Leading by (a Bad) Example

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

On May 20, The Texas State Board of Education voted to what some people have called “whitewashing” the history and social studies curriculum in the state to counterbalance “liberal-leaning academics.”

Some of the changes debated included adding and deleting current political figures from third-grade social studies standards, dismissing the “socialist” United Migrant Workers, and adding the Republican Chief Justice to the curriculum while excluding former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.

One amendment to the curriculum would have required that teachers place equal emphasis on Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address as that of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Although the amendment did not pass, what did pass was the requirement to compare and contrast the two speeches.

The 15-member elected body, served by 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats, edited school curriculum on a line-by-line basis. All votes were party line.

While I disagree with the content issues, my major objection is the intrusion into a process that has no place in politics. Similar in many ways to the Kansas State Board of Education’s 2005 decision to revise the teaching of evolution and creationism (which was overturned the following year when the Board was ripped out of office by voters), elected officials have no place in determining who or what is taught in our school system. Those decisions should be made by a broad team of education professionals and other community leaders. But not by elected officials who are more interested in their next fundraising campaign and “revising” history than serious education issues. This is why the new Common Core Standards for K-12 are so important. So these squabbles do not happen and we keep politicians out of the curriculum game. Interestingly enough, Texas is not one of the 48 states that have agreed to accept the new academic and college readiness standards. No surprise. The cost of wanting to be “different.”

Today I spoke at the Council of State Government’s conference in New York City on this and related issues. My reminder to the legislators in the room was to weigh what is important to student learning—and thus to US workforce competitiveness—and stay away from politics of education which do little or nothing to improve conditions for learning. These political power struggles are about one thing—gaining political advantage and altering the atmosphere and reality of our history. I hope they all learn from Kansas—what may be a short-term victory can turn around and end their political careers.

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