Donna Bahorich is the chair of the Texas State Board of Education.
History and social studies teachers in Texas schools must perform a daily quickstep if they want to keep up with rigorous curriculum standards that require them to educate children about high-priority topics and key historical figures.
The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards set the bar high, with third-graders expected to learn about “the purposes of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights” and “the basic structure and functions of various levels of government.”
In high school, young minds must engage with essential matters such as “the historical development of the civil rights movement in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, including the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments and responses to Jim Crow Laws.”
Teachers have chafed about the extensive requirements, worried about the risk of shortchanging certain topics, and thus shortchanging students, in the rush to cover everything. In terms of sheer numbers, eighth-grade social studies includes 110 standards, compared with 64 in reading and language arts, 52 in mathematics and 37 in science. More than a year ago, my colleagues and I on the Texas State Board of Education, obligated to conduct a regular review of curriculum standards, took to heart the feedback and set up work groups — composed mostly of educators — and asked them to consider how standards could be streamlined to make the teaching burden more reasonable while still providing the rigorous education that would help set up students for success in life.
After a thorough review of every grade level, the work groups recently presented their recommendations, which were approved after some amendments in an initial vote by the board. The suggested streamlining, which by definition would necessitate omitting some important figures from the curriculum, has drawn national attention and much misguided criticism. Two sections in particular drew critics’ attention.
The recommendations for U.S. history in high school regarding the contributions of significant political and social leaders would drop Hillary Clinton and Barry Goldwater from a list that included Andrew Carnegie, Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham and Sandra Day O’Connor. For third-grade social studies, the recommendations regarding figures who exemplify good citizenship suggested leaving Helen Keller off a list that included Clara Barton and Ruby Bridges.
It is difficult to see partisanship, as critics alleged, in the recommended removal of Hillary Clinton if another target was the conservative icon and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, notable as the first candidate of ethnically Jewish heritage to be nominated by a major American party. Removing American Red Cross founder Clara Barton or civil rights stalwart Ruby Bridges instead of the deaf and blind author and activist Helen Keller would have prompted the sort of complaints stirred by that suggestion.
The debate about the work groups’ recommendations has also focused on the retaining of Moses, in a standard for U.S. government classes, as an influence during the era of America’s founding. Yet Moses is honored as one of 18 great lawgivers adorning the frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court building, and in Congress a marble relief of Moses is located directly across from the dais where the speaker of the House sits. As for those laws that Moses gave the world, the Ten Commandments are acknowledged with an engraving in the floor of the National Archives, in front of the display of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No wonder Time magazine in 2009 published “How Moses Shaped America.”
It should be noted that curriculum standards are merely a floor for instruction, not a ceiling. Allowing time for teacher flexibility encourages the inclusion of topics and figures relevant to students. The result is engaged learning, not a race against time spent memorizing figures and dates. The Texas State Board of Education will not be ordering textbooks based on streamlining revisions; all historic figures “cut” will remain unchanged in textbooks.
While reasonable and knowledgeable people can disagree on “essential knowledge,” what should also matter is a strong process where transparency reigns and an opportunity for public response is provided. Both aspects of that process have been on ample display in recent days. The education board in Texas values public comments and all input will be considered before the final board vote on the recommendations in November.
When that vote is cast, the Texas State Board of Education’s sincere hope is to yield back significant time to teachers. They need and deserve it, but more important, so do the state’s 5.4 million students.