Texas Social Studies Reform: What Texans Aren’t Talking About—But Should Be


Mr. Erekson is the father of four children who are or will be students in Texas public schools. He also holds degrees in history and sociology, directs the social studies teacher education program at The University of Texas at El Paso, and manages the TEKSWatch website that tracks the state’s curriculum revision process. Find more at faculty.utep.edu/kaerekson.

This week the year-long process of revising the Texas social studies standards will become dramatically public as the State Board of Education (SBOE) hears testimony in Austin. Two preliminary revisions of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) have been circulated and the hearings will lead to a final draft to be passed into law in March.1 Unfortunately, the process has been constrained by a “laundry list” approach to history. Last summer an SBOE-appointed reviewer called for the removal of César Chávez, later a review committee removed Christmas, both times activists cried foul. Chávez and Christmas were restored, but public debate ossified into an exchange of tit-for-tat. The SBOE framed the debate this way by posting online a list of persons added or removed, and most major media accounts simply followed that lead.

As a father, a historian, and a social studies teacher educator, I call attention to three things that Texans aren’t talking about—but should be. We must abandon the laundry list approach to consider historical change, significance, and skills. Then we must hold the SBOE publicly accountable for their actions in the coming months.

1. Historical Change
The concept most basic to the study of history is change. The laundry list approach implies that “Great Men” (or women) change history. 2 Indeed, the version of the TEKS currently taught in schools effectively attributes the entire civil rights movement to Martin Luther King Jr. While clearly an influential individual, King was one of many working to change political and social conditions of the time. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, was orchestrated by hundreds of residents—black and white—who challenged that city’s laws. 3

The first revision of the TEKS added additional names and organizations to the civil rights laundry list, but the second draft broke the mold to present individuals, organizations, and congressional debates pushing for and against changes in the civil rights era. 4 This improved view of historical change is a highlight of the revisions and should be replicated throughout the curriculum. For instance, a laundry list of scientists has been removed from world history with no improved treatment of scientific advancement while foot-severing conquistador Juan de Oñate has been squeezed into third grade as a community builder with Columbus and the Founding Fathers.5

2. Historical Significance
The laundry list approach implicitly invites a fight over significance. Presently, Hispanic state legislators are challenging the latest draft of the TEKS by calling for increased inclusion of Hispanics. Predictably, reactionary public comments have called to include more Scots, more bankers, or whatever the tribe of the aroused responder. We must instead converse about how and why something from the past is considered significant.

Significance is not so much an innate trait as a rhetorical concept. Things from the past are significant to someone at some time for some reason—and while the past does not change, the audience, times, and reasons do. 6 Selecting significant items from the past is in many ways like searching the Internet today—one will find millions of “hits” but can only click on some of them. Unlike Google, historians do not have a secret algorithm and robotic spiders that plumb the past (but like Google we, too, are influenced by outside appeals). Generally, we consider the effect of things that came before an item, its immediate influence in its time, and its long-term impact on subsequent events—the Republican Party drew membership from the dying Whig Party, the Pullman Strike shut down American rail transportation, the League of Nations set a precedent for the United Nations. Declaring that an item “was there, too” proves far less persuasive than showing how someone did something novel, influenced her time, or impacts Texas today.

3. Historical Skills
Perhaps the greatest flaw of the laundry list approach lies in its incomprehension of history as a way of knowing. Every grade level in the TEKS ends with a section on “social studies skills” but they are typically generic statements copied and pasted from year to year. Scholars of history teaching and learning employ numerous means to help students read and understand historical sources, think about change and significance, evaluate evidence and bias in historical interpretations, and write effectively about the past—skills that will, of course, benefit our children throughout their lives.
One example from seventh grade Texas history may illustrate this benefit. The revised TEKS draft adds reasons for Texas secession during the Civil War—“states rights, slavery, sectionalism, and tariffs.” 7 By contrast, in 1861 Texans issued “A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union” in which they named slavery and sectionalism but did not mention the tariff or our modern concept of states’ rights. Instead they emphasized racial superiority and argued that northerners had annulled the Constitution.8   Helping students read and evaluate this source will teach them far more about Texas history than simply mandating an inaccurate laundry list.

An Open Public Revision Process
With the crucial final two months of public debate and revision upon us, Texans can improve the process by demanding that the SBOE openly document their final revisions. For the first draft of revisions, the SBOE required review committees to explain every change. But changes made between drafts 1 and 2 were not all documented or explained— references to “Hebrew” culture have been replaced by “Judeo-Christian” and the Catholic Church was removed from world history.9 Furthermore, the Texas Education Agency has unexplainably obstructed the process by posting SBOE updates randomly across two different websites. Important announcements lay buried on one site, or worse, loaded online with no link from either. Our elected officials should follow the same standard of open communication they enforced earlier in the process.
All Texans—parents, teachers, journalists, politicians, employers, and SBOE members—should reject the laundry list approach and choose to talk openly about change, significance, skills. If we succeed, our children will thank us for the historically significant change we wrought in their lives and in the history of Texas.


