An Overstuffed Laundry List that Treats Seniors like Kindergartners


Keith A. Erekson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso where he directs the department’s history and social studies secondary teacher education program and the university’s Center for History Teaching & Learning. He is an award-winning historian, teacher, and teacher educator who specializes in public history, history education, and popular interest in the past. He also oversees the TEKSWatch website (http://tekswatch.utep.edu), a volunteer-based public information service that monitors the Texas social studies revision process.

Everybody hates textbooks.  Conservatives say they are too multicultural; liberals say they are too conservative; “researchers criticize teachers for not using primary sources, teachers criticize students for not wanting to learn, and students criticize textbooks for being deadly boring.” (1) Governor Perry recently declared his special hatred for textbooks that still list Ann Richards as governor of our state. (2) The Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS) provide the blueprint for Texas textbooks—and standardized tests, teacher training standards, indeed, the entire curriculum—and their biggest problem lies not in overlooking one founding father here or a million Hispanics there, but in adopting a “laundry list” approach to history.  We have seen debates over removing César Chávez, Christmas, or Thomas Jefferson; new drafts are released with lists of persons to be added and removed; the richness and relevance of the past has been flattened into a popularity contest.  The “laundry list” approach creates a problem for teachers because the list has grown so large that it is now fatter than a Midwestern snowbird at a Texas barbecue; a more serious problem faces students who spend thirteen years memorizing the laundry list only to find themselves unprepared for the realities of college and the workplace.

Any classroom teacher could tell you that the proposed standards are obese.  They suffer both from excessive mass and from uneven bulging, most noticeably a new beer belly of politicized vocabulary.  Some of the lard could be trimmed easily.  In eleventh grade U.S. history, for example, the section on World War I lists five “technological innovations” but only one battle (§113.41.c.4); the section on civil rights has grown from listing Martin Luther King Jr. to include four amendments, four movements, three more leaders, two groups, two sources, two laws, three racists, and five court cases (§113.41.c.9).  I have already gone on record praising an earlier draft of the TEKS for moving away from the “great man” view of civil rights history to consider individuals, organizations, and political debates (3); now we need to trim the fat to remove the latter excesses. (4)

While minor diet adjustments may help in a few places, most of the TEKS require a lifestyle change—the laundry list should be replaced by a better understanding of historical context.  The nature and importance of context is illustrated by a familiar scenario:  an adult arrives on the scene of a broken window, asks young Davy what happened, and Davy replies that a ball broke the window.  In making this declaration, young Davy is 100 percent correct—a ball did break the window, but he omitted the context in which the inanimate ball was thrown by the very animate—and now defensive—Davy.  And so it is with the current proposals to the TEKS.  To the defensive defenders of the draft I say:  Yes, you are 100 percent correct in noting that indigenous people lived in Texas before European contact (seventh grade §113.19.b.2.A); but they were also present and quite animate during colonization, westward expansion, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries!  Yes, you are 100 percent correct to note that the U.S. Congress shaped Reconstruction policy after the Civil War (eighth grade §113.20.c.9); but so too did black congressmen from southern states.  Yes, you are 100 percent correct in noting that religion impacts immigration, social movements (eighth grade §113.20.c.25.B), and the American way of life (eighth grade §113.20.c.25.A); but it also factors into persecution of Catholics and Muslims, imperial aspirations in Cuba and the Far East, and ongoing debates about politics and culture.  Yes, you are 100 percent correct in noting that the word “republic” can describe our form of government; but so too does the word “democracy,” both of our present political parties descend from Jefferson’s “Democratic-Republican Party,” the two parties have shifted their platforms and membership over the past two centuries, and our present hyper-sensitive and divisive word usage traces its own history to the 1990s campaign tactics pioneered by Newt Gingrich and now imitated across the political spectrum. (5) Education in Texas will not be improved by a conversation in which the draft’s defender cries, “Show me a factual error.”  The laundry list must be replaced by teaching the awareness, inquisitiveness, and skills to understand historical context. (6)

