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Social Studies Standards Under Attack by State Board of Education Members

Live Blog of the Texas State Board of Education
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I am here live blogging the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting in Austin. Several television trucks were parked outside the building as I entered this morning. Later, when the meeting started, fourteen TV cameras were set up around the State Board members, more cameras than I have seen since the biology textbooks were last adopted in 2003 and more than were present during the 2009 adoption of new science standards. This shows the interest in and controversy about the new social studies standards up for revision and adoption now.

As president of Texas Citizens for Science and a science education advocate since 1980, I was heavily involved in the science standards and science textbooks adoptions, but this is the first time I have covered adoption of social studies standards. I see that there are many problems with the standards revision by efforts of several State Board of Education members. Some of the State Board members want to alter, revise, and censor the social studies standards as submitted by the professional standards writing committees composed of social studies professors, teachers, and curriculum experts to make the social studies standards reflect the Board members’ religious, political, and ideological views. The same thing happened in 2009 with the science standards, when every mention of ancient age dates or origins of life or species was censored and corrupted to make the standards more consistent with the Young Earth Creationist views of the members. This historical revision effort was started by the extreme religious conservatives (whom I usually term the radical religious right members) on the SBOE in January, and they want to finish it today.

I expect some of the SBOE members to attempt to debilitate, damage, or corrupt some of the social standards tonight, hence the title of this column. They can insert, remove, or edit any standard they want by majority vote (only eight votes are required and seven are assured), although few of them know anything about history, economics, or other social studies subjects. If the process continues the way I strongly expect it will, this deliberate effort constitutes an attack on the social studies standards. If I am wrong, I will change the title!

The State Board now starts a work session about the Permanent School Fund which I will ignore. Later, the SBOE has two agenda items about English Language Arts that I will also not cover.

Public Testimony on Social Studies Standards

Public testimony begins now and Texas legislators are given priority to speak first. Republican Representatives Wayne Christian and Dan Flynn are present from the Liberty Institute press conference so they begin. In their testimony, they both refer to the United States (they repeatedly say “America” which of course is an untrue presumption, since the United States shares the two American continents with many other countries) as a nation founded on Christian principles and that the history of this should be reflected in public school history books. Rep. Christian read a letter from the Texas Conservative Coalition (TCC) among Texas legislators. Among other things, it requests that “the TEKS continue to include references to the Judeo-Christian heritage from which our nation was founded; to the uniqueness and greatness of our nation; and to an accurate portrayal of history.” I certainly agree with the last two items, but the first one is simply not true. Accurate and reliable historical studies document the facts that European Enlightenment philosophy was the primary source for our national founding documents and the political views of the Founding Fathers. Although the majority of colonialists were Christians and essentially all were religious, their religious views had little influence on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The Constitution explicitly founds the country as a non-religious secular nation. While all the founders were religious believers, the major founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine, etc.) were not Christians but rather Deists and Unitarians; several did not even like Christianity but all expected the country to respect and tolerate all religions and especially not give preference to one.

The two representatives decried “liberal” efforts (by the professional social studies standards writers composed of university professors and high school social studies teachers) to “revise” national history to make it seem that America is “not the great nation” that it is. This is certainly an excessively partisan and unnecessarily divisive stance for the two representatives to take, but it shows their extremism. For example, the history standards always used to require information about “American expansionism” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the professional history experts changed this to “American imperialism.” The SBOE changed this back to “expansionism” in January and the representatives approved of this. In fact, the term “imperialism” much better describes the U.S. political impetus during that time than “expansionism,” which is better used to describe the occupation of the Western U.S. They also asked for more mention of the Christian history of early and colonial America and to include more of the early Christians who worked to found the country. They were concerned that the “greatness of America” would be downgraded or neglected if the “new revised” standards were adopted without amendment by the State Board. I disagree with the two legislators, since I think we would best preserve the “greatness” of America by dealing honestly with our country’s history and not try to manipulate, distort, and censor it. The United States has a great history in most respects, but several very un-great episodes in its past must be treated and taught accurately and fairly, not deliberately censored and misrepresented, if students are to obtain a fair, balanced, accurate, and reliable education about U.S. history.

