Pornography, Thomas Jefferson and the SBOE

Last week's SBOE decisions have implications beyond just which people made the list


On Friday, as the State Board of Education got ready for the final vote on the social studies standard (and I got ready to have a life again,) social conservative member Ken Mercer suddenly turned to the cameramen and reporters who made up a large percentage of the audience.

“Jefferson was the biggest lie of all,” he said. “…You’re here across the nation because you heard we were so stupid that we deleted Thomas Jefferson everywhere.”

He’s right, of course. They never did delete Jefferson everywhere, and lots of articles accurately noted that he was deleted from the world history standards, not quite as many mentioned that Jefferson is explicitly required elsewhere. The SBOE has a pornographic quality for reporters—we can’t quite look away, and there’s so much fun, so much potential for readership that it’s easy to focus on the money shots (DOLORES HUERTA AND KARL MARX OUT) without really explaining the bigger point (What was in the package the delivery guy brought?)

In this case: what does it mean for teachers when we include more and more names on in the standards? Even if they are worthwhile names?

If you haven’t been reading this blog over the last week (in which case, I am mightily offended), the state board passed a new set of social studies standards in 9-5 party line votes for elementary, middle and high school. It was big news, ending a lengthy process which included The final standards came with a restored Thomas Jefferson in world geography and did not include the expected controversial amendments from Don McLeroy, the board’s most vocal social conservative. But that didn’t stop the blast of negative emails from lefty groups like the Texas Freedom Network, criticizing the new standards for who’s in and who’s out.

But there’s one thing that often goes unmentioned: the social studies standards are not equivalent to the social studies curriculum. The standards refer to the Texas Essential Knowledge Standards—essential, because they are not supposed to articulate everything taught. What the board approved, effectively, was a list of people, places and concepts that must be included in textbooks and those which can be tested.  Of the 15 board members, five Ds and ten Rs, there are the seven social conservatives who have been widely mocked for their efforts to “whitewash” history (as some protesting shirts read). The many public witnesses at who testified at Wednesday’s SBOE meeting, keeping it going for over twelve hours, often focused on a sort of historical figures Bingo.

For instance, when Katy Eyberg, one of the members of the anti-standards group Save Our History, got up to argue for including labor organizer Dolores Huerta in the third grade standards, board members pointed out that Huerta was already included in the high school standards where, said social conservative member Barbara Cargill, “where it’s more appropriate.” Aside from the question of why Huerta was taken out of third grade (according to Democratic member Rick Agosto it was “because she was a socialist”) Eyberg’s please also prompt another question: To what extent should the board mandate curriculum? Should teachers choose some of the historical figures they teach or should it be mostly required?

After all, the board’s job is to figure out what must be taught—not what might be. Throughout the week of meetings, Republican member Pat Hardy (who is not part of the social conservative bloc) tried to minimize the number of required persons and concepts, to allow teachers more flexibility. “I will not support this because it’s just another addition to our already overladen curriculum,” she adamantly stated in explaining why she did not support adding The Wealth of Nations to one part of the standards.

But despite those pleas, both sides seemed eager to include more names, whether it was John Calvin or Oscar Romero. The Dems argued they were simply trying to bring back the names that the expert review panel recommended, while the social conservatives often argued they were proposing common-sense changes that should be there. In any case, at the end of the day, there were more requirements for classroom teachers.

Christian conservative member Terri Leo said the Dems shouldn’t be complaining about the lack of minorities: “I just would ask that you would consider that we have really put in more minority figure than ever before, many more historical events that are [relevant] to minorities.”

That was good news, but not enough for Democrat Lawrence Allen, who often voted to put in more minority representation and include stories of oppression and institutional racism. But he sympathized with Hardy when conservatives injected the standards with other figures and concepts. “if we can admit something to ourselves, it is that we don’t know how to write curriculum,” he said.

Well, that’s effectively what they did. In the end, while the two sides debated whether the standards included the right people, the process ultimately resulted in more of them. Hardy, who voted for the curriculum, still says it’s going to a rough time for teachers to get through everything in some of the classes, let alone bringing in new examples or information. “I am not whistling Dixie when i say the teachers live and die by these [decisions],” Hardy told her colleagues during last Thursday’s debate.

Hopefully the teachers of Texas are good whistlers.