An Almost Impossibly Large Set of Standards Produced by a Problematic Process


Jesús (Frank) de la Teja is professor and chairman of History at Texas State University-San Marcos. He earned the Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin for doctoral work in Latin American history in 1988... He has published extensively on Spanish, Mexican, and Republic-era Texas, most recently an edited volume of biographies, Tejano Leadership in Mexican and Revolutionary Texas published in 2010 by A&M University Press. He has served as book review editor for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly since 1997. During 2007-2008 he served as president of the Texas State Historical Association. He was an expert reviewer of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Social Studies standards for the State Board of Education in 2009-2010.

As one of the appointed expert reviewers, I have had an opportunity to read through the existing standards, review two sets of changes, speak directly with the appointed writing committees, and had interaction with some of the Board members.  Before my appointment as an officer of the Texas State Historical Association, a college and K-12 textbook author, and as a professor and chairman of the Department of History at one of the leading state universities for teachers preparation, I have been involved in curricular issues for some time and I have an interest in seeing that our Texas schoolchildren are well served.

I would like to point out that for a considerable time I have worked with the staff of the Texas State Historical Association specifically on issues related to Texas history in the fourth and seventh grade level curriculum.  When, in the spring of 2009, I was contacted by State Board of Education (SBOE) member Pat Hardy on behalf of members Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi and Rene Núñez of El Paso to be their appointee to the group of expert reviewers, I readily agreed because I believed it presented an excellent opportunity to have positive input into making the standards more reflective of the kind of state Texas has become in the last half-century.  My term as an expert reviewer ended in January of this year, when the group of six was notified that our services were no longer required.

The review process was predicated on a set of instructions that made clear that, rather than writing an entirely new set of standards, the SBOE was interested in changes to the existing ones.  We were further advised as to the general wishes of the SBOE with regard to balance, fairness, and attention to legislative requirements.  In June 2009, I first reviewed and made recommendations for changes in the existing standards based on the instructions I received.  I imagine that the other five experts did the same; although at no time did we have contact with each other as a group.  In September 2009, I made comments at the first public SBOE meeting regarding the standards; in October I visited with various grade-level writing committees during a two-day workshop held in Austin.  I submitted reviews of the revised standards that appeared at the end of the year.  Since January, I have been involved in attempting to resolve some issues that arose with regard to the seventh grade standards, but I have not been officially a part of the process.

In all of this work I have been guided by my personal belief -- which I have made public on numerous occasions, including throughout my two-year term as the first State Historian of Texas -- that we must teach the children that we have in our classrooms.  That is, our social studies curriculum should reflect Texas’s twenty-first century reality:  that it is an urban, post-industrial, multiethnic, multicultural, globally interconnected society.  We can no longer afford to teach a version of Texas history that emphasizes a romantic, ethnically limited, male gendered, largely nineteenth century set of people and events.  Our social studies should take into account that our public school population is increasingly Latino—overwhelmingly Mexican American, but also Central American—and Asian as well as Anglo and African American.  The social studies curriculum should also take into account that Houston and Midland are very different places, as are McAllen and Dalhart.  The standards should note that less than five percent of the population is directly tied to agriculture, and that agriculture is not a subsistence pursuit but an economic engine that helps feed the world.  In other words, the social studies standards should be preparing our school children not only to be good Texans, but also good Americans and good citizens of the world.  To aspire to anything less is to condemn the state to being an economic and political backwater.

Anyone who reads the latest draft of the curriculum standards, which were made public a couple of weeks ago, will note that the standards have problems, but not necessarily the ones that the media has harped upon.  Thomas Jefferson has not been banished from the standards, and neither has Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta.  In fact, the inclusion of Hector Garcia, Irma Rangel, and Henry B. Gonzalez as examples is a very positive development; so, too, is the greater attention to the events and people that shaped the advent of modern Texas during the state’s participation in the struggle for Mexican independence and during the Texas Revolution.  At every grade level there is a call for understanding local communities, the roles and contributions of women and minorities, and concern for instilling a sense of political responsibility in students.  Although there is certainly an effort to defend the so-called conservative resurgence of the last twenty years, there are only a couple of clear examples of over-reach.  By and large, the inclusion of religion is well within the bounds of what is taught in most college classrooms, and there has been no effort to force curriculum to be written that overly emphasizes the Christian roots of this nation or of Western civilization.