The TCC letter further claims that the “State Board members have been pressured throughout the TEKS revision process to wash the TEKS clean of any references to Judeo-Christian faiths while promoting references to other religions.” This is also an untrue claim. All religions and faiths present in our country’s history should be presented fairly and accurately, but the board should not give one privileged religion special and unwarranted significance which is precisely what the extreme social and religious conservatives want to do for Christianity. Individuals such as myself have asked the State Board to present references to religions with historical accuracy and not give them more importance in the founding of our country than in fact is the historical case, and this is, in fact, what the original proposed standards accomplished. But SBOE want to keep the traditional biased, unbalanced, and inaccurate description of the influence of Christianity during the founding of the U.S.

American Exceptionalism

Wayne Christian was asked by a SBOE member to describe “American Exceptionalism,” the controversial doctrine that the ultra-conservatives on the Board want to include in the social studies standards and critics do not. Rep. Christian, joined by Rep. Flynn, said the usual things about America, that its founding principles of democracy, represented government, and love of freedom make the country exceptional among other countries in the world. America (i.e., the United States) serves as an example to other countries and an inspiration for them to improve their own political systems. The “greatness of America” with its form of democratic represented government, free market economic system, use of military in the protection of freedom and democracy around the world, and history of tolerance to minorities stand as examples of how a great nation should behave. The problem with “American Exceptionalism” is that it is a false doctrine. There are many countries that have the same enlightened principles and adopted them early, in some cases before the United States. In other cases, the American record of “greatness” on the principles and values which Exceptionalism claims to possess is questionable to say the least.

SBOE member Ken Mercer says Texas is important to our nation as a force to prevent revisionism of national history and asks the representatives to elaborate. Rep. Christian says America stands for traditionalism in maintaining our history, protecting the memory of pioneers who founded this country, and their values should be protected and remembered in history textbooks.

I distinctly remember the biased and misleading material in Texas history textbooks in the 1980s. I was disgusted by what students were reading and learning about history and economics, but I could do nothing about it since I had my hands full protecting the biology textbooks. Time has finally caught up with social studies in Texas. What we are witnessing in Austin is the dying of the extreme conservatism and traditionalism that has governed Texas public education since it began. Rather than continuing the reactionary and false history and economics that has been part of Texas social studies textbooks for decades, the professional social studies standards writers for the first time included accurate, reliable, and inclusive information to bring K-12 history up to modern standards. This is a good revision and one long-needed.

The extreme radical and religious conservatives on the SBOE plus those in the TCC in the Legislature are reacting to the threat to their traditional distorted, biased, and highly-selected American and Texas history that they believe and have long forced on unsuspecting, innocent students. They claim they are responding to the “revisionism” of the “liberals,” but in fact they are reacting to the long-overdue presentation of accurate and reliable history for the first time in Texas public schools. Some members, particularly lame-duck Don McLeroy and his radical religious right colleagues (Mercer, Leo, Dunbar, Cargill, Bradley) will propose many amendments to secondarily revise the good proposed standards in a bad way. The SBOE will have a lot of dirty work to do if they want to preserve the mendacious and reactionary status quo for another decade. We will know if they can do it by the end of the day. Stay tuned.

The Public Speaks

Jose Flores asked that the standards include more mentions of minorities in Texas and United States history. He documents how little mention is made of Hispanic- and African-American historical figures (about 15%) compared to Anglo-Americans in Texas-approved history books and says that this affects the success of minority students who now make up a majority of Texas public school students. Terri Leo mockingly reads Mr. Flores list of minority names–emphasizing the vowels in the Hispanic names–from his list of suggested names to include and asks why they should be included when the textbooks are already quite large and heavy. He replies that these individuals have been grossly underrepresented in textbooks for decades and this problem needs to be corrected. For example, no mention is made in Texas history textbooks and standards of the Hispanic inhabitants of Texas who developed a civilization and lived in the state for two centuries before the Anglos arrived. Mr. Flores said several times that Texas history did not begin in 1836 and this shortcoming should be addressed now in the new standards. A similar neglect exists for Native American inhabitants of North America before Europeans arrived.

