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College of Education

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Diversity Highlights

October 2018:
Texas State Board of Education Proposes Changes to History Curriculum

Last month, the Texas State Board of Education approved a preliminary round of changes to the state’s History curriculum. If you have not seen this headline or read about this story before now, you may be asking yourself why this story has gained national attention. Due to the removal of specific figures, topics, and phrases—such as Hillary Clinton and “holding public officials to their word”—as well as the continuation and reinstatement of other figures, topics, and phrases—like “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” and the “Judeo-Christian heritage” of our legal system—many in Texas and across the country have voiced concern over the perceived subjectivism of the proposed changes. For this Diversity Highlight, I thought it would be prudent to review the situation as a whole, examine both criticisms and defenses of the changes, as well as leave you with a few thoughts to ponder going forward.

This year, the Texas Education Board is made of five Democrats and 10 Republicans. They are elected to four-year terms, and they collectively represent each of the 15 education districts of the state. The Board meets every year to review and discuss the classroom standards that affect the state’s 5.4 million students from grade school throughout high school. Earlier this year, the Board utilized “Work Groups” that were assigned a set of historical figures to grade using a points rubric that had been created. This rubric, which ranks historical figures on a 20-point scale, was implemented to classify which figures are “essential” or not to learn. The assessment asked questions like, "Did the person trigger a watershed change"; "Was the person from an underrepresented group"; and "Will their impact stand the test of time?” Other topics in the History curriculum were also reviewed and discussed but were done so without this specific rating system. Each work group submitted their proposals to the Board, who then decided to accept or reject each revision. Two Board members were interviewed after the changes were announced. They both stated that there was a general consensus within the majority of the Board that the number of the state’s requirements burdened both teachers and students, and that students were being forced into a cycle of rote memorization rather than “real learning.”

The board–and its curriculum revisions–is no stranger to controversy. In 2013, there was publicized hostility among Board members regarding the allowance of teaching “alternatives” to evolution in the Science curriculum. In 2014, the board was also scrutinized for a revamping of the Math curriculum, which consequently many teachers struggled to prepare for and many students struggled to achieve success in. Furthermore, earlier this year, the board was criticized after a last-minute amendment was included to rename the new “Mexican-American Studies” course as “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans with Mexican Descent.” In the present case regarding the History curriculum, the grading of certain topics and the explanations that were offered with the grades have driven the latest wave of controversy. Here is a condensed list of the proposed changes that have garnered notable question:

  • Grade 3: Remove Helen Keller from the lesson on “characteristics of good citizenship”
    • Work Group Score: 7 of 20
    • Accompanying Explanation: "Helen Keller does not best represent the concept of citizenship. Military and first responders are best represented."
    • Estimated Instruction time saved: 40 minutes
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: Yes
    • Result: Section removed
  • Grade 4: Remove the phrase "such as holding public officials to their word" from a lesson that students learn "how individuals can participate voluntarily in civic affairs at state and local levels"
    • Accompanying Explanation: “Not grade level appropriate.”
    • Estimated instruction time saved: 30 minutes
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: Yes
    • Result: Phrase removed
  • Grade 5: Amend the phrase regarding the Civil War from “Identify the causes of the Civil War, including slavery, sectionalism, and state’s rights” to “Identify the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing the Civil War and other contributing factors including sectionalism and states’ rights.”
    • Accompanying Explanation: not provided
    • Estimated instruction time saved: not provided
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: Yes
    • Result: Phrase amended
  • U.S. Government (High School): Remove the biblical figure Moses and Thomas Hobbes from section on “individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding, including William Blackstone, John Locke, and Charles de Montesquieu”
    • Accompanying Explanation: “Moses represents Judeo-Christian evident (sic) in Blackstone and Locke’s work. Including him as an individual to be taught requires government educators to address too much history.”
    • Estimated instruction time saved: 30 minutes
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: Partially
    • Result: “Moses” reinstated in phrase; Thomas Hobbes removed
  • World History (High School): Remove “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in section on “the rise of independence movements in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and reasons for ongoing conflicts”
    • Accompanying Explanation: “Work Group reviewed and discussed the proposed changes that were made. We agree with the revisions that were made in response to the comments from State Board of Education.”
    • Estimated instruction time saved: no provided
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: No
    • Result: Phrase maintained
  • U.S. History from 1877 (High School): Remove Hilary Clinton and Barry Goldwater from a section on “the contributions of significant political and social leaders in the United States, such as Andrew Carnegie, Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, and Sandra Day O’Connor”
    • Work Group Ratings: 5 of 20, 0 of 20 respectively
    • Accompanying Explanation: “This Work Group agrees with the previous Work Group response to the State Board of Education’s comments”
      • Note: these previous comments of the Work Groups and the Board were not found
    • Estimated instruction time saved: 10 minutes
    • Recommendation of Work Group followed by Board: Yes
    • Result: Hillary Clinton and Barry Goldwater removed from curriculum
    • Note: “Impeachment of President Bill Clinton” maintained in section on “effects of political scandals”

