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Not enough Texas? Concerns over history derail social studies revamp

The State Board of Education’s debate over what students learn hit snags during a marathon hearing.

Disagreements over how much Texas history should be taught — and when — could derail the state’s revamp of social studies.

More than 100 people packed a Monday marathon hearing for the State Board of Education to voice support and criticism of a new approach toward teaching students history.

A draft proposal would eliminate stand-alone Texas history classes in fourth and seventh grades. Instead, children would learn the state’s history across several grades.

Critics said such a move could water down the lessons.

“I’m afraid we’re going to lose our Texas history,” SBOE member Pam Little, R-Fairview, said.

But supporters of the change noted that Texas history didn’t unfold in isolation from the world and country, so it shouldn’t be taught that way.

“This is a much bigger story than fourth grade,” said Donald Frazier, who served as a content adviser to help shape the state standards. “Texas is a huge story, and it’s going to be an even bigger one.”

The board was divided, upping the stakes for future hearings on the standards — referred to as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS. Some said they were excited by the chronological approach to history but the current proposals left them feeling nervous.

Much of the public testimony, though, was infused with the culture war rhetoric. Several speakers appeared to be drawing from a memo sent out by the conservative Texas Values group that urged people to show up and decry what they believe are attempts to remove references to America’s Christian heritage.

Mary Elizabeth Castle, with Texas Values, told the board that social studies standards should include references to Moses and not LGBT advocacy.

In a memo, the group told readers that a proposed change in the TEKS is to have students learn the Texas Rangers are “an instrument of oppression.”

After a woman brought this concern to the board during her testimony, SBOE chair Keven Ellis, R-Lufkin, pushed for clarity.

Ellis read the direct language — which asks students to explain the clash between Mexican Americans and the Texas Rangers during the Mexican Revolution — from the proposed standards.

The speaker eventually agreed the wording was neutral.

Little told her colleagues that she had heard from many social studies administrators who opposed the changes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had this many supervisors contact me and just adamantly oppose this,” Little said. “I have spent hours on the phone with supervisors trying to defend it to them, and no matter what I’ve said, how I presented it, they weren’t buying it.”

Others, though, said they had heard a lot of excitement about the new direction of the TEKS and its potential to dive deeper into concepts over the course of several grades.

“To continue to do things the way we’ve always done them is not a good enough reason for me to say let’s take this train off the tracks,” Georgiana C. Pérez, D-El Paso, said. “I like the direction we’re going.”

SBOE members initially planned to take a final vote on the standards in November, which would give publishers enough time to prepare textbooks and instructional materials to roll out the new lessons by the 2025-26 school year.

The board sent the proposals back to be reworked, however, which could delay its adoption. SBOE is statutorily expected to complete the revisions by the end of 2022, Texas Education Agency staff said. Ellis said he spoke with lawmakers who agreed that taking time to make the right decision on the new standards was more important.

“The product is not at a point where we’re really comfortable with, but that’s on us,” Ellis said, emphasizing that the board initiated the framework overhaul.

Throughout the day, several speakers also urged the board to approve proposed Asian American and American Indian and Native Studies courses, to join the already established standards for Mexican American and African American Studies.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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