Antonio Diaz of the Texas Indigenous Council makes the point that the Native Americans are “the original inhabitants of America” and that “we have been left out of history.” The proposed Texas history standards do not mention Native American history and the same is partly true of U.S. history standards. The next speaker, Mary Jane Martinez, said that Native Americans are tired of being spoken and written about in “the past tense,” when they are here now living and contributing to American society. This neglect must be corrected, she says. Barbara Cargill asks if Ms. Martinez is aware that standards exist in elementary and middle schools that cover Native American history and peoples, but she said she did not. She had only studied the high school standards and found them wanting.

Roman Pena of LULAC and the American G.I. Forum said that minorities need to be included in history standards and textbooks to give students role models. Today, very few of these exist to inspire the minority students who now make up a majority of Texas public schools students.

In an unprecedented move, the Texas Education Agency has issued a press release criticizing the coverage of the social studies debate by Fox News. Texas Observer writer Dave Mann covers this unusual action in his column. I call it unusual because I can’t remember in my experience of 30 years at the SBOE of anything like this happening before. As SBOE members Ken Mercer or David Bradley might say, Fox News got a “very well-deserved spanking.” Mercer said it most succinctly: “If you are mean, lie or cheat, you deserve a spanking.”

My friend Dan Quinn of Texas Freedom Network is also blogging this meeting here and here. He also discusses the Fox News story here.

Public testimony continues at 2:15 p.m. Most of the speakers are in favor of adopting the social studies standards as written and submitted by the professional professors and teachers on the social studies panels. The primary request by speakers who have suggestions for improvement is to add more information about minorities–especially Hispanics–in early Texas history. For some unfathomable reason, most of this history has been omitted from the standards and textbooks for the last 30 years. Even the newly-written standards apparently don’t have enough, although I can tell readers–since I have studied both the old and new standards–that they include much, much more history about these individuals than in the past.

A very few asked for the new standards to reflect the fact that the United States is a “Christian nation” and that our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles.” One speaker–who asked that Milton Friedman be added to the list of economists about whom students are required to learn–claimed that our rights were given to us by “our Creator” and “our documents were written by our founders based on Judeo-Christian values.” Ken Mercer loudly and vehemently agreed, saying that to leave out the history of our country being founded on “Judeo-Christian values” would be “lying to our kids.”

I will discuss several more speakers here later. I also have photos of many speakers that I will post later after I download them from my iPhone and my screen capture program. Now I must prepare some notes for my three minute testimony. I neglected to prepare a written statement since I believed they would never get to me, but Gail Lowe has been especially gracious to speakers and all will get to speak far past the time when the Board should have started amending the social studies TEKS. We will certainly go late into the evening tonight.

My Testimony

I presented my brief testimony to the Board and was pleasantly grilled by Ken Mercer and Terri Leo. I was able to answer both satisfactorily, but as usual I immediately thought of better things to say as soon as I sat down. I didn’t have written testimony to read as I usually do because I thought they would never reach me in two hours, the amount of ti
e reserved for public testimony, but after five hours of public testimony they got to me. I asked that the requests from the Hispanic-, African-, and Native-American testifiers to retain or add certain individuals and events be granted to the extent possible because they are just and legitimate. For too long, these people have been underrepresented in state and national history. I asked the same for the Sikh testifier to add his religion to the list of world religions that students should know about.

Then I got to my main topics. I objected to the emphasis on the false history that the U.S. is a Christian nation or was founded on Judeo-Christian principles for the same reasons I wrote above. I said that the U.S. is a great country to the extent that it can be honest about its past mistakes and shortcomings. Certainly we are a unique, even exceptional, country in the traditional sense, but we are not great if we ignore accurate history and censor or misrepresent it as the Board has already done and intends to do more. We are greatest when we acknowledge the mistakes of the past. The U.S., frankly, has a lot to answer for over the last decade, and students need to learn what really happened in the past so that, at least, we don’t repeat past errors. In conclusion, I asked that the Board accept the standards proposed by the professional social studies standards writers without ignorant, biased, and debilitating amendment (as happened, for example, to the science standards) and also to vote no–which I characterized as a tactic that has worked well in Washington, DC–for all amendments to the standards made by a specific Board member (whom I did not name but everybody knew whom I meant) who made many motions in January, some of which damaged the standards by inserting changes consistent with his extreme political and ideological beliefs.

