Thursday, May 20, 2010

Texas Education Controversy Heats Up

Today's Texas newspapers are reporting on this week's events in Austin, Texas, regarding proposed changes to the state's social studies curriculum.  The Dallas Morning News contains an article about yesterday's all-day public hearing.  The article states in part:

During an all-day public hearing, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and several Democratic state House members urged the board to put off their final vote, scheduled for Friday, and consider additional changes.

But House Republicans, represented by the president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, said the standards are fine and should be adopted this week.

"We believe the final product is a step in the right direction and will give Texas students a fuller understanding of American history," said Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, head of the coalition of 67 House members. "We categorically reject efforts" to delay action, he added.

Several board members indicated a delay is very unlikely as the social conservative bloc – seven Republicans – is firmly against it. There are three other Republicans on the 15-member board and five Democrats. During the hearing, most of the Democrats spoke in favor of a delay.

"There isn't enough support on the board to delay action," board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, said during a break in the public hearing

Paige, a former Houston schools superintendent who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush, was the second of more than 200 people who signed up to testify on the proposed standards for U.S. history, government and other social studies courses.

Those standards will be reflected in textbooks, classroom instruction and achievement tests used in Texas schools over the next decade. In addition, textbooks used in Texas are typically marketed in other states.

Paige complained that the GOP-dominated board has allowed ideology to drive the curriculum requirements for U.S. history, which will have an adverse effect on students. Until that is corrected, he added, board members should delay action on the proposal.

The Houston Chronicle sheds some light on the critics' complaints:

NAACP President Ben Jealous asked the board to revisit slavery and civil rights lessons, arguing that proposed changes have watered down history. Former Education Secretary and former Houston Independent School District Superintendent Rod Paige also voiced concerns about the teaching of slavery and civil rights. 

The Austin American-Statesman provides further details on the proposed amendments.  According to the Statesman,

Among other things, the amendments would suggest that the nation's founders might not have intended a separation of church and state as the courts have interpreted it, and that the United Nations poses a threat to individual liberties.

Casting the proposed changes as the handiwork of outgoing State Board of Education member Don McLeroy, the Statesman continues:

One amendment requires eighth-grade students to compare the Constitution's Establishment and Free Exercise clauses with the long-held principle of separation of church and state. In another, McLeroy proposes casting early 20th century muckrakers and reform leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. DuBois in a negative light by contrasting their tone with the optimism of immigrants as told in a 1998 book written by religious painter Thomas Kinkade.

McLeroy would have high school history classes drop the study of a landmark 1949 federal court ruling that declared schools could not legally segregate Mexican American students, even though the practice remained popular in Texas for decades. He wants to replace that with discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that governments may seize property for private development projects and another case in which white firefighters claimed they were passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified colleagues who were black.

Other proposals would tone down criticisms of the Red Scare and Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist hearings of the 1950s and portray programs such as the United Nations General Assembly, financing for global humanitarian relief and global environmental initiatives as threats to individual freedom.

As an African-American and former high school social studies teacher, I am shocked and dismayed that my State Board of Education appears ready to implement these changes to the social studies curriculum.  I echo the sentiments of Secretary Paige -- ideology should not drive curriculum requirements.


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