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State Board of Education

Social Studies

The debate in 2009-10 over new social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools predictably spiraled down into another “culture war” battle pushed by far-right pressure groups and their allies on the State Board of Education. As with science standards in 2008-09, state board members heavily revised drafts written by teachers and scholars and refused to consult with academic experts during debate over amendments. The new standards dictate what students learn in Texas public schools over the next decade.

Among the worst changes board member made was the adoption of a new curriculum standard for high school American government that suggests separation of church and state is not a key principle of the Constitution. In fact, far-right board members explicitly rejected a proposed standard requiring students to examine how the Founders protected religious freedom by barring government from promoting of favoring any particular religion over all others. Some board members even insisted that separation of church and state is a "myth."

Among other problems in the new social studies standards:

  • A revised standard that downplays the central role that the issue of slavery played in causing the Civil War
  • A new requirement that students contrast the ideas in Confederate President Jefferson Davis's inaugural address (which didn't even mention slavery) with speeches by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln
  • Downplaying the significance of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from the 1750s to the present
  • Revised standards that exaggerate religious influences on the Founders and the founding documents
  • A new standard requiring that students learn about the political positions of conservative leaders and icons, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Moral Majority
  • A revised standard suggesting that witch hunts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the1950s were justified
  • Removing the concept of "responsibility for the common good," which one board member criticized as too communistic

Independent reviews have given the new standards very low marks. A 2011 report from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, ripped the new standards for American history. The report criticized those standards as a "politizied distortion of history" with "misrepresentations at every turn."

A report later in 2011 written for the Social Studies Faculty Collaborative (a body established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board) sharply criticized the state board for failing to adopt new history standards that align with the state's college readiness standards: "No student will succeed in college or the workplace if he confuses writings with speeches, conducts a one-sided analysis, or simply spits back a string of memorized information. No Texas parent would desire this for her child and no profit-minded Texas business leader would hire a graduate who had attained only these abysmal standards." That report also criticized the board's process in crafting the new history standards: "Over the course of eight months, the lawyers and realtors and dentist on the board made hundreds of changes to the standards. As the politicians squabbled over the politics of who should be in or out, they tacitly adopted a bi-partisan agreement to ignore principles of sound pedagogy."

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TFN Resources

Live-blog of the final debate and voter over the social studies standards
Press releases from the final three days of hearings and debate at the SBOE: here, here, here and here
Video highlights of debate on social studies standards on TFNTV

TFN Education Fund poll on church-state separation and curriculum standards

Board member Don McLeroy's proposed amendments from May hearing
Board member Cynthia Dunbar's opening prayer at the SBOE's last social studies meeting

Op-ed from TFN President Kathy Miller about the social studies debate

Who were the state board's social studies 'experts'?

Board member Don McLeroy on civil rights (not pretty)

Rehabilitating Joseph McCarthy?

More Information

The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, Jeremy A. Stern and Sheldon M. Stern, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, February 16, 2011
Bridging the Gap Between K-12 and College Readiness Standards in Texas: Recommendations for U.S. History,
Keith A. Erekson for the Social Studies Faculty Collaborative of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, November 2011
Texas Education Agency information page on the social studies curriculum standards

New York Times Magazine article about the social studies debate

Washington Monthly article about the social studies debate