Testing Companies, Corporate Lobbyists, and Texas Textbooks

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alan Singer Social studies educator, Hofstra University

Did you ever read a newspaper, see two conflicting articles on the same page, and wonder if the authors and the editors even read the newspaper? It frequently happens when I read The New York Times. On March 11, 2010 The Times ran a front-page article "Panel Proposes Single Standard For All Schools." It seems a "panel of educators" proposed national standards for math and English that would align instruction in these areas across the United States. The article continued on page A20 where we learned that the "educators" were really from three groups, the College Board, ACT, and Achieve Inc. The College Board and Act are testing agencies not educators, and Achieve Inc is a lobbying group whose Board of Directors is made up of politicians and CEOs. I learned this from their websites. How did the reporters and editors from The Times miss it? It is true, however, that the rewritten standards were endorsed by educational organizations.

If you are wondering why the "panel of educators" focused on English and math, you have to read the other article on page A20, "Texas Conservatives Seek Deeper Stamp on Texts." The "panel of experts" focused on math and English because the only standards anyone could agree on are skills-based. When it comes to what content should be taught and the best approaches for teaching, we are in the middle of an all out culture war. I have nothing against the skills proposals; they actually make sense, and it also makes sense to have some coordination. But let us not pretend they solve the problems of education in this country. I guess it is always safest to avoid the real issues.

What worries me about the Texas battle over curriculum is that the state has unusual influence over textbook publishers. In most states individual school districts decide which books to use. In Texas, decisions are made statewide. That makes Texas an extraordinarily large market, a market publishers do not want to risk getting closed out of. That means anything stupid decided by the Texas State Board of Education can likely appear in textbooks across the country.

The Texas State Board of Education wants conservatives portrayed in a more positive light, to emphasize the role played by Christianity in American history, and to include more Republican ideas and politicians in the history curriculum. The problem of course is always in the details. I certainly would favor focusing more on Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative, Christian, Republican who warned the American people about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and used federal troops to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas schools because it is the job of the President to enforce the law whether they agree with it or not.

I would also like students to know how Christianity was used to justify slavery, witch trials, the KKK, and nativism; how conservative groups opposed U.S. entry into World War II, the right of women to vote, and civil rights for minorities; and how Republican economic policies and leaders precipitated the Great Depression of 1929 to 1941 and the current Great Recession. However, I suspect these are not the things that the Texas School Board wants to emphasize.

The idea of developing national educational standards in social studies and other subject areas was fueled during the 1980s by concern that American secondary school students trailed their foreign contemporaries in academic performance. Clearly these concerns have not abated. National standards were endorsed by the Republican administration of George W. H. Bush at a national governors' conference in 1989, and in 1994 they were included in GOALS 2000 legislation signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

At first glance, the creation of broad voluntary national standards sounds like an activity appropriate for classroom teachers familiar with what is taught in different secondary school subjects on a daily basis. However, the development of national standards for social studies quickly became a contested battleground involving academics, public and private funding agencies, politicians, and competing professional organizations.

When the U.S. and world history standards were released by the National Center for History in Schools, they included suggested approaches to the study of history, statements outlining broad historical themes, lists of topics to analyze, and suggestions for how some of the themes and topics could be examined in social studies classes. Although the broader themes and topics were generally ignored by critics, the classroom suggestions quickly became a lightening rod for conservative discontent with public education, multiculturalism, immigration, ethnic identity movements, a declining U.S. economy, and "eroding family values." The standards were widely denounced in the popular media; a columnist for U.S. News and World Report charged that they placed "Western civilization . . . on a par with the Kush and the Carthagians," and they were overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate.

Initially, the historians and educational groups who developed the history standards vigorously defended them at professional conferences and in social studies publications. The Organization of American Historians dedicated an entire theme issue of its magazine for secondary school teachers to a discussion of the standards. Spokespeople for the National Center for History in Schools stressed that the standards were voluntary, and accused critics of a "disinformation campaign."

In April 1996, the National Center for History in Schools issued a new single volume of revised national history standards. The New York Times noted that, based on recommendations by two review panels, the revised standards eliminated "their most criticized feature: the examples of classroom activities." The review panels wanted the teaching examples dropped because of concern that they invited students "to make facile moral judgments." The new standards, minus the teaching suggestions, were almost as widely acclaimed as the original draft was condemned.

If I read the initial criticisms and the later praise correctly, the first versions of the national history standards were rejected because they moved beyond broad generalities and discussed the ideas and information that teachers would present in social studies classes. The teaching suggestions were unacceptable because they involved students in examining fundamental assumptions about history, American society, and world civilizations -- exactly what I believe social studies is supposed to be about in a democratic society.

The Dixie Chicks got it right when they said they were ashamed that George Bush came from Texas. I think they have a lot more to be ashamed of now.