Saturday, February 06, 2010

State school board rewrites history at hard right angle

Jan. 22, 2010

During this month's State Board of Education debate over new social studies curriculum standards, sound scholarship once again took a back seat to politics and personal agendas.

At one point, for example, board members voted to delete Dolores Huerta from a standard because the co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America is a socialist. The same board members apparently didn't realize that Helen Keller, who remains in the same standard, was also a staunch socialist. Nor did they seem to know that W.E.B. Du Bois, who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had joined the Communist Party the last year of his life. The board had added Du Bois to the standards the day before.

Of course, social studies students should learn about the contributions of all three of these important Americans, regardless of their political beliefs. But board members clearly looked misinformed as, over just two days, they made wholesale revisions to standards that teachers, scholars and other community members had spent nearly a year debating and drafting. And many of the changes were based simply on board members' personal beliefs or knowledge, however limited that was.

Teachers in the audience watched the board's votes with growing alarm. They wondered how in the world to teach ill-considered new standards or squeeze a long laundry list of added names into their limited class time. Board member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, herself an award-winning former social studies teacher, begged her board colleagues to stop.

Many of the additions, Hardy explained, were not grade-appropriate or overloaded the standards with unnecessary detail. On occasion she pointedly asked whether board members actually knew much about a person or event they wanted to add. They often did not.

The board had set the stage for this farce by deciding in November to proceed on the standards revision without further guidance from teachers and academic experts. Then they voted to end a public hearing on the standards even though dozens of people, including veterans from the American GI Forum, hadn't yet spoken.

So with no outside input, board members worked late into the evening to rewrite history according to their own points of view. Of course, this is a terrible way to make education policy. And sure enough, the standards are beginning to look more like a political manifesto than a curriculum document.

For example, a revised high school U.S. history standard implies that Joseph McCarthy's political smear campaign in the 1950s was somehow justified. Another requires students to learn about Phyllis Schlafly, Moral Majority and other conservative icons — not because of their historical accomplishments but because of their role in promoting conservative philosophies. There is no similar standard asking students to study individuals or groups that simply promoted liberal philosophies.

One board member succeeded in deleting the concepts of justice and responsibility for the common good from a standard on citizenship. And the board is considering a standard that suggests the civil rights movement brought about “unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes.” That's a political belief — like many other revisions the board approved at the meeting — not a view backed by scholarship. Even so, some board members want to weaken another standard that has students learn how women and minorities worked to overcome obstacles to equality and civil rights.

Last spring the Texas Legislature refused to rein in the heavily politicized State Board of Education's authority over curriculum and textbook content. To understand how foolish that failure was, lawmakers need only to have watched what happened at the state board meeting this month.

Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization that supports public education and religious freedom.

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