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March 22nd, 2010
Texas curriculum vote stirs conflict
Some opponents worry that conservative-backed changes to Texas's social studies curriculum will influence other states, but others say these concerns are overblownBy Maya T. Prabhu, Assistant Editor
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Some historians are decrying the proposed changes to Texas’s social studies curriculum for next year, saying many of the changes do not accurately reflect United States history.
But the potential injection of conservative ideals into the social studies, history, and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of Texas students for the next decade might not have as much of an effect on the rest of the country’s curriculum as some opponents fear.
“It’s a bit of an urban myth that the Texas curriculum automatically hops state borders. I think the media accounts have been exaggerated,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division for the Association of American Publishers. “Nearly all states expect or require publishers to align to their state standards.”
If the curriculum passes as is when the final vote is cast in May, teachers in Texas will be required to cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state.
The new curriculum standards also would describe the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic,” rather than a “democratic” system, and students will be required to study the decline in value of the U.S. dollar, including the abandonment of the gold standard. The standards also herald “American exceptionalism” and the U.S. free enterprise system, suggesting it thrives best without excessive government intervention.
“We have been about conservatism versus liberalism,” said Democrat Mavis Knight of Dallas, explaining her vote against the standards. “We have manipulated strands to insert what we want it to be in the document, regardless as to whether or not it’s appropriate.”
Following three days of impassioned debate, the board gave preliminary approval to the new standards with a 10-5 vote that followed party lines. But it’s unclear what effect the standards might have on textbook content nationwide.
Diskey said that since the early 1990s, publishers have released state-specific versions of textbooks, which was around the same time that standards-based reform became a national movement.
“Prior to standards-based reform, there were national-based editions,” he said. “At that time, it was true that larger states—New York, Texas, California—had an influence on books, but it was more about including more state history.”
Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association, said Texas traditionally has had a significant influence on national textbooks.
“Both Texas and California have a lot of influence on content,” she said. “But there’s a movement to put more textbook-type content online, because it’s easier to keep it up to date—and obviously it’s much cheaper. It’s also easier to meet state guidelines and even to integrate local content.”
While Barth believes there is still a large demand for traditional textbooks, as more states and districts begin to use online texts, the influence of large states like Texas and California will be increasingly limited, she said.
“I’m not sure where things are now, but I suspect there are still a lot of textbooks being sold because [schools] haven’t caught up to the use of the technology,” Barth said.
Diskey said he thinks the surge of digital publishing has erased the common national baseline that once was included in textbooks. At the end of the day, he said, states and districts look at the material and make the decision to use a textbook.
Texas State Representative Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who sponsored a bill that provides for the adoption and use of open-source textbooks in the state, said digitally published textbooks could be a way for other states and districts to avoid the Texas curriculum.
“I think it works two ways. States that use open-source materials instead of just relying on a small group of textbook publishers will have more options if they want to avoid the Texas curriculum,” he said. “And, if the major publishers try to sell the Texas materials in other states, that may hasten states that haven’t yet gone electronic to look for alternatives in open-source materials and content from smaller electronic publishers.”
Diskey noted that there have been debates around school curriculum for years.
“It’s not a new thing. Textbooks have always been a place where our national culture and social wars are played out,” he said. “There were debates after the Civil War to determine how the Confederacy would be portrayed. … There were issues about how Vietnam was to be portrayed.”
But he said state boards of education are now more involved in handling the way issues such as evolution and global warming are covered in school.
Barth said history is always a tricky area when it comes to developing curriculum.
“Social studies is a hard subject area to write specific standards for. You have to make choices, and a lot of people feel very strongly about it,” she said.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.