It is either the best of all possible worlds or the worst, a politically popular back-to-basics school movement here that has the approval and support of the educational establishment. But beginning next month, Texas will try to turn this idea into reality, as it sets out to redesign the public school curriculum for every student in the state.
The movement's most ardent supporters, including Republican Gov. Bill Clements who helped push the program through the state legislature, call it, together with several related measures, potentially the most significant educational reform effort in any state in recent memory.
Skeptics say it is little more than housecleaning of a school system overrun by legislatively mandated requirements that squeezed out the necessities.
Regardless of who is right, teachers, parents, school administrators and politicians will take a top-to-bottom inventory of schools over the next year or so. They will try, among other things, to agree on what should be taught in each grade, what students should know by the time they graduate from high school, what teachers should be required to know to get a certificate and how equitable the school financing system is.
Ultimately the decisions will affect not only course requirements, but graduation standards and textbooks, and in a state that has centralized purchasing of textbooks that alone could mean millions of dollars in changes that would reach far beyond the borders of Texas.
Over the years, the Texas public school curriculum began to take on the appearance of a political mosaic. In half a century, only one course--the teaching of cotton grading--was eliminated from the state curriculum. But many were added, including protection of birds in the nest, kindness to animals, intelligent patriotism.
"I don't know how many courses had been mandated by the legislature at one time or another," said Tom E. Anderson of the Texas Education Agency, who is overseeing the curriculum development program. "There was a lot of concern that you kept adding things to the curriculum and as a result we've neglected some of the basic skills."
Earlier this year, the state legislature did away with all that by eliminating all course requirements and setting out a procedure through which the state board of education would assemble a new core curriculum that concentrates instruction in 12 basic areas.
The legislature also required that beginning in May, 1984, students seeking admission to education schools will be required to pass a competency test, and that as of May, 1986, those seeking a teaching certificate must pass another test in their area of specialty.
With the earlier approval of competency tests for students in the third, fifth and ninth grades, the legislature in recent years has put together a thorough reform of the state's approach to education.
That this is a back-to-basics movement is clearly the view of Clements and other politicians who supported the measures, but many teachers and educators see it differently.
"It is not back-to-basics," said John Donaldson, director of government relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the National Education Association affiliate here, which supported the measure. "My thinking is that it's much broader than the dyed-in-the-wool advocate of a basic curriculum would have thought."
What pleases many of the educators here is that the legislature transferred its power over the curriculum to the state board of education.
"We feel the profession will have an opportunity to define what the basic curriculum should be and how it will be structured by grade level," Donaldson said.
The most difficult question is what constitutes a basic curriculum.
Already there have been compromises. When it appeared that teaching of Texas history might not be included in the 12 basic areas outlined in the legislation, social studies teachers kicked up enough of a storm to have the requirement written into the legislation.
Later, there were complaints that capitalism might not receive proper attention even in this conservative state, and the phrase "with emphasis on the free enterprise system and its benefits" was added to the language requiring the teaching of economics.
Some educators see the development of the basic curriculum as an opportunity to assure that students are prepared "for the modern-day world," as one official said. His candidates for instruction included alcohol abuse and the effect of broken homes on the education process.
While those may be necessary requirements in modern-day Texas, they stray somewhat from the meaning of basics that most politicians and many citizens hold.
A sign of the division of opinion on what is necessary came last month at the Texas Parent-Teachers Association convention, when a resolution that would have put the association on record as favoring the teaching of social studies as part of the core curriculum was narrowly defeated.
Association members attributed its defeat to everything from the feeling that social studies was adequately protected in the bill approved by the legislature to the fear that social studies instruction would crowd out time for more basic teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic.
There will no doubt be more compromises along the way. Beginning in January, sessions will begin throughout the state, at which the elements of a basic curriculum will be debated. Later, public hearings on the state board's proposals will be held.
No one will know until then whether this effort is worth it.
"If it means a rigidly prescribed curriculum in which teachers are going to be told more rigidly what to teach and how to teach it, that would be unfortunate," said Ben M. Harris, professor of education administration at the University of Texas.
"But if it is a more rational and logical skeleton . . . , if it eliminates some of the archaic things that are there, it could be a very desirable move. Whatever it is, my hunch is that individual teachers will still control the curriculum to a large extent."