A Textbook Case

Readin’, Writin’ and Rewritin’ History

Are Texas’ new history textbooks as bad as you’ve heard?

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen August 4, 2015 Published in the August 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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What do the State Board of Education’s revisionist history standards mean for HISD?

In the aftermath of June’s horrific shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, an extraordinary national debate erupted over the Confederacy and its legacy, with scholars and historians quoting original documents from the Confederate states’ founding, belying the commonly held position that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” wrote Mississippians in their state’s declaration of secession. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth….A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization….There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” 

Slavery and its causes were also a topic of conversation in 2010, at least locally, which is when the Texas State Board of Education last met to debate and rewrite the social studies curriculum taught in its public schools. Charged with the task of updating and rewriting the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards for social studies, the 15-member board, then dominated by social conservatives, decreed that students be taught that the causes of the Civil War were 1) sectionalism, 2) states’ rights and 3) slavery, in that order. In other words, if the causes of slavery were presidential candidates, slavery would be Ross Perot. 

Five years on, the fruits of the SBOE’s labors—new textbooks on history and other subjects, written according to its guidelines—will make their way into the hands of Texas’s estimated 5.4 million public school students this month, 1.2 million of them in the Houston metropolitan area. But what will they be learning?

The answer depends largely on which teaching materials a school district adopts. If it chooses, as Houston Independent School District did, the 2015 Texas edition of United States History: Colonization through Reconstruction, Pearson’s eighth grade history textbook, students will learn that “secession was an issue of states’ rights and sovereignty,” a passage that in satisfying the TEKS requirements distracts from the text’s larger emphasis on slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War.

How did we get here? It was in 2009 that the SBOE, led by then-chairman Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan and self-described young-Earth creationist (i.e., the universe was created by God sometime within the past 10,000 years), joined other Christian conservatives in rewriting TEKS standards for the teaching of science, requiring, among other things, that students analyze and identify so-called weaknesses in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Turning its attention to history and social studies the following year, the SBOE decided that Moses and “Biblical law” were major influences of the Founding Fathers, that the actions of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s were justified owing to the existence of Communists in the government, and that the Great Depression was caused only by stock market speculation, bank failures and the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Record income inequality did not make the list.

In the new TEKS standards, “American imperialism” became “American expansionism,” and the slave trade known by the kinder, gentler “transatlantic trade.” Students would be taught to “evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine US sovereignty through the use of treaties,” to “discuss the solvency of long-term entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare,” and that a discussion of American cultural movements should include talk of country-and-western music but not hip-hop, otherwise known as the most popular genre of music on the planet.

Needless to say, the board’s actions created bipartisan national outrage, which in turn led the Texas legislature to pass Senate Bill 6 in 2011, drastically reducing the SBOE’s power. Henceforth, state textbooks would not need to meet all of the TEKS standards, just 50 percent. Furthermore, individual districts would have complete authority to choose what books they used, including books that did not receive a stamp of approval from the SBOE. 

While it would be a mistake to assume that the board’s reign is ending—those shiny new textbooks based on its curriculum standards will be in use until at least 2020—the balance of power is shifting to the school districts and publishers, it would seem. The latter did scramble to make changes to their books last November, during the SBOE’s final, contentious public hearings, but judging by two new 11th-grade American history books—Texas editions by academic heavyweights Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—there were limits to how much some of the publishers were willing to rewrite history.

Rather than speak of international treaties “undermining” American sovereignty, as stipulated by the SBOE, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Americans offers a patient timeline of the growth of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in the 20th and 21st centuries, along with the arguments some Americans make against them. The Pearson text, United States History: 1877 to the Present, in a short section titled “The Causes of the Depression,” contains, among other things, a lengthy analysis (including graphs) of the widening income gap between rich and poor. And though both textbooks are focused on America post-Civil War, both name slavery as the primary cause of that war. 

“In all fairness, it’s clear that the publishers struggled with these flawed standards and still managed to do a good job in some areas,” said Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a left-leaning group that commissioned an independent panel of historians to evaluate the submitted texts last summer. “On the other hand, a number of textbook passages essentially reflect the ideological beliefs of politicians on the state board rather than sound scholarship and factual history.”

Does that mean that Houston-area students will necessarily get an incomplete or skewed picture of history, government and economics this fall? No, or at least not in HISD, which, thanks in part to Senate Bill 6, evaluates textbooks and other teaching materials independently, setting its own curriculum, though one that necessarily conforms to the TEKS standards. 

“HISD has an appointed committee that views, evaluates and discusses the various options for particular courses. The committee consists of curriculum leaders and teachers from various campuses,” says Annie Wolfe, secondary curriculum and development officer at HISD. 

So which shiny new textbooks will HISD students be bringing home? None of them. Wolfe reports that print versions of all high school textbooks have phased out as of this year, replaced by a digital curriculum featuring the materials of four publishers, only two of which received SBOE approval. History: it just keeps marching on.

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