

New curriculum mandates might seem justified on a standalone basis. Conceptually, it’s laudable that students become more aware of California’s ethnic diversity, more adept at separating legitimate journalism from fake news, and better able to manage their personal finances.

However, there are only so many hours of instruction in a school year and the level of academic achievement in California’s schools is pretty dismal. In the latest round of state test results released last month, fewer than half of students met standards in English skills and scarcely a third in math.

California’s high school students are already required to pass the equivalent of 13 year-long classes in specific subjects for graduation, and a number of additional courses if they want to attend four-year colleges.

Adding new mandates takes class time away from basics that too many students are not already mastering. Financial or media literacy classes are pointless for kids who can’t do math or read at their grade level.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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