1 In 1998 Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) directed the state legislature to adopt the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) as the legally governing standards for public school instruction; they may be found online at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter113/index.html. In 2009 the SBOE began to oversee a revision of the TEKS. It appointed review committees composed of school teachers, university faculty, and private citizens to propose changes to each grade and appointed six expert reviewers to make recommendations. The first (July 31, 2009) and second (October 17, 2009) drafts of revisions to the social studies TEKS are available online at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=3643. A third draft of revisions has been submitted for the formal public hearings in January; it available online as an 87-page pdf file at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/e_attachments/2010/january/full_board/thur_5_social_studies_economics_a2.pdf. For more on the complicated review process visit TEKSWatch at http://academics.utep.edu/Default.aspx?tabid=61097.

2 Students tend to grasp quite easily that technology and clothing styles change; they are less likely to see change in abstract concepts such as political ideologies and religious practices.

3 Sociology professor and author Michael Eric Dyson characterizes histories that mention only Martin Luther King as employing a “Lone-Ranger theory of Historical Change” in I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 297. For a broader view of the Montgomery Bus Boycott see David J. Garrow, ed., The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987); Herbert Kohl, She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (New York: The New Press, 2005).

4 In the 1998 TEKS, the civil rights movement is treated in section §113.32.c.7; the first draft of revisions (October 17, 2009) moved it to §113.32.c.8 where it remained in the second draft. The draft submitted for the public hearing makes the section §113.41.c.8

5 In 1998 the scientists were listed in §113.33.c.23.E and §113.33.c.24.C; the second (October 17, 2009) draft of revisions replaces them with vaguer §113.33.c.25.A and §113.33.c.25.D; which are now item 113.42.c.25 in the draft submitted for public hearing. In the second (October 17, 2009) draft, Oñate “contributed to the expansion of existing communities or to the creation of new communities” in §113.5.b.1.C (§113.14.b.1.C in the draft submitted for public hearing).

6 For example, three years ago, students in my university courses glazed over during our discussions of the economic causes of the Great Depressions while today they will not stop asking questions about them. The Depression has not changed, and though I would like to take all of the credit for increasing student engagement, the humbler approach acknowledges that our present recession has made this part of the past more significant to my students and their families at this time in our lives.

7 In the second (October 17, 2009) draft of revisions, discussion of Texas in the Civil War is treated in §113.23.b.5.A (§113.19.b.5.A in the draft submitted for public hearing).

8 The “Declaration of Causes” is published online by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission at http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ref/abouttx/secession/2feb1861.html.

9 The 1998 edition of the world history TEKS spoke of the “authority” of the Catholic Church in §113.33.c.3.B; the first (July 31, 2009) revised draft moved Catholics to §113.33.d.1.E and spoke of their “decline”; the second (October 17, 2009) draft moved the item to §113.33.c.1.D and removed any reference to the Church (§113.42.c.1.D in the draft submitted for public hearing).

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/17/2010

I think you wrongly assume everyone supports the "command and control" style of teaching history, wherein the entire state or nation is clutched by a central bureau in Austin or Washington. If so you betray your de facto urge to program everybody, whether you recognize it or not.

The best answer to your otherwise impossible problem is to let local school districts buy whatever books they want, and hire whatever teachers they want to use them. Some districts will want more Protestant or Catholic history than others, some more hispanic references, some more black history, and yes, some may favor the key man theory and some may repudiate it.

Adopting a local option rule would give everyone satisfaction,(other than the people who control thought patterns now), it would break the textbook publishing monopolies (for enormous extra benefits), and the children and parents would gain from a plethora of diverse views, making them much more capable of resisting the schemes of political demagogues in the future than they are today.

Keith A. Erekson - 1/13/2010

You hit the conundrum right on the head - the process is politicized, shows no sign of changing, and historians have for too long opted out.

I think you are also right in observing that we must participate in many ways--on boards of education, via professional organizations, via data collection.

I also think that one of the discipline's biggest public problems is that we let others define the value of what we do (revision=bad). It is not that people don't or won't believe that new things can be learned (put an actor in a white lab coat and he can sell anything), it's just that we, collectively, have not taught the public why knowledge about the past changes. So they are suspicious of us.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/10/2010

I think this is very true, and very disturbing. This is an issue in college-level teaching as well, especially in introductory survey classes like World History: the idea of "master syllabi" and transferability requirements tends to emphasize history as Jeopardy-fodder rather than history as process or mindset, and textbooks -- stripped to the bone for students who hate reading (partially because the textbooks are written like encyclopedia) -- don't help, often. It's exacerbated by pressure from teacher ed programs, whose students need to have a good background in precisely that kind of names-and-facts non-history in order to qualify (Praxis) and to effectively teach curriculum standards like Texas'.

Historians have a completely different vision of what constitutes good history and a good history class. Here's the question, the necessary follow-up to this article: how do we as historians make this case in a political process where most of the interest groups involved are inclined to see us as "those so-called self-declared experts who have been ignoring what's important far too long"? The easy answer would be to "take the politics out of the process" but we're past the point where historians can be seen as some kind of "neutral expert": at best, we can be seen as partisans of a complex and specific vision of history as a discipline.

We need data showing that our approach works better. We need historians taking positions on political educational boards, or at least talking to them to educate them about our field. We need to push back against the "statues and plaques" approach to public history and the "historic firsts" journalistic tradition.

This is going to take time. Lots of time. It would be nice if some of our professional organizations got into the act, but I'm not sure that I see that happening in a productive way anytime soon.