Ken Mercer questioned me about the religious nature of the American government. He pointed out that the original phrasing of the religious clause of the First Amendment expressed solely an opposition to a national government religion, the chambers of the Congress both have chaplains (he called them “pastors”) who open sessions with prayers, and that our money has “In God We Trust” printed on coins and currencies. He really felt these facts meant that our national government was religious, but I assured him that this wasn’t the case, for these are superficial examples. These are manifestations of a traditional ritualistic civil religion–deistic in nature–and the U.S. is really a secular nation as mandated by its Constitution. He believed that Benjamin Franklin asked for prayers to be said during the Congresses that handled early legislation and the Constitutional Convention. I happened to know that the motion to have prayers during the Constitutional Convention did not carry and they did not pray as Franklin wanted. I forgot to add that Franklin was not a Christian and wanted the prayers to be made to the monotheistic God he believed in, not the triune God of Christianity. Mercer seemed to really believe that these anecdotal historical events and circumstances proved that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian nation, but I told  him that these were all expressions of Civil Religion, a neutral, undogmatic, and relatively nonsectarian Unitarian-Deist version of religion that was acceptable to the founders, and certainly not Christianity. They are relics of this past accommodation to Civil Religion and do not determine the laws and history of this country.

Next, Terri Leo objected to my request or suggestion that Board members just vote no and don’t perform their “due diligence and carefully consider and vote on motions to amend” by Board members. I corrected her and said I said this for only “one, specific” Board member who had publicly stated that he plans to make dozens of amendments, specifically Don McLeroy, the member everyone knew I was speaking about (it is impolite to mention SBOE members by name in a negative way during public testimony, but I can do it in print now!). She characterized my suggestion as “personal” or based on “someone’s character,” but I objected to that characterization, saying the person in question has a cheerful, pleasant personality that is not objectionable, and I was objecting to the substance of the motions he made in the past and the ones I strongly suspected he was going to make later today. I expect his motions to be objectionable. I claimed that Don McLeroy stopped making his amendments in January because he was losing on the most extreme ones. Leo responded by saying that most of his amendments passed. We will have to see how agenda-driven and ideological McLeroy’s motions are this evening. I will have no objection to non-extreme ones that truly improve the standards for student learning.

SOCIAL STUDIES AMENDMENTS

Debate begins late at 6:00 p.m. on revising social studies TEKS. I am only going to write about the controversial motions that are agenda-driven and do not really improve the TEKS to facilitate student learning, but rather try to insert an standards or revision that promotes a religious or political agenda. The Board members will make dozens to hundreds of amendments, some of which may be improvements, and I will only have time to write about the debilitating amendments.

Hardy moves to replace BCE with BC and replace CE with AD throughout the world history standards document so that the standards would use the traditional but now abandoned and non-scholarly date formats. Hardy’s sole stated rationale: she prefers the traditional way of dating to the new way. She has no scholarly reason to make the substitution and in fact there is none; in fact, the opposite is true: modern scholars prefer to use BCE and CE because they are neutral, not Christian-specific. Knight amends the motion to put BCE and CE in parentheses after BC and AD so students would learn that there are two ways to format calendar dates in years. This excellent amendment unfortunately fails 8-7. The original motion carries 13-2. Few wanted to vote against the “Year of Our Lord” (AD) or “Before Christ” (BC), although these old terms are no longer used by modern scholars, most of whom are either secular or non-Christian. Few use the old-style dating format even for Biblical studies (except ultra-conservative Bible scholars, of course). So students who use Texas history textbooks are going to learn an old and obsolete way of designating calendar years because the SBOE members want to pander to their religious ideology and force students to pander, too. In Texas, keeping students ignorant and indoctrinated is public policy. Nice.

Pat Hardy now has many specific amendments to world history standards that are not agenda-driven. These create some discuss but are not really objectionable and most pass unanimously. I won’t cover these because they are detailed and relatively uncontroversial.

I was just told by a Fox newsman that the Fox Network has four camera crews here, the local one and three national ones. This process is going to get a big play on national Fox News. Maybe Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck will stop by and I can get their autographs (just joking!).

