Since the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) went to work on the state social studies curriculum in January of 2009, media coverage has zeroed in on some of the more inflammatory amendments proposed by the Board: emphasizing the conservative resurgence of the ’80s and ’90s, placing Barry Goldwater instead of Ed Kennedy on a list of “significant political leaders,” and including Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside Abraham Lincoln’s.
But for many educators, the problem isn’t what is included in the curriculum, but how history is taught and how the curriculum was developed in the first place. Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA and co-author of the widely used American Republic to 1877 textbook, says she expected to be horrified by the new standards. But after reading through them, she says, “Aside from a few changes, I didn’t see what was so wrong with them.” A self-described “left-leaning liberal,” Appleby has no qualm with teaching students about Phyllis Schlafly and the National Rifle Association. “Objection to this puzzles me. People should learn about this moment in history,” she says.
Appleby does, however, take issue with Board’s influence over standards. “What’s offensive is the idea that history doesn’t require experts,” she says. “People with strong political biases are not in a position to be in charge of standards.” And for the most part, Texans agree. A survey by the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that organizes around religious freedom and public education, found that 72 percent of Texans think curriculum writing should be left to teachers and scholars.
Appleby doesn’t think the “Texas Textbook Massacre,” as The Huffington Post calls it, will have much impact. “It’s mostly an example of ‘expressive politics,’ ” she says.
Kirk White, a middle-school social studies teacher in Austin, Texas, says curriculum standards serve to guide, not restrict, classroom instruction. Though specific changes, like the addition or removal of a historical figure, might impact textbook content, “Nobody’s stopping teachers from talking about Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman,” he says. A good teacher, he says, will enhance the curriculum with multiple sources.
“The new curriculum is not some backward, 1950s curriculum,” White says. “The people arguing over the details, on both the left and right, are working to advance political agendas.” By focusing on textbooks, people forget what most impacts students’ political and cultural perspectives, he says. “Cultural perspective really forms at home. I don’t know how much impact I, as a more liberal teacher, have on a kid whose parents are conservative Christians. A textbook certainly doesn’t have much.”
White says that the current debate ignores the most significant component of education: “What’s more important is how students develop their critical thinking skills and evaluate texts,” he says.
Yet criticism of the standards is still surging through the academic world. In April, University of Texas-Austin history professor Emilio Zamora launched a letter and signature campaign denouncing the Board’s amendments to the state curriculum. The letter accuses the Board of being “derelict in its duty to revise the public school curriculum” and “distorting the historical record and functioning of American society.”
While Zamora thinks the SBOE amendments encourage a “very narrow, exclusivist interpretation of history,” he doesn’t argue for a longer list of historical figures. In fact, he thinks the debate over which people to include in the curriculum lends itself to the Board’s strategy to discredit opposition and “unethically categorize criticism as mere quibbles over language.” Zamora is as critical of the Board’s political maneuvering as he is of the standards themselves, arguing that members have overstepped their authority.
Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, agrees that the board needs to be reined in. The curriculum review process, which should work as a check to the board’s power, he says, is a “charade.” “The Board appoints so-called ‘experts’ to review the curriculum, but two of them are evangelical Christians with no credentials in the social sciences.”
What makes the Texas curricular debate unique is not that the new standards are radically different from those in other states (California’s history curriculum also suggests that students study the views of Jefferson Davis), but that the process has turned into a political circus.
SBOE member Don McLeroy has publicly insisted that “multiculturalism battles the American way.” And member Cynthia Dunbar, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regents Law School, believes government officials ought to be guided by the “Word of God.”
The Board takes cues from the nonprofit Educational Research Analysts (ERA), a self-proclaimed “conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas.” Designed as a foil to the “liberal monopolies” that control educational publishing, the ERA mines textbooks for factual errors and regularly presents findings to SBOE. The organization argues that as “textbook analysts,” its reviewers are not required to have any background in education, teaching or scholarship. “[C]redential mongering,” they argue, “is [a] tactic to dodge inconvenient criticism.”
Quinn says it is precisely the Board’s “contempt for expertise” that has caused so much uproar. “If they would take a step back and leave questions of education up to educators, we wouldn’t have this back and forth.”