Revising California’s Curriculum
Though not perfect, the state’s new K-12 “History-Social Science Framework” assures more accurate treatment of India & Hinduism
AN EIGHT-YEAR PROCESS TO IMPROVE THE TEACHING OF HISTORY in California schools culminated on July 14, 2016, when the State Board of Education approved a greatly expanded History-Social Science Framework for kindergarten through 12th grade. Now just under 1,000 pages long, this document outlines the curriculum, grade by grade. Of critical interest to Hindus has been the material presented in 6th grade, covering ancient times to 300ce, and 7th grade, covering 300 to 1750—eras in which India held 25 percent of the world’s population and was rivaled only by China as the most advanced region of the world. Here we explore the history and nature of the Framework, evaluate the revision process and discuss what comes next for the teaching of India and Hinduism in California’s public schools.
California is the largest textbook market in the nation. The state buys $400 million worth of books each year for its six million public school students—that’s more students than most US states have people. These books must be written to specific standards, called “Frameworks,” for each field—e.g., history, mathematics, science, English or health. Textbook revisions made for California often appear in the books bought by smaller states, making California singularly influential in K-12 education nationwide. Global changes made to the History-Social Science Framework, for example, which include LGBT history and much more information on the environment, will likely be included in textbooks used in other states, with the notable exception of Texas. Similarly, the new Framework’s improved (but still imperfect) treatment of India and Hinduism in 6th and 7th grade will also impact other states. That is why this process in California has been so important, and why Hinduism Today’s staff devoted years of effort to it, consulting extensively with other Hindu organizations, scholars and individuals, providing analysis and traveling nearly a dozen times to Sacramento to attend meetings.
Why Revise the Framework?
The California Framework has two major components (see sidebar right), each with its own history of development. The oldest part, first formulated in 1986, is called the narrative; this is an essay-like description of what is to be taught. The newer component, adopted in 1998, is the Content Standards, styled as a bullet-point list easy for publishers to write to, easy for teachers to design classes around and easy to test on. This form was well adapted to the educational fad of that time. Unfortunately, knowledge isn’t so neatly pigeon-holed, and while content standard lists are used in many states, educators now favor a broader, more expository description of what children should learn and how they should learn it. The expanded Framework narrative is part of this trend.
But here’s the difficulty: bureaucracy. The state school system is just that, the state’s. It runs according to rules set down by the California State Assembly and ratified by the governor. Logically, if one were to revise the Framework, one should start with the Content Standards, as they are the concise summary of what is to be taught. But that would require the legislature to pass a law empowering the state’s Board of Education to make such a revision—and that has not happened, though it has been proposed multiple times. Consequently, the board cannot alter the standards—not even to reduce the planetary count of the solar system from nine to eight after the demotion of Pluto. The legislature and the board itself are justifiably wary of revising the Content Standards. When Texas revised its equivalent guidelines a few years ago, the process was contentious, with creationists and other special interest groups impacting the outcome.
Instead, California’s legislature passed binding resolutions requiring the Board of Education to include a number of specific topics in the curriculum, such as the history of the LGBT community, an expanded coverage of environmental responsibility, the role of Filipino soldiers in World War II, California’s Latino history and a section on the Sikh religion (previously entirely absent).
Unable to change the standards, but facing mounting pressure from the various groups specified by the legislature, the Board of Education decided to do what was within their power: revise the Framework narrative while still keeping it in conformance with the existing Content Standards. This wise approach avoided the Texas free-for-all, which attracted national derision. The stipulation to adhere to the standards also proved unexpectedly beneficial to the Hindu community at a critical moment late in the process.
The Eight-Year Revision Process
Work on the Framework narrative began in 2008, and four Hindu organizations submitted testimony to what was then called the Curriculum Framework Committee (later renamed the Instructional Quality Commission). The groups were the Hindu Education Foundation, the Hindu American Foundation, Hinduism Today and California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM). The revision process was suspended in 2009 by then-governor Schwarzenegger due to a state budgetary crisis. When the work resumed in 2014, we examined the draft narrative document brought forward from the earlier process. We could not find one single word in the draft that reflected any suggestion from the testimony submitted by the Hindu community in 2009. It was not a good sign.
Initial support for our effort in 2014 came mostly from the same groups that participated in 2008. But as the stakes became apparent, more groups and individuals became involved—not only from California but from other states as well. With funding from the Uberoi Foundation, Hinduism Today worked closely with historian Dr. Shiva Bajpai, professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, to develop a detailed analysis of the historical development of the Framework’s treatment of Hinduism compared to other religions. Another especially effective individual supporter was Tushar Pandya. An active member of the Chinmaya Mission, he arranged for us to address a number of their gatherings in Northern California, which alerted parents to the problem. Chinmaya Mission as an organization was not formally involved, but offered support and encouragement throughout.
Joining the process: December 23, 2014, photo taken outside the Department of Education building in Sacramento with Acharya Arumuganathaswami at right, Dr. Shiva Bajpai to left of sign and Tushar Pandya behind him, along with parents and children from Chinmaya Mission Bal Vihar, all of whom testified at the hearing
As part of Chinmaya Mission’s weekly Bal Vihar classes for children, the parents are required to attend lectures during the same time period—a group they jokingly refer to as “the captive parents.” No mom or dad is allowed to drop off their kids for classes, go shopping and pick them up on the way home. Instead, they are required to improve their own religious knowledge. We addressed groups of parents, and often children as well, at Bal Vihars in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bakersfield, Los Angeles and San Diego. Similar presentations were given at the annual HAF fundraising dinner and a gathering of the Dharma Civilization Foundation (both in the Bay Area) and at the BAPS Swaminarayan temples in San Jose and Los Angeles. Altogether, thousands of parents and children got an overview of the narrative revision process and what was at stake for the Hindu community. The warning was simple, “What you are trying to achieve through years of children’s classes can be wiped out by four weeks of public-school classes on India and Hinduism.”
At the very first talk to a Chinmaya Mission group, just days before the IQC’s December, 2014, meeting, several of the children came forward to describe their 6th-grade study of India—the inaccuracies and biases of the texts (which focused almost entirely on caste and very little on religion) and the ensuing derision and hostility of their classmates. It was immediately decided to bring some of the kids to the upcoming IQC meeting. And come they did. More than a dozen skipped school and set off to the state capital, parents in tow, to defend their heritage and religion. This set a pattern for all subsequent meetings of the IQC, and finally the Board of Education itself. By the end of the process, more than a hundred youth had testified, articulately and with conviction. They came from the Bal Vihar classes, HEF, BAPS Swaminarayan, HAF and other organizations.