Last year, like so many years, Texas' attempt to adopt new science textbooks was clouded by controversy, as creationists tried once again to cut out teaching of evolution.
This year it's social studies' turn. And while experts say the state board, the elected and highly political body that governs textbook adoption, has worked to clean up the process, critics say there remain too few social studies scholars and too many unqualified, politically-motivated appointees on the panel that will help choose the textbooks.
"We've seen time and again the State Board politicize these subjects. Science, language, even math, but especially social studies," says Texas Freedom Network spokesman Dan Quinn.
The Fordham Institute, a conservative think-tank on education, issued a report in 2011 on the state of Texas' classroom social studies standards. The findings were grim:
"Texas combines a rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure with a politicized distortion of history. The result is both unwieldy and troubling, avoiding clear historical explanation while offering misrepresentations at every turn ... The leaders of the State Board of Education made no secret of their evangelical Christian- right agenda, promising to inculcate biblical principles, patriotic values, and American exceptionalism."
In the last couple of years, Texas has been making an effort to improve its reputation. "There are more than a 100 educators, teachers, and curriculum folks, on the list, and that's very good," says Quinn. "The alarming thing is the shockingly small number of academics who work at Texas universities on the list. And if you look at list you see a number of people who are simply not qualified."
Chief among these allegedly unqualified members is Mark Keough, a Tea Party Republican from Houston currently running for the Texas House. "He spent something like 26 years as a car salesman, is a pastor, and doesn't have a background in social studies," says Quinn. "He is simply not qualified to determine these textbook standards."
Included in the list of higher ed individuals that were not selected for panel membership are Dr. Kathleen Wellman, History Department chair at SMU, and Dr. Todd Moye, a tenured history professor at UNT.
"I applied to serve because of my concern that the review of social studies texts in Texas may reflect more about the political and ideological concerns of some members of the board than the state of current knowledge in these disciplines," Dr. Wellman told Unfair Park in an e-mail.
"I became concerned when I read the literature about the last review process. In particular, I was disconcerted by the fact that the Enlightenment seemed to have been written out as an influence on American history and that religious thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had been included instead in order, I assume, to more thoroughly ground our history in theology."
Quinn says the politicization of social studies textbooks promotes the personal political opinions of State Board members. "So the issue here is can we trust that the review process, put in place by state, is going to give an accurate reflection of facts and scholarship, or will it give us a political agenda?"
A politically motivated review committee could have ramifications that last the next decade. The last social studies textbook review was in 2002. The books that were adopted by that committee are still in use in most Texas classrooms.
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