The Texas State Board of Education has revised its standards for social studies curriculums in public schools to say that the expansion of slavery played “the central role” in causing the American Civil War. The revised standards also retained Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller as potential subjects of study, after it was reported this year that those names might be removed. The changes, approved last week, were an attempt to streamline social studies curriculums in the state after some teachers said there was too much material to cover; they were not meant as a total revision. But the process still garnered national attention, in part because of Texas’ large population and its outsize influence on the textbook publishing industry nationwide.
Texas is home to about one-tenth of the countrys public school students, and the textbooks that cater to the states guidelines are also bought by other school systems across the country.
Under the current educational standards in Texas, adopted in 2010, slavery is listed as one of several causes of the Civil War, after sectionalism and states rights. But after last weeks revisions, the standards will say that elementary school students should be able to identify “the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing the Civil War and other contributing factors, including sectionalism and states rights.” (Middle school students will be held to similar standards, though the wording is slightly different.)
Lawrence A Allen Jr, a Democratic member of the board, made the motion to change the language.
“I think its an excellent start,” he said, according to a news report from Texas Public Radio, though he added that Texans still did not agree on the subject. “And so if we cant drive it to a consensus in our state, well just let our students look at it from all points of view.”
The changes are scheduled to take effect beginning in 2019.
The effort began about a year ago, when volunteer teams of educators, academics and other community members, overseen by the state, gathered to make revisions and deletions. In September, they submitted a first draft to the state Board of Education, which comprises five Democrats and 10 Republicans.
After the board approved the draft to open it up for public comment, it quickly made national headlines because Clintons and Kellers names had been removed. Comments poured in, and not all of them from within state lines.
Marty Rowley, a Republican member of the education board, said he had not immediately noticed the deleted names when he voted to make the document public in September. Two months later, he approved the version that had restored Clintons and Kellers names.
“I dont necessarily agree with Hillary Clintons politics, but there was significant public outpouring that indicated that she was a significant political figure that needed to be included, so thats how I voted,” Rowley said.
He added that he took out-of-state comments into consideration because “Texas has a level of influence, certainly, with regard to instructional materials.”
Erika Beltran, a Democratic member of the board, said she learned about the removal of Clintons name when The Dallas Morning News reported on it in September. “I got so many phone calls and emails when that news broke, so from that perspective, I think it really helped the process,” she said.
But she added that the backlash made it clearer to her that the board had failed to accommodate diverse points of view.
“It was a frustrating process, just wanting to get to somewhere that was better and feeling really constrained because I was in the minority,” she said. “Weve lost this one.”
Debates over the curriculum have been going on for years, and critics of the revision process have criticised it for being too political, in part because the board members are elected officials.
The Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based advocacy group, said in a statement that even after the revisions, the standards do not paint a full picture of civil rights movements in the United States, and they exaggerate the extent to which Christianity influenced the Founding Fathers.
Fritz Fischer, the chairman of the history department at the University of Northern Colorado, said many of these problems could be solved if the school board prioritised making primary documents available to students, rather than deciding on which version of events ought to be taught.
“This sort of argument is inevitable if your definition of history is memorising names and dates, rather than teaching students how to think, and how to use evidence, and what evidence is,” he said.
Fischer was the chairman of the National Council for History Education in 2010, when Texas was undergoing its last major review of its social studies standards. (He is now a board member.) Then as now, political differences over particular additions and omissions drew national attention to the states revision process.
“From my point of view, having been through this eight years ago, it becomes tiresome because its just another debate between different people who have different visions,” he said.
Rowley defended the states way of doing things. “Public education is by nature public, and that means that there should be input from businesspeople, community members, certainly teachers, certainly educators and certainly curriculum specialists,” he said. “Our job is to make sure that the standards reflect what Texans want their children to be taught.”
But Beltran said that Texas could do better, and that this years revised standards did not go far enough.
“I dont know that we really pushed any boundaries here,” she said. “I think it was a missed opportunity, and I dont think that a partisan board is the right way to write standards.”