The short answer is that critical race theory, or CRT, is not synonymous with ethnic studies. But before we elaborate, let’s take a look at the definition of critical race theory.

Up until recently, critical race theory was an obscure academic term used to explore how race intersects with U.S. laws and institutions. The California School Boards Association defines CRT as “a practice of interrogating race and racism in society and the ways in which it impacts people.” It emphasizes race as a social construct with social significance rather than a biological reality.

A discussion of critical race theory may or may not be included in an ethnic studies course. That decision is ultimately left to local school districts. But the CSBA says there is no evidence that CRT is widespread in K-12 education, and the term is rarely mentioned in California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. (It is defined in a footnote referencing an article from the American Bar Association, included in a list of topics for teachers to be familiar with, and mentioned in one example of a district-developed UC-approved course outline.)

Remember that the state’s model curriculum is intended to provide guidance to school districts and county offices of education that choose to offer ethnic studies courses. As such, it’s not mandatory, and it does not require that specific concepts like critical race theory be taught or included.

Ethnic studies may look different depending on where it’s taught, but it’s not the same as critical race theory. Broadly speaking, ethnic studies uses critical thinking to promote an understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together in the United States, exploring core concepts such as equality, justice, race and ethnicity.