Now, a word on behalf of the students who survive the laundry list and hope for success in college and a high-paying job in real life.  In recent debates about the politicized laundry list, we have largely ignored the fact that the social studies TEKS do very little to guide students toward the skills they will need to read, think, and write after graduation.  Both the TEKS adopted in 1998 and the proposals now under consideration contain a “social studies skills” section at the end of each year that is comprised of three parts:  one suggests that students should learn to organize and use information, the second treats communication, and the third focuses on problem solving.  The first two parts do a fair, if vague, job of identifying the need for students to deal with chronology, comprehension, and interpretation.  The third section, however, comes up drastically short.  In well-designed university courses and in most career settings, success comes not from sequencing or reading, but by skillfully adapting old knowledge, seeking new knowledge, and trying (and sometimes failing) to implement new ideas.  And yet, the problem-solving and decision-making skills outlined in the TEKS as being important for our high school seniors are word-for-word the exact same standards held out for our kindergarteners. (7)  Let me restate that just in case it shocked you as much as it did me: in terms of problem solving, analysis, and decision making, the Texas social studies standards require nothing more of seniors than they do of kindergarteners!

Is this a tacit acknowledgement of Texas’s high drop-out rate?  Is it a proactive effort to reach kids while we still have their attention in kindergarten?  There is a rich and expanding body of scholarship on the teaching and learning of historical skills related to thinking and reasoning, reading and analysis, empathy and writing.  I will leave it to the late-night comedians to identify the careers best suited for Texas high school graduates with kindergarten-level problem-solving skills, but I will say that the phrase “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten” makes a far better bumper sticker than educational philosophy.

In sum, the laundry list approach to history leads to curricular obesity that suffocates the devoted teachers who work in our classrooms.  And for our students—no, our children, and I have four who are now or will soon be enrolled in Texas public schools—the laundry list approach pushes aside the skills they will need to live in a world in which the total quantity of electronic knowledge is estimated to double every twenty months. (8)  An old saying distinguishes giving out fish from teaching to fish.  In recent months, public debate over the TEKS has focused on whether we should give our children conservative fish or liberal fish.  If we let that pointless debate sidetrack our educational system, we will fail to teach our children to fish—and we will never, ever come close to preparing them for life in the global twenty-first century economy.


(1) Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.

(2) Texas Governor Pushes Online Textbooks,” Associated Press, April 8, 2010.

(3) “This improved view of historical change is a highlight of the revisions and should be replicated throughout the curriculum,” I wrote, in “Texas Social Studies Reform: What Texans Aren’t Talking About—But Should Be,” History News Network, January 11, 2010.

(4) See an excessive list of forms of government (Gov §113.44.c.12.A); a long list of conservative organizations (US since 1877 §113.41.c.10.E) is made redundant by “identify significant social and political advocacy organizations and leaders across the political spectrum” (US since 1877 §113.41.c.11.B). This latter phrase is preferable to the list.

(5) See Newt Gingrich, Language: A Key Mechanism of Control (working paper, 1990). An excellent lesson plan for contextualizing current political language is “Understanding the Language of Political Ads,” part of the exhibit title “The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952-2008” at the online Museum of the Moving Image, http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/lessons/4.

(6) The word “context” appears seven times in the proposed TEKS but is used primarily to refer to sources and viewpoints.

(7) Compare the Kindergarten problem solving standard (§113.11.b.16) to that for 12th grade government (§113.44.c.22).

(8) In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore estimated that the number of components on a circuit would double every 18 to 24 months, “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,” Electronics 38, no. 8 (April 19, 1965), online at ftp://download.intel.com/museum/Moores_Law/Articles-Press_Releases/Gordon_Moore_1965_Article.pdf. Over the long term, the rate has averaged around 20 months.

HNN Special: Scholars Assess the Proposed Texas Social Studies Standards

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Grouchy Historian - 5/10/2010

Now this was a thoughtful article.

I completely agree with the author that students today must learn to grapple with enormous amounts of data (not information) and learn to locate, select, evaluate, synthesize and organize a great deal of information.

This is a monumental task and as the author states, will only become more difficult as more information, as well as disinformation is available via electronic means.

Social studies and history in particular are really the best means of teaching these skills...after all today's news becomes tomorrow's history so relevant discussions of current events and their relationship to history is crucial, in my opinion.