• September 3, 2015

Ignoring Experts' Pleas, Texas Board Approves Controversial Curriculum Standards

The Texas State Board of Education has approved controversial changes to the state's social-studies curriculum standards that could affect the way the subject is taught to millions of children nationwide.

In doing so, board members ignored pleas from college history professors and other experts that the vote be delayed.

Instead, the board voted on Friday to adopt the standards after passing more than 200 amendments. The 9-to-5 vote split along party lines, with Republicans in the majority.

Many of the changes put a conservative spin on a proposal that had been prepared by a panel of history and social-studies experts.

The standards will be used to decide which historical figures and events Texas' 4.8 million public-school students will study in the next decade. The impact could reach far beyond the state's borders, however, since Texas is one of the largest markets for textbooks, and national publishers often tailor their texts to the state's standards. Some publishers note, however, that with digital publishing, they can more readily adapt texts to meet different states' requirements. In California, a state senator has introduced a bill that would ensure that texts adopted there don't contain Texas-inspired changes.

Among other things, the revisions in Texas raised questions about the separation of church and state and determined that the inaugural address of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, should be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's. The word "capitalism," which some board members felt had negative connotations, was replaced with "free enterprise system."

Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican board member from Richmond, set the tone for Friday's meeting when she opened it with an invocation.

"I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses," she said.

The revisions, which are still being updated with dozens of amendments that were rushed through before Friday's vote, are posted on the department's Web site.

Conservatives on the board said the changes restore balance to a curriculum that has been tilted to the left after years of Democratic dominance on the board. Last year, the board approved changes in science-curriculum standards so that they now raise questions about evolution and global warming. Those changes provoked a similar outcry from college professors nationwide.

Some of the board's outnumbered Democrats accused their colleagues of ignoring the input of history professors and other experts who spent more than a year making recommendations.

David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont, made no secret of his distrust of college professors.

"We've done our job, but once these students step out of 12th grade, they'll be thrown to the wolves," he told reporters after the vote.

Some of the harshest criticism of the new standards came from six of the nine members of the panel of experts that the board appointed. Those members—two college professors and four high-school teachers—released a two-page statement last week expressing their "collective disgust" with the state board's changes in their original proposal, which they said resulted in a "distorted culmination of our work."

"We feel that the SBOE's biased and unfounded amendments undercut our attempt to build a strong, balanced and diverse set of standards," said the statement. "Texans should be outraged," it said, at how the board rewrote the standards "without regard to standard historical interpretations."

The signatories included Julio Noboa, an assistant professor of social studies in the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Laura K. Muñoz, assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

In a separate letter Ms. Muñoz urged the board to delay its vote, saying the standards "omit Latinos from almost every decade of American experience in the last 150 years."

In March, the board gave preliminary approval to the changes, which included hundreds of amendments that the state board made in January and March. More than 100 more amendments were added last week during the marathon sessions leading up to Friday's vote.

More than 20,000 people submitted public comments during the 30 days the document was posted.

By Friday, an online petition protesting the changes had been signed by 1,254 historians—mostly college professors.

Among those who testified against the standards last week were Benjamin T. Jealous, president of the NAACP, and Rod Paige, a former U.S. secretary of education under George W. Bush. The Texas Christian Coalition joined groups praising the new standards.

Board members wrangled at some length over whether to reinsert Thomas Jefferson alongside John Calvin in a list of historical figures whose writings should be studied. Conservative board members had earlier been roundly ridiculed for yanking Mr. Jefferson, an advocate of separation of church and state, from a section of the standards. The most recent round of heated debate prompted a frustrated outburst from Rick Agosto, a Democrat from San Antonio.

"I feel like we have too many chefs in the kitchen," Mr. Agosto said. By removing Mr. Jefferson from a list of Enlightenment figures and then reinserting him in a hastily-revised section that deletes references to the Enlightenment, the board was mangling the intent of the history experts' original proposal, Mr. Agosto said. "This is an embarrassment."

During a break in the session, Mr. Agosto said board members who are not history experts had no business meddling in the standards.

"When little boys play with fire, their fingers get burned. And we've created a bonfire here." The revised standards, he added, "belong in the trash."

Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, criticized her colleagues on the board for trying to sanitize the past by playing down racism and other ugly aspects of Texas and U.S. history.

"I feel like we've let the schoolchildren of Texas down because we haven't been able to tell them the truth," she said, as she dropped textbooks one by one from her desk onto the floor. "When these students get to college they'll learn it for the first time."


1. generally_academic - May 23, 2010 at 07:50 pm

And what happens when the teachers go into class and try to correct the textbooks' faulty history.
Oh, wait, football coaches don't read textbooks.

2. rickinchina09 - May 24, 2010 at 07:24 am

I served on a textbook adoption committee in Texas for new high school literature textbooks, specifically American literature, in 1989. I was the only White male and self-described moderate. The remainder were female, mostly minorities. They chose the textbook series with the most supplementary materials rather than the one with the best representation of canon and contemporary literatures.

While I disapprove of this latest machination in the Lone Star State, liberals should rue the day that they acquiesced to those further to the Left as now we're seeing the backlash.

Politics have always been a part of the adoption process, going back at least as far as George Counts in the 1930s. What is most aggravating is that the cultural wars play out in the classrooms and pose for teachers a false dilemma. Neither party's agenda should be adopted just because one or the other has the upper hand. While impartiality is all but impossible, those who serve on these boards should not have a vested interest in either agenda.

And it behooves teachers to fill in the gaps wherever their professional judgment deems it necessary or prudent. All is not lost unless we let it be.

