On Monday, state education officials will embark on the complex process of overhauling the standards of what children should learn about the world, Texas, and America’s complicated past and present.
The State Board of Education will hold a public hearing on what students are learning in social studies classrooms, placing them in the national spotlight that has grown even brighter amid growing political pressures.
Drafts of proposed state standards, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS, are available online. Education advocates say they are encouraged by what they contain so far and hope that the elected council will “listen to professionals and set aside political agendas”.
“We are heartened by what we are seeing in the drafts so far despite the best efforts of state leaders to turn our schools into battlegrounds for culture warfare,” said Carisa Lopez, policy director of the Texas Freedom Network. “The task force teachers and scholars have done a pretty good job of putting politics aside and writing standards that teach truth and address the experiences of the diverse communities that have contributed to American history.”
Lopez’s organization will be monitoring the hearings closely. Previous revisions to the standards have sparked controversy over the separation of church and state and negative facets of United States history.
Conservative groups are also alarmed at what they believe are attempts to remove references to “Christian heritage as a country and focus less on current and historic heroes and people who share those values.”
The Texas Values Group is rallied members show up in Austin to link elements of the reviews to red meat issues, including “critical breed theory.”
With more than 5 million students enrolled in public schools across the state, decisions made about the Texas curriculum have an outsized impact on what children learn across the country.
The last major overhaul of TEKS social studies was in 2010. But the standards framework hasn’t really changed since the early 2000s, said Renee Blackmon, former president of the Texas Social Studies Supervisors Association.
“This is really the first time we’ve had what will seem like a very significant overhaul of the framework of what’s taught in social studies in Texas in probably 20 years,” Blackmon said. “So I think when people are stunned by the changes, they need to remember that a lot has changed in how the program works, how children learn, and how important basic knowledge is.”
Since the last review, the fight against so-called “critical race theory” has energized conservatives around how American history is taught. Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how policies and laws support systemic racism, such as in education, housing, or criminal justice.
Conservative pundits have confused diversity and inclusion efforts, anti-racism training and multicultural programs.
Republican lawmakers voted to ban the CRT classrooms during their last session. The resulting law is vague and has raised concerns among educators about a chilling effect on their social studies classes.
The lawmakers’ message to educators was that they didn’t want teachers indoctrinating students into politics in the classroom, Blackmon said.
“So don’t give me politically motivated TEKS,” she pointed out. “It comes from both sides. If you don’t want that in the classrooms, don’t come put it in our TEKS.
Perhaps the biggest update to the standards will redefine the age at which students learn about Texas and world history. Currently, fourth and seventh graders each spend a year steeped in their state’s history, while kindergarten through second graders learn broader concepts related to community.
In the new drafts under consideration, history is taught throughout primary and secondary school in a more chronological way. Students in kindergarten through second grade will learn foundational knowledge of Texas, United States, and world history while emphasizing culture and migration, under the direction of the State Board of Education.
Students in grades three through five will devote their time to world history, beginning with the development of civilizations and hunter-gatherers. Beginning in sixth grade, students will focus more on Texas and United States history.
The working groups tasked with drafting the new standards reviewed previous models from Texas and those from other states during their brainstorming process. They then set about deciding exactly where to cut lessons for each grade level, said Meghan Dougherty, who served on the task force focused on primary and secondary education.
“The whole thing, obviously, is quite different,” said Dougherty, who is president of the Texas Supervisor for Social Studies Association. “It will bring renewed attention to social studies.”
Dougherty, who has worked with teaching sixth-grade social studies for many years, said she saw a gap in the knowledge of students entering the course, as it is the first time the children encounter another society or culture outside of the United States.
Some criticize the standards for the youngest students in Texas as being too broad, resulting in these gulfs.
“You spent three years in this area of the community, but no one could really tell what you learned in terms of content,” Blackmon said. “Kids were definitely reciting the oath of allegiance, but they were kind of learning a few holidays, a few names of important people and not really a big structure of what you should learn about your community, … your country and the world. ”
A greater focus on world history at an early age will benefit students and provide the necessary context for the lessons they will learn years later, Dougherty said.
The new curriculum also incorporates a variety of perspectives not previously highlighted in the teaching of social studies. For example, the Dougherty task force was conscious of incorporating more Aboriginal history into college teaching.
“We thought it was important to incorporate multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, to move away from a Euro-centric, Anglo-centric perspective on US history, and to really give more voice to other bands that have played a significant role in history,” Dougherty said.
In recent years, the SBOE has approved or advanced the development of a number of ethnic studies courses, aimed at focusing on specific cultures.
After a long – and sometimes controversial – fight, the board of directors standards approved for Mexican American studies in 2018. Afro-American studies came next and courses focusing on Native American and Indigenous Studies, as well as Asian American Studies, are also in the works.
But these courses are mostly available as electives in high school, out of reach for younger students.
Start a debate
Previous revisions to social studies standards have resulted in contentious political battles and nitpicking over how certain events are characterized.
In 2018, a working group SBOE adviser suggested eliminating the term ‘heroic’ from a standard on Alamo defenders.
‘Stop political correctness in our schools,’ Governor Greg Abbott said replied on Twitter at the time. “Of course, Texas school kids should learn that the Alamo defenders were ‘heroic’!”
The council also split on whether to retain a reference to Moses as an “individual whose principles of laws and institutions of government informed the founding American documents.” SBOE members ultimately opted to retain the reference to heroic defenders and Moses as an influence on government.
Updated versions of secondary school curricula remove the reference to Moses. Instead, a working group suggests adding Moses to an upcoming guide that teachers can use to inform their work.
The proposal for elementary and middle school students instead asks students to be able to identify the Alamo as an important symbol of Texas and compare different perspectives on the siege and fall of the Alamo. Students should also be able to explain the Volunteers’ motivations to stay and defend the Alamo, although there is no mention of the defenders’ heroism.
Blackmon said removing biased language from the standards is a positive move for the SBOE.
“Anytime you use language that uses an example as excellent, or good, or outstanding, or unique…you’re introducing biased language into the document,” Blackmon said.
The SBOE will hold its first hearing on the new projects on Monday. The board is expected to hold its second meeting on the subject at the end of August and expects to adopt the final standards in November. Book publishers will then start writing new textbooks and teaching materials that meet the standards.
The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation about pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation, and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.