Texas’ ed­u­ca­tion board’s de­ci­sions aren’t par­ti­san

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - VIEWPOINTS -

His­tory and so­cial stud­ies teach­ers in Texas schools must per­form a daily quick­step if they want to keep up with rig­or­ous cur­ricu­lum stan­dards that re­quire them to ed­u­cate chil­dren about high-pri­or­ity topics and key his­tor­i­cal fig­ures.

The Texas Es­sen­tial Knowl­edge and Skills stan­dards set the bar high, with third-graders ex­pected to learn about “the pur­poses of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, in­clud­ing the Bill of Rights” and “the ba­sic struc­ture and func­tions of var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment.”

In high school, young minds must en­gage with es­sen­tial mat­ters such as “the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the civil rights move­ment in the 19th, 20th, and 21st cen­turies, in­clud­ing the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amend­ments and re­sponses to Jim Crow Laws.”

Teach­ers have chafed about the ex­ten­sive re­quire­ments, wor­ried about the risk of short­chang­ing cer­tain topics, and thus short­chang­ing stu­dents, in the rush to cover every­thing. In terms of sheer num­bers, eighth-grade so­cial stud­ies in­cludes 110 stan­dards, com­pared with 64 in read­ing and lan­guage arts, 52 in math­e­mat­ics and 37 in sci­ence. More than a year ago, my col­leagues and I on the Texas State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, ob­li­gated to con­duct a reg­u­lar re­view of cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, took to heart the feed­back and set up work groups — com­posed mostly of ed­u­ca­tors — and asked them to con­sider how stan­dards could be stream­lined to make the teach­ing bur­den more rea­son­able while still pro­vid­ing the rig­or­ous ed­u­ca­tion that would help set up stu­dents for suc­cess in life.

Af­ter a thor­ough re­view of every grade level, the work groups re­cently pre­sented their rec­om­men­da­tions, which were ap­proved af­ter some amend­ments in an ini­tial vote by the board. The sug­gested stream­lin­ing, which by def­i­ni­tion would ne­ces­si­tate omit­ting some im­por­tant fig­ures from the cur­ricu­lum, has drawn na­tional at­ten­tion and much mis­guided crit­i­cism. Two sec­tions in par­tic­u­lar drew crit­ics’ at­ten­tion.

The rec­om­men­da­tions for U.S. his­tory in high school re­gard­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and so­cial lead­ers would drop Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barry Gold­wa­ter from a list that in­cluded Andrew Carnegie, Thur­good Mar­shall, Billy Gra­ham and San­dra Day O’Connor. For third-grade so­cial stud­ies, the rec­om­men­da­tions re­gard­ing fig­ures who ex­em­plify good cit­i­zen­ship sug­gested leav­ing He­len Keller off a list that in­cluded Clara Bar­ton and Ruby Bridges.

It is dif­fi­cult to see par­ti­san­ship, as crit­ics al­leged, in the rec­om­mended re­moval of Hil­lary Clin­ton if an­other tar­get was the con­ser­va­tive icon and 1964 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barry Gold­wa­ter, no­table as the first can­di­date of eth­ni­cally Jewish her­itage to be nom­i­nated by a ma­jor Amer­i­can party. Re­mov­ing Amer­i­can Red Cross founder Clara Bar­ton or civil rights stal­wart Ruby Bridges in­stead of the deaf and blind au­thor and ac­tivist He­len Keller would have prompted the sort of com­plaints stirred by that sug­ges­tion.

The de­bate about the work groups’ rec­om­men­da­tions has also fo­cused on the re­tain­ing of Moses, in a stan­dard for U.S. gov­ern­ment classes, as an in­flu­ence dur­ing the era of Amer­ica’s found­ing. Yet, Moses is hon­ored as one of 18 great law­givers adorn­ing the frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court build­ing, and in Con­gress, a mar­ble relief of Moses is lo­cated di­rectly across from the dais where the speaker of the House sits. As for those laws that Moses gave the world, the Ten Com­mand­ments are ac­knowl­edged with an en­grav­ing in the floor of the Na­tional Ar­chives, in front of the dis­play of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the Con­sti­tu­tion. No won­der Time mag­a­zine in 2009 pub­lished “How Moses Shaped Amer­ica.”

It should be noted that cur­ricu­lum stan­dards are merely a floor for in­struc­tion, not a ceil­ing. Al­low­ing time for teacher flex­i­bil­ity en­cour­ages the in­clu­sion of topics and fig­ures rel­e­vant to stu­dents. The re­sult is en­gaged learn­ing, not a race against time spent me­moriz­ing fig­ures and dates. The Texas State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion will not be or­der­ing text­books based on stream­lin­ing re­vi­sions; all his­toric fig­ures “cut” will re­main un­changed in text­books.

While rea­son­able and knowl­edge­able peo­ple can dis­agree on “es­sen­tial knowl­edge,” what should also mat­ter is a strong process where trans­parency reigns, and an op­por­tu­nity for pub­lic re­sponse is pro­vided. Both as­pects of that process have been on am­ple dis­play in re­cent days.

The ed­u­ca­tion board in Texas val­ues pub­lic com­ments, and all in­put will be con­sid­ered be­fore the fi­nal board vote on the rec­om­men­da­tions in Novem­ber.

When that vote is cast, the Texas State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion’s sin­cere hope is to yield back sig­nif­i­cant time to teach­ers. They need and de­serve it, but more im­por­tant, so do the state’s 5.4 mil­lion stu­dents.

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