Ignoring Experts' Pleas, Texas Board Approves Controversial Curriculum Standards

May 23, 2010

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."