So, what are the problems?  First, in an effort to accommodate everyone’s wishes, the SBOE has produced an almost impossibly large set of standards.  The bloat extends to repetition and confusion.  There are too many required items, which the preamble to each set of standards makes clear are those items preceded by the term “including,” and there are too many examples, those items preceded by the term “such as.”  In fact, the media wars have mostly been about these examples—the most famous ones having been the attempted removal of Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, and Thomas Jefferson from specific places in the standards.  In the end, though, the bloat means that teachers cannot get through the curriculum and that testing companies will have a significant, and unfortunately large, role to play in what actually receives emphasis in the classroom.

Second, the SBOE has not been consistently diligent in supporting a process centered in what teachers need to do their jobs so that children can learn.  In other words, the appointment of writing committees and experts has not been handled appropriately by all Board members.  It would be a disservice to those Board members who have been diligent to use a broad brush to condemn the entire Board, but it is true that some members have not lived up to this part of their obligations to their constituents or to the state as a whole.  Public squabbling over ideological perspectives does not serve either the Board or the state well and makes the good work that has been done suspect.

Third, neither SBOE nor the Texas Education Agency (TEA) have done a particularly good job of educating the general public—or the media, for that matter—regarding the final product of the SBOE’s work or the processes involving in getting there.  The Board is responsible for curriculum standards, not curriculum itself.  The standards are divided into general principles, the so-called TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and expectations – that is, the specific things students are expected to know about the general principles.  These TEKS are the basis for curriculum writers—district curriculum committees, school committees, and individual teachers, educational materials suppliers, and textbook publishers—to produce what actually gets taught in the classroom.  In fighting over specific examples and creating the misimpression that the standards are the curriculum, the SBOE has allowed an atmosphere of confusion and disinformation to dominate the public debate.

So, what do I think needs to happen?  First, everyone should take the time to read the standards in light of the goals outlined earlier in my article.  In other words, are we giving the producers and teachers of curriculum the necessary leeway to prepare and present the history, government, and economics of the state of Texas and the United States in a way that will be most meaningful to the children they have in their classrooms?

Second, the SBOE should be on notice that textbook publishers and curriculum designers should not be judged on anything other than this:  have they met the standards?  A variety of books, lesson plans, and supplemental materials representing different methodological, geographical, and socioeconomic approaches should be available to school districts and to individual teachers.  Publishers and educational materials suppliers should not feel that they are bound strictly to the examples to be found in the standards or that they need to guess about what standards the SBOE is really serious about.  If books, lesson plans, and supplemental materials address standards competently, their producers should not fear rejection.

Third, and in the long term, the legislature should seek to modify its charge to the SBOE with regard to its curricular authority.  The Board should really be exercising only an oversight function over curriculum standards.  To the degree that it is now statutorily ultimately responsible for writing the standards, it spends too much time fighting a culture war that does not do school children, or Texans in general, any good.  The TEA, working with school districts and professionals around the state, and beyond, should be responsible for producing standards based on general guidelines to which the SBOE has previously consented.  The SBOE should then approve the new standards if they meet the guidelines.

Whether the SBOE should remain an elected body or become an appointed body, I will not judge.  The legislature, however, should look carefully at the duties and responsibilities of what has, in the course of the last century, become a complex and expensive educational system, and decide what roles elected members of the general public should play in determining curriculum standards as we journey deeper into the twenty-first century.

HNN Special: Scholars Assess the Proposed Texas Social Studies Standards

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