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History Revised, Teachers Sacked: The Book Wars in Texas and Beyond

4 years ago
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It's been a brawl for years, this education culture war that seems to take on a particularly vicious turn in the heart of Texas. The latest and most important round, a drastic revision of the social studies curriculum standards to put a conservative spin on history and economics textbooks, was given preliminary approval after a series of heated meetings of the Texas Board of Education that didn't do much to improve the image of the nation's second largest state as a sometimes small-minded political and educational backwater.

In a matter of days last week in Austin, the majority of the 15-member board, insisting they were only trying to offset liberal bias in textbooks, questioned Darwin's theory of evolution and the constitutional principle of separation of church and state; debated hip-hop and genocide in Darfur; deleted Albert Einstein and Thomas Alva Edison from textbooks; emphasized Christian teachings and fundamentalist values; adopted conservative articles of faith like American exceptionalism; promoted right-wing leaders and organizations like Phyllis Schlafly and the National Rifle Association; and refused to give adequate attention to Hispanic and African American contributions to U.S. and Texas history.To no one's surprise, on the final round on Friday, the conservatives pulled a decisive victory, 10-5 -- a tally that broke along predictable party lines, Republicans to the right, Democrats to the left. Ethnic minority members stood on the losing side. According to published reports, no experts on the social sciences were consulted. Given the conservative cast of the board, whose members are elected, the changes it has proposed will stand when the final vote is taken in May.

Leaving the meeting, a Democratic board member, Mavis Knight, of Dallas, was fulminating, saying, she could not be a party to "perpetrating this fraud on the students of this state." It was not a pretty sight. The board will surely become, or has already become, the butt of jokes on late-night shows and "Saturday Night Live."

But this is not a local squabble or a local issue. It's not a colorful shoot 'em up in the Texas corral. It so happens that the Texas board is perhaps the most influential in the country. Its guidelines will affect not only the 4.7 million Texas public school students but will likely spread to many other states, from kindergarten to 12th grade for the next 10 years. Texas textbook standards are usually adopted by publishers because the state will buy 48 million of them every year, and many other states -- 47 by some counts -- will follow that model. In light of those figures, publishers will happily take their cue from the Lone Star State.

All in all, it has been a turbulent few weeks for public education in America.

On Saturday, President Obama called for major changes in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, proposing to measure students' and schools' progress not on test scores alone but also on such metrics as attendance, graduation rates and learning environment, according to the New York Times. The president's educational blueprint, which he will send to the Congress on Monday, will fulfill a campaign promise to overhaul the federal law, which affects the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools, the Times reported.

Obama's move comes after the National Governors Association last week proposed tougher nationwide school standards with an eye to raising the world standing of the United States in math and science education. The proposals, which emphasize writing and reasoning skills, set out to prepare students to succeed in college. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia participated in setting the proposed standards, according to published reports. But this proposal is just that, a proposal. It's not a done deal.

In Rhode Island, a school board fired the entire faculty of a school that had not been performing up to par. The dismissal of 93 teachers and staff in Central Falls was shocking enough to the community and the school system. But what brought the firings to national attention was President Obama's support of the board's decision, which he saw as a major step in holding schools and teachers accountable.

A storm of charges and counter-charges followed, pitting the powerful teachers unions against the president whose candidacy the unions supported with sweat and money in 2008. Oddly, conservatives and Obama landed on the same side, with conservatives backing the move for holding a school responsible for failure. Whatever the outcome of the controversy, the Central Falls decision is likely to affect hundreds of school districts which are under pressure from the federal government to change or risk losing funds.

Following on the heels of Central Falls, the city of Boston demanded that staff members at six failing schools reapply for their jobs. The city was acting, like Central Falls, to meet the requirements of the Obama Administration's turnaround program, which expects failing schools to change by lengthening the school day, converting to charter schools, firing staff, or closing altogether.

The Kansas City Board of Education didn't have to pick among those choices when it voted on Wednesday to close half the city's public schools -- not necessarily because the schools were performing poorly, but because the system faced falling enrollment, smaller budgets and a $50 million deficit. They call it the Right-Size plan, and it will close 28 of the city's 61 schools and trim 700 of 3,000 jobs. Where the school children will go, no one really knows. For Kansas City, it was yet another blow to its public schools.

Back in Austin, initial reports of the board vote on Friday drew a flood of comments on the web site of the Austin American-Statesman. One of the earlier salvos -- "them white folks sure is crazy!" -- spoke volumes for the one side. It echoed the words of a frustrated board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, who was quoted by the New York Times as saying as she walked out of a meeting, "They can't just pretend this is a white America, and Hispanics don't exist."

And that's how it went.

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