Those Awful Texas Social Studies Standards

And What About Yours?

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

You’ve probably read the horror stories coming out of Texas about their social studies standards. In March, the Texas board of education gave preliminary approval to new standards that, according to the New York Times, “will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government, and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” The Texas board of education has rehabilitated Sen. Joe McCarthy, erased mention of the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights declaration, and required that the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis be taught alongside Lincoln’s inaugural. And that’s just a taste of more than 100 amendments that Republicans have made to the 120-page social studies curriculum standards.

No doubt, the victory of conservative ideologues on the Texas board of education is troubling and worth the attention it’s getting. With 4.7 million students, the Texas market is huge and exerts a powerful influence on the whole textbook industry. As Fritz Fischer, chair of the National Council for History Education, told the Washington Post, “The books that are altered to fit the standards become the bestselling books, and therefore within the next two years they’ll end up in other classrooms.”

But all this Texas bashing implies that standards everywhere else are good and fair and true. In fact, other states’ social studies standards have their own conservative biases (and occasional silliness) and deserve the same critical scrutiny that Texas’ new standards are receiving. Other states may not celebrate Jefferson Davis, but neither do they encourage teachers to equip students with the historical background and analytical tools that they’ll need to understand and address today’s social and environmental crises.

Take my own blue state of Oregon. This is no bastion of conservatism. We have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature; both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are four of our five U.S. representatives. But our social studies standards are profoundly conservative—in big and little ways. There is no recognition of the social emergency that we confront: a deeply unequal and unsustainable world, hurtling toward an ecological crisis without parallel in human history. The standards portray U.S. society as fundamentally harmonious, with laws designed to promote fairness and progress. Today’s wars don’t exist. Nor does hunger or poverty.

Political Bias

The first social studies benchmark in Oregon’s standards requires that 3rd graders begin a nationalistic curricular journey as they learn to “identify essential ideas and values expressed in national symbols, heroes, and patriotic songs of the United States.” By the time these 3rd graders reach high school they’ll “understand how laws are developed and applied to provide order, set limits, protect basic rights, and promote the common good.”

Capitalism is a well-oiled machine. Eighth graders learn “how supply and demand respond predictably to changes in economic circumstances.” The 8th-grade economics standards include not a single mention of social class. Instead, everyone is smashed together as “a consumer, producer, saver, and investor in a market economy.” No owners and workers who might have conflicting interests—we’re all producers.

And what about the inequality that so many students can observe on their way to school? Eighth graders should: “Understand that people’s incomes, in part, reflect choices they have made about education, training, skill development, and careers.” No mention of the other factors that determine income: race, gender, social class, nationality, immigration status.

Labor unions make only one parenthetical appearance. But unions are irrelevant, because in Standardsland, wages and salaries are “usually determined by the supply and demand for labor”; organizing has nothing to do with wages.

In fact, in most instances, the standards do not ask teachers or texts to alert students to the power of collective action, of working in concert with others to enhance their economic circumstances—which, in the real world, is when people’s lives actually get better. Instead, students are told to get ahead by making smarter individual choices.

And that’s the message of the standards in a nutshell: In the United States we wend our way through society as individual choice makers. Grade 5: “Identify and give examples of how individuals can influence the actions of government.” And then in grade 8: “Identify the responsibilities of citizens of the United States and understand what an individual can do to meet these responsibilities.” In the standards, individuals may have social efficacy, but for the most part only as individuals, not as members of organizations or social movements. Not surprisingly, the standards’ pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps message is never complicated by concepts like race or racism, which make no appearance in the standards.

And, in these times of ecological crisis, the standards include no mention of human-caused climate change—only a line about how climate change can affect human activity. The standards encourage students to view the earth as a playground and a source of wealth. By grade 5, students will: “Understand how the physical environment presents opportunities for economic and recreational activity.”

Pedagogical Bias

There is also a crucial pedagogical bias in social studies standards that was evident as far back as 1994, with the publication of the first National Standards for United States History by the National Center for History in the Schools. Those standards required coverage of such an enormous amount of material that teachers could succeed only if they adopted a stand-and-deliver rush through the ages. This academic weightlifting lives on. For example, Oregon’s high school world history standards require students to learn about: how the agricultural revolution contributed to and accompanied the Industrial Revolution; the concepts of imperialism and nationalism; “how European colonizers interacted with indigenous populations of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and how the native populations responded”; Japanese expansion and the consequences for Japan and Asia during the 20th century; the impact of the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the cause of China’s Communist Revolution of 1949; the causes and consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917; the causes and consequences of the Mexican Revolution of 1911–17; the causes of World War I and why the United States entered it; World War II; the Holocaust; the Cold War; the causes and impact of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

I’m not joking. In one year. And that’s only a sampling of what students are expected to learn. There’s more. Obviously, the only way a conscientious—well, obedient—teacher could handle such a curricular task is to start talking fast in September and not stop until sometime in June. And rely on a huge textbook. Sorry, kids, no time for role plays, trials, simulations, imaginative writing, small group discussions, short stories, poetry, or anything else that will slow us down. It’s December, and we haven’t even gotten to Mao’s Long March.

Social studies should help students grasp knowledge and tools of analysis so as to make the world a better place. Social studies should help students name and explain obstacles to justice, peace, equality, and sustainability. Instead, social studies standards like Oregon’s are simply about covering material.

What Do Your State Standards Say?

These are merely my own state’s standards. A few years ago, Christine Sleeter wrote a fine article for Rethinking Schools, “Standardizing Imperialism” (Fall 2004), analyzing how the California state social studies standards endorsed a curricular Manifest Destiny that celebrates “explorers” and “newcomers” who “visit” and “settle.” Sleeter found that “California’s curriculum folds students into a ‘we’ that is Western, Judeo-Christian, and has a democratic government with a capitalist market economy. These are juxtaposed to ‘them’: non-Western, not Judeo-Christian, and totalitarian (or not free). . . . The standards have difficulty incorporating as ‘we’ those whom the United States had previously colonized.”

The real Texas standards story is not that the state has become some curricular outlaw. Yes, Texas has adopted some especially obnoxious standards—e.g., celebrating right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly while scrapping United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta. But, as historian Eric Foner pointed out in a recent article in the Nation, Texas harms its students not so much by inserting or erasing particular facts or individuals, but in its overall framework—one that uncritically endorses “free enterprise” as it “ignores those who have struggled to make this a fairer, more equal society.”

And in this respect, the Texas standards more likely resemble than depart from other states’ social studies standards. So by all means, let’s monitor, critique, and organize against Texas’ reactionary standards. But let’s also revisit our own state social studies standards and not just shake a scolding finger at Texas.

 Bill Bigelow (Contact Me) is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.