After these and other changes were made public, arguments both for and against these proposals naturally came to light. One of the two Board members mentioned above stated “Our task was to simplify…We tried to make it as objective as possible;” the other added that “[the group] did not want to offend anyone.” Another board member wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post defending the Board’s decisions, specifically challenging certain criticisms that were being circulated. She cited the burden that the current curriculum puts on both teachers and students, and also claimed that Board did an acceptable job of balancing cuts to opposing ideologies, such as how both Hillary Clinton, the first female major political party nominee, and Barry Goldwater, the first Jewish-American major political party nominee and considered as “the father of modern Conservatism,” were cut from the curriculum. Texas Values, a conservative Christian political advocacy group, President Jonathon Saenez was quoted, “In Texas, you don't mess with the Alamo and you don't mess with our Christian heritage. We applaud the majority of the State Board of Education for doing the right thing by restoring our foundational rights and history…We are prepared to fight to protect these standards all the way to the end."

On the other hand, critics of the changes claim hyperpartisan motives and the era of Donald Trump as the inspirations behind the proposals. Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, also wrote a caustic op-ed, titled “Texas creates the perfect curriculum for the Trump age.” In it, he questions why the need to “streamline” education is being done at this time in these manners. He also challenges the idea that omitting certain figures and topics for the sake of tens of minutes is suspect. In the pinnacle of the editorial–and the main objective of the piece– Milbank¬ seemingly sarcastically cites how the cognitive dissonance being propagated by changes to items like the “holding public officials to their word” phrase is positive, in that it will help people in this country “feel better about current affairs.”

As you can see, a number of arguments for and against these changes have been circulating. One side claims sufficient objectivity was upheld as much as possible during this difficult task, while the other side directly questions that sense of objectivity. The outcomes of this vote are only preliminary, however, as the board will meet again in November to either further amend or confirm these changes. Until then, I leave you with these ideas to consider going forward. Do you believe that the Board exercised an adequate amount of objectivity in their proposals? What is your opinion on States’ rights to determine which historic nationally topics (not specifically pertaining to a specific State) are taught in public schools? Should some kind of third party be involved in determining which nationally historic topics are covered?


October is LGBT History Month (US Observance)

  • During the month of October, we remember and honor all LGBTQIA+ individuals, especially those who have left a lasting impact on the community and social culture. This History Month was originally started in 1994 by a high school teacher in Missouri as a way to teach all people of the impacts that gay and lesbian individuals have had. It was then expanded in 2006 to include all sexual minorities. Each day of the month, the achievements of a renowned community member are celebrated.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (US Observance)

  • During this month, we also celebrate all of the contributions that disabled individuals have provided to our workforce. NDEAM was first observed as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” in 1945, and has seen a number of transformations since its inception. This year’s theme is titled, “America’s Workforce: Empowering All” which focuses on the value of inclusion within the workforce.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month (US Observance)

  • October also highlights national efforts to protect our children from bullying. Extensive research into the impacts of bullying has shown a number of dire outcomes for bullying victims, including increased risk for mental health issues, physical health issues, substance abuse, and suicidality. Given the nuance of bullying today, it is more crucial than ever to educate our youth and adults on why ending bullying is imperative. On Wednesday, October 24th, be sure to wear orange to show a united front against bullying. (PACER Center)

Nicholas Gallivan

Graduate Diversity Coordinator