Two hours into a meeting called to parse revisions to new social studies textbooks for Texas schoolchildren — and a month before the deadline for final approval — the State Board of Education found itself confronting a tricky question.
Was Sam Houston a liberal?
Board member Pat Hardy believed that Houston, hero of the Texas revolution and two-time president of the Texas Republic, might balk at the description.
“I don’t know if he would like that or not,” said Hardy, a Republican from Fort Worth. “I just never hear Sam Houston referred to as a liberal. And those of us who liked Sam Houston want to keep him on our side.”
In November, the 15-member elected board is set to approve new social studies materials, including books and online tools that will be used in Texas public schools for the next eight years.
Publishers have spent 18 months developing their versions of world, U.S. and Texas history and shepherding them through rounds of expert reviews, revisions and public comments, hoping to get their texts into the Texas market.
The final edit is now in the hands of a Republican-controlled board whose bruising political battles over curriculum standards — including infighting over everything from creationism to causes of the Civil War — have previously flared into national view.
In textbook-approval, state law limits the role of the education board to vetting instructional materials for factual errors and ensuring they meet Texas curriculum standards. But the process can still provide an opening for strong-willed state board members to wield outsize influence, pushing to include pet historical figures or alter the presentation of politically charged topics like climate change or Islamic fundamentalism.
Guidelines from the Texas Education Agency define a factual error as an objective inaccuracy or a bias so severe that it interferes with student learning. The latter category creates a large gray area, said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant.
“In the nebulous world of interfering with student learning,” said Ratliff, whose district crosses 31 counties in Northeast Texas, “when does bias become so bad that it becomes an error?”
Case in point? The question whether Sam Houston, who opposed secession, was a liberal. Asked by a colleague to explain how that constituted a factual error, Hardy said it was “methodological.”
“When you give a modern context to a historical event, that is a factual error in my opinion,” she said. “It’s almost like an anachronism.”
The process of reviewing the more than 100 products submitted for eight different social studies courses has revealed obvious mistakes like grammatical errors or incorrect answers on end-of-chapter quizzes. But more often, potential flaws have fallen into less objective territory: whether an account of the Arab-Israeli conflict strikes an appropriate balance, for example, or whether a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton should be included in a section on American leaders.
At the recent meeting, board members suggested that publishers make it clearer that Jews were the primary target of the Holocaust, add context to show that not all anti-abortion campaigners use violence and note that the bodyguards who assassinated the Indian leader Indira Gandhi were Sikhs.
Another time, as “food for thought,” board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-Woodlands, told a publisher that while she appreciated a text’s discussion of the role of religion in the French Revolution, there could be greater coverage of how it played in the American Revolution.
An exchange between a board member, Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, and Rhonda Haynes, a vice president of textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, illustrated the challenge that publishers face.
Mercer questioned whether a section on world religions included balanced coverage of “the good and the bad” of Islam, as required by the state curriculum standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS.
It depended on “who is defining balance,” Haynes said.
“The size of a textbook and then the need to meet certain TEKS, it limits opportunities to include a greater discussion,” she said. “To add more, we are just stuck. There is not enough room to do it.”
A 2011 law diluted some of the board’s control over instructional materials, in part to limit the ability of members to force publishers into making last-minute changes.
The law ended a requirement that any approved materials cover 100 percent of Texas curriculum standards, which curbed the board’s ability to knock a textbook off the list over a few errors. It also shifted the responsibility for buying instructional materials from the state level to the local level, allowing school districts to buy products outside of the state board’s recommended list.
But most Texas school districts still look for the state board’s seal of approval when selecting their instructional materials.
The boards’ vetting process carries weight as an assurance that instructional materials meet a certain quality threshold, said Alicia Thomas, who has served as an academic officer for both San Antonio’s North East Independent School District and the Houston school district, where she worked until 2012.
“It provides a foundation upon which school districts can make individual decisions,” she said, adding that without the board, each school district would need to undergo that process at the local level.
Board members continue to control the state curriculum standards — last updated for social studies in 2010 — which publishers aim to follow.
“The whole structure is in a way a charade,” said Jacqueline Jones, the chairwoman of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.
In September, Jones delivered a detailed report to the state board identifying severe biases and “omissions of fact” in an American history textbook up for approval that she said encouraged “ideological biases that are either outside the boundaries of established, mainstream scholarship, or just plain wrong.”
It was “very frustrating,” she said, to realize when she testified before the board in September that most of the errors were the result of publishers following curriculum standards set by the state four years ago, meaning they were unlikely to be corrected.
“The whole thing is very bizarre to me that people can just say we want to glorify this country, and we don’t want students to dwell on unpleasant aspects of the past,” she said.
Such a version of history would cause students to alternate between “getting cynical and being bored,” she added.
“They know we live in a hyperpartisan society today, that there are real debates about all kinds of things,” she said. “For textbooks to sweep that under the rug strikes me as very odd.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