The commitment to mediocrity continues to thrive at the Texas State Board of Education. Last week the board’s creationist bloc once again stopped board reformers — both Republicans and Democrats — from changing the outrageously politicized process for revising curriculum standards for Texas public schools.
Observers who watched the state board revise curriculum standards for language arts/reading, science and social studies in the last five years know how badly that process needs reform. Board members during those revisions made hundreds of politically motivated changes to drafts of curriculum standards that had been carefully crafted (in one case over the course of nearly three years) by teachers and scholars. And when board members appointed so-called “experts” to advise them, they often chose political activists who shared their personal and political agendas but lacked the academic credentials that would have reasonably qualified them as “experts.”
Board reformers first proposed changes to improve the curriculum standards revision process in January 2011, but the board’s creationists succeeded in blocking most of them. Last week reformers tried again. But partly because one board moderate, Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, was absent, board creationists once again succeeded in blocking most of the proposed changes. Among the disappointments:
- Reformers proposed that experts appointed to help them revise curriculum standards have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the curriculum standards being revised. The current rule is that an expert need only have a bachelor’s degree in any field. A master’s or doctorate would be a better indicator of expertise, but surely it seems reasonable to expect that an “expert” in, for example, science have at least a bachelor’s degree in that field. But that was too much for the board’s creationists. “I don’t know why we’d want to limit ourselves,” said board member and evolution denier Terri Leo, R-Spring. The proposal failed on a tie vote.
- Reformers then proposed that appointments to “expert” panels require at least a majority vote by the board. Board creationists, however, argued that the current rule — that appointment to an “expert” panel requires the consent of just two board members — “protects the rights of the minority.” “I don’t think we need to be in the business of vetting other people’s experts,” said board member David Bradley, R-
BeaumontBuna. “It’s an uncomfortable situation.” Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, even argued that requiring two board members to agree on a nominee was a sufficient check to stop “crazy people” from being appointed: “I can’t pick a crazy person because I’ve got to get another (board member) to agree.” The proposal for a majority vote for “experts” lost by one vote.
- Reformers also wanted to rein in the board’s habit of making sometimes hundreds of amendments to proposed drafts of new curriculum standards late in the revision process without formal guidance from teachers, scholars or anyone else. But the board’s creationists defeated a motion requiring that proposed amendments to draft standards be filed at least 24 hours in advance so that all members would have a chance to study them and consult with scholars and other experts. Lowe and other creationists argued that such a requirement would “hamper” their work.
The best that reformers could do was pass a compromise measure allowing members of the board’s “expert” panels to provide input on changes the board makes to proposed curriculum standards after “first reading” — the first of two rounds of debate before final passage of the standards. But that new rule doesn’t address changes the board makes during “second reading,” which is the meeting at which the board takes a final vote on approving the proposed standards. Many of the board’s changes to proposed language arts, science and social studies standards came at second reading — in some cases right up to just minutes before the final vote. In 2008, for example, the board approved language arts standards that had been largely rewritten overnight by the board’s creationist faction and slipped under the hotel room doors of colleagues an hour before the final meeting. In 2010 board members refused to delay final adoption of the heavily revised and controversial social studies standards so that scholars and teachers could review the changes first.
The board will have another opportunity to reform the curriculum revision process in January. Six current board members are either not running for re-election this year or were defeated in their party primaries on May 29. The November general election could bring other changes. But last week’s board meeting was discouraging for Texans who are tired of seeing curriculum decisions based on the political and personal beliefs of whatever majority controls the State Board of Education rather than on the recommendations of teachers and scholars.