3. amcneece - May 24, 2010 at 07:40 am

I'm not surprised. As a high school student in Texas in the 1950s, most of our biology textbook's discussion of evolution was replaced by our instructor's own interpretation of what we now call "creationism." It was no coinicidence that her husband was the pastor of a local fundamentalist church.

I wonder how long it will be until references to the holocaust and KKK will be deleted from Texas' history books.

4. dank48 - May 24, 2010 at 08:29 am

No doubt the new standards inform students how Texas won its independence from Mexico so that, among other things, it continued the Southern peculiar institution.

5. firstyearttguy - May 24, 2010 at 09:46 am

While I'm not impressed by many of Texas's 'improvements' to the textbooks, this is exactly the kind of thing the left has been doing for decades. Since the left has made textbooks yet another front in the 'culture war,' it was only a matter of time before the right started to push back and try some historical 'spinning' of its own.

6. _perplexed_ - May 24, 2010 at 11:05 am

Should Colleges and Universities, especially those that are not funded by Texas, continue to accept Texas HS diplomas as an entrance credential?

7. chandrak - May 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

The left is trying to control the curriculum. It should be stopped by all means.

8. truthtell - May 24, 2010 at 01:01 pm

what about the backlash when the kids grow up and find they were lied to?

9. lexalexander - May 24, 2010 at 01:24 pm

[[While I disapprove of this latest machination in the Lone Star State, liberals should rue the day that they acquiesced to those further to the Left as now we're seeing the backlash.]]

Shorter rickinchina: She was askin' for it.

[[The left is trying to control the curriculum.]] -- chandrak.

"The facts have a well-known liberal bias." -- Stephen Colbert.

[[this is exactly the kind of thing the left has been doing for decades]] -- firstyearttguy

Writing the Enlightenment out of the curriculum is "exactly the kind of thing the left has been doing for decades"? Please show this lifelong Red State Republican Christian, if you would, even one example of a case in which the left has rewritten history textbooks to include counterfactual information. Go on. I'll wait.

10. greenhills73 - May 24, 2010 at 02:03 pm

They should definitely study Jefferson - in detail - so they can see where the concept of "separation of church and state" originated. It is not in the Constitution.

11. physicsprof - May 24, 2010 at 02:14 pm

"In the [Supreme] court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, 'In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.'"

12. 11159995 - May 24, 2010 at 04:04 pm

I submitted this letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News yesterday:
Don McLeroy and his fellow social conservatives on the State Board of Education have succeeded not only in making Texas the laughingstock of the nation but in putting Texas students at a serious disadvantage in gaining entrance to top colleges outside the state.

As an alumnus of an Ivy League university who interviews applicants to it every fall, I shall be tempted to include in my interviews questions relating to the issues that the SBOE has chosen to highlight in its mandated changes to the social studies curriculum. Those who have failed to see through the ideologically blinkered approach of the SBOE by educating themselves more broadly will not receive my support.

By fostering such an idiosyncratic understanding of history, the SBOE may also find that for the first time publishers will not follow the lead of Texas and adopt its standards for use in textbooks sold nationwide. Then Texas will have to prevail upon some smaller publisher in the state to bring out its custom-made texts, which likely will be much more expensive and less professionally produced. As a former publisher myself, I say good luck with that!
---Sandy Thatcher, Frisco, Texas

13. hbarwood - May 24, 2010 at 04:54 pm

Those of us who grew up in Alabama used to say: "Thank God for Mississippi". I suppose now we can amend that to "Thank God for Texas" when describing the sorry state of education.

14. isambard - May 24, 2010 at 05:27 pm

In a more rational world, there wouldn't be textbooks in the first place; the young need to understand what original sources are no later than in the fifth grade.

But shouldn't we be happy that the lunatics have so thoroughly discredited themselves? They don't know how stupid they are, but the rest of the world does, and it's a form of social hygiene to get this degree of ignorance out in the fresh air. One reason the liberals lose more often than they should is their habit of thinking that lunatics are open to persuasion. They aren't. Ridicule sometimes works after a while.

15. ulyssesmsu - May 24, 2010 at 05:55 pm

Excuse me--? Is this a professionally-written article or high-school journalism?

--"controversial changes"--every change is controversial.
--"could affect the way the subject is taught"--every new text affects the way a subject is taught.
--"board members ignored pleas"--every board considers hundreds of requests; they approve some, they reject others.
--"The 9-to-5 vote split along party lines"--as has every other previous vote; all votes split along party lines, including when Democrats are in the majority.
--"Many of the changes put a conservative spin"--did the Chronicle discuss the "liberal spin" in Texas textbooks before this?
--"The standards will be used to decide which historical figures and events Texas' 4.8 million public-school students will study"--as did the previous standards, and the standards before them.

And on and on it goes--the conservative hicks on the board against the educated, sophisticated college professors in the universities. Code words, loaded language, biased statements--Katherine Mangan has written a slanted and completely unprofessional article on this subject, unworthy of the Chronicle or the importance of the issue.

16. sdorley - May 25, 2010 at 09:39 am

I can't believe the crap I read in the comments about "the left is trying to control the curriculum." What horse-pucky! If controling the curriculum means that you don't allow a notoriously censoring and crazy school board to re-create history by eliminating those things that are against true historical perspective--or eliminating anything that isn't fundamentally religion-based--then I'm all for the left.

Texas has, for years, led the nation in banning library books and controlling the curriculum. Given the wackos like Ron Paul who come out of Texas, the old curriculum has already given birth to yet another group of right-wing conservatives who see any attempt at academic or personal freedom as an excuse to bring out the Bibles. Shame on them.

17. davidcayjohnston - May 25, 2010 at 07:23 pm

greenhills73 may want to actually read the Constitution, which includes these words:

Article 6: "...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

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