Hardy moves to change the phrase “the contributions of Karl Marx” to “the influences of Karl Marx.” This passes without objection. In Hardy’s anti-Marxist mind, Marx could make no contributions to scholarship, merely influence it. In fact, Karl Marx is still a major figure in philosophy and economics in universities today because his writings have immense contemporary relevance and importance.

Hardy proposes to remove the name of Bishop Oscar Romero from a list of those individuals who led resistance to political oppression. The argument is made by Bob Craig and Rick Agosto to leave the name in because the social studies “experts” put it in for some reason. This is an excellent argument to keep the name, and I wish it was used with all the standards that are inadvisable changed by SBOE members. It appears that the Board members have no knowledge of who Oscar Romero was and why he was so important to American history. The amendment carries, so a very significant Hispanic-American person in the political history of Central America–and who happens to be a progressive leader against right-wing oppression–is now removed from standards that students must learn. How appropriate for Texas. Thanks, Ms. Hardy, for such a clear example of bigotry in action in our state.

The motion is made by Hardy to add Golda Meir to a list of women who were political leaders. This passes and the motion to insert the list into the standards passes 12-2. Explaining his vote, Rick Agosto said that they just voted to remove someone of Hispanic heritage, Oscar Romero, so he was opposed to adding someone else for no good reason. To this, Terri Leo said, “Well, we’re adding a Jewish woman.” It doesn’t get better than this.

Lame Duck Don McLeroy Starts His Engines

McLeroy wants the words “monotheism, Judaism, and Christianity” added to a strand that discusses the contributions and influence of classical civilizations. During the discussion, Terri Leo laments the fact that the Palestinian West Bank land is labeled on a map in a textbook as “Israeli occupied territories” rather than “sovereign land of Israel.” McLeroy’s motion passes.

McLeroy successfully adds a standard that says that “Arab rejection of Israel has created problems and conflict in the Middle East.” Then he successfully moves to remove a phrase in a standard that says “the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the second half of the 20th century.” Then he is successful in removing the standard that says students must “explain the origins and impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on global politics.” The upshot of these unnecessary and despicable amendments is to shift the ultimate cause for the current conflict and terrorism in the Middle East from initial Israeli aggression–when they occupied the Palestinian land in 1948 and forced off many of the original occupants–to Arab rejection of Israel subsequent to that occupation, and to remove standards that require students to learn about the true origins of the conflict and its impact on global politics. Thus, students will remain ignorant, misled, and confused about what is perhaps the key conflict in the world today, the primary justification for Arab aggrievement and subsequent aggression against Israel, and the prime motivation for Islamic terrorism in the service of Middle Eastern states, religious sects, and political organizations.

The complicity of Israel policies in partially creating and continuing the Middle Eastern conflict is minimized and distorted by McLeroy’s amendments. Modern students must learn the truth about this major event in world history for several important reasons, and McLeroy has successfully destroyed that opportunity by censoring the standards for reasons driven by his particular ultra-pro-Israel (i.e., pro-Likud) agenda mandated by his Fundamentalist Protestant Christian beliefs (unfortunately shared by many other Board members). This is precisely the travesty I warned about in my testimony when I suggested that Board members should routinely vote no to McLeroy’s amendments. Bigoted meddling by ignorant and religiously-biased SBOE members that negatively affects student learning doesn’t get any clearer than this. McLeroy’s sole purpose for his unfortunately successful amendments is to prevent students from studying the true history of the Israeli-Arab conflict in Palestine and keep them confused and ignorant, thus helping to preserve their fundamentalist Christian religious convictions.

Barbara Cargill successfully adds two two new standards that require students to explain three pro-free market factors contributing to the success of Europe and three benefits of free enterprise in the Industrial Revolution. The first two aren’t too bad, but her third one is: “explain three reasons why socialist central economic planning collapsed in competition with free markets at the end of the 20th century.” This statement is flatly untrue, and it is obvious that Cargill is ignorant of modern European economic history, where many countries are socialist and quite economically successful, much more so than the U.S. “free market” economy in many ways. The European democratic socialist economies didn’t cause, for example, the world financial meltdown and crisis that was almost totally a product of our out-of-control, unregulated capitalist system created by cronyism.

A motion to adjourn for the evening carries. See you tomorrow with more stories of travesty and malice.