Historians speak out against proposed Texas textbook changes

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A03

Historians on Tuesday criticized proposed revisions to the Texas social studies curriculum, saying that many of the changes are historically inaccurate and that they would affect textbooks and classrooms far beyond the state's borders.

The changes, which were preliminarily approved last week by the Texas board of education and are expected to be given final approval in May, will reach deeply into Texas history classrooms, defining what textbooks must include and what teachers must cover. The curriculum plays down the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers, questions the separation of church and state, and claims that the U.S. government was infiltrated by Communists during the Cold War.

Because the Texas textbook market is so large, books assigned to the state's 4.7 million students often rocket to the top of the market, decreasing costs for other school districts and leading them to buy the same materials.

"The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they'll end up in other classrooms," said Fritz Fischer, chairman of the National Council for History Education, a group devoted to history teaching at the pre-college level. "It's not a partisan issue, it's a good history issue."

Each subject in Texas's curriculum is revised every 10 years, and the basic social studies framework was introduced by a panel of teachers last year. But the elected state board of education, which is comprised of 10 Republicans and five Democrats, has made more than 100 amendments to the curriculum since January.

Discussions ranged from whether President Reagan should get more attention (yes), whether hip-hop should be included as part of lessons on American culture (no), and whether President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis's inaugural address should be studied alongside Abraham Lincoln's (yes).

Of particular contention was the requirement that lessons on McCarthyism note that "the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government."

The Venona papers document communication between the Soviet Union and its spies. Historians dispute the extent to which transcripts show Soviet involvement in American government.

Also contentious were changes that asserted Christian faith of the founding fathers. Historians say the founding fathers had a variety of approaches to religion and faith; some, like Jefferson, were quite secular.

Some textbook authors expressed discomfort with the state board's changes, and it is unclear how readily historians will go along with some of the proposals.

"I'm made uncomfortable by mandates of this kind for sure," said Paul S. Boyer, emeritus professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several of the most popular U.S. history textbooks, including some that are on the approved list in Texas.

Boyer said he had not fully reviewed the Texas curriculum and did not know how he would respond to it. But he added that in theory, changes in his text could be required that would make him uncomfortable endorsing his own book.

Texas school districts are able to buy books that the state board rejects but designates as containing at least half the required curriculum -- but they'll have to use their own money to do so. Almost all currently use state funds to buy textbooks off the approved list, said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

One publisher said Tuesday that changes in technology, including the introduction of online components, make it easier and cheaper to tailor textbooks to specific states and requirements, and downplayed the impact that Texas's decisions would have on the rest of the country.

"We now have the ability to deliver completely customized content" to different states, said Joseph Blumenfeld, spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of three major publishers that supply Texas with most of its social studies textbooks.

But some historians weren't so certain. Fischer, who is a historian at University of Northern Colorado, noted that first-year teachers fall back on what's most readily available to them -- their textbooks.

"Teachers have a lot to do and a lot on their plate, and if there's a nice big textbook that the kids have been taking home, they'll use it," he said.

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