Guest Column: Please, No State Board of Embarrassment

Lately the State Board of Education has been caught in the culture wars crossfire. Take the example of last year’s revision of the social studies curriculum. From one side, liberal comedian Jon Stewart mocks the reasoning behind SBOE decisions. From the other side, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute assigns a “D” grade to the outcome of the process.

Usually when a group takes heat from the left and from the right, it’s setting a course somewhere in the moderate middle. Not so the SBOE when it revised the social studies curriculum. Or when it revised the science curriculum the year before. Or when it revised the language arts curriculum the year before that.

In each of these cases, ideology trumped reasoned decision-making. The result is a curriculum that’s too often bloated with trivia, that favors political posturing over sound scholarship, that’s sometimes incoherent and hopelessly vague. In the case of the social studies curriculum, there are even standards cribbed word-for-word from Wikipedia and other dubious sources. Surely we Texans can do better than this.

There’s still time to fix the social studies standards: Funds won’t be appropriated for new social studies textbooks before 2013. But it’s also important that we learn from the recent hullabaloo and put in place safeguards to keep us off The Daily Show.

The SBOE needs to make it more difficult for individual members to amend the curriculum at the 11th hour. Some of my colleagues boast that there are now “more minorities than ever before” in the curriculum, but the political card-trading behind the boasting (“I’ll give you César Chávez if you give me Jefferson Davis and Phyllis Schlafly”) results in standards that make a mockery of diversity and common sense.

Concerned Texans from a wide range of backgrounds — teachers and parents and academics and business leaders and others — spend many months drafting, reviewing and offering insight into the public school curriculum. The revised standards are reviewed in successive SBOE meetings over a two- or three-month period. Tacking on changes at the last possible moment doesn’t allow for thoughtful debate and typically results in lousy policy. If we need to do a better job reaching out to the public to solicit their input or if we need to revamp the way the SBOE meets to weigh public testimony more thoughtfully, then so be it. Calling an audible works if you’re playing football and if your name is Peyton Manning — and even he throws an interception now and then. We’re playing a higher-stakes game and, with all due respect to my colleagues, we’re no Peyton Manning. (We’re not even Tony Romo.)

The SBOE doesn’t need to “stand up to the experts” when they offer their subject-area advice — we need to listen to and trust them, as well as classroom teachers and other front-line educators. As someone with a day job researching and teaching American literature and cultural history, I’ve developed enough expertise in one area to know better than to presume expertise in others. I’m lucky enough to work with some of the nation’s leading authorities in the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences, and I seek out their advice and the advice of others around the state and across the nation when (for example) I need to consider the merits of instructional products now being considered for use in Texas science classrooms. When the supplemental science materials come before the SBOE next month, I’ll take great comfort knowing that I’ve been advised by some outstanding scientists and science educators.

The SBOE needs to think realistically and strategically about whom we serve and how we serve them. Above all, we need to keep Texas children at the center of every last decision, big and small. As a public school dad, I’m privileged to be reminded of my real constituents — students — each and every day. The curriculum and textbooks that we adopt aren’t worth a hill of beans if they don’t prepare kids for college and career success. The public charter schools approved by the SBOE won’t serve their true purpose — laboratories for classroom innovation and community engagement — if they erode support for independent school districts. The fact that Texas students are today mostly poor (59 percent) and mostly Latino (50.2 percent) should be seen not as a steep obstacle but as a magnificent opportunity to build a smart, engaged, upwardly mobile society.

Most of all, the SBOE needs to restore public faith in how we operate. We hold elective office, but the day after Election Day we forget to check the partisan maneuvering at the door. We need to reassure Texans that we’re ready to put sound judgment ahead of politics — that we’re ready to work alongside teachers and others to do right by Texas kids.

When Stewart comes to Texas in search of material, I sincerely hope that he’s able to bypass the SBOE and go where the real laughs are: the Capitol.

Michael Soto, an associate professor of English and the director of the McNair Scholars Program at Trinity University in San Antonio, represents District 3 on the State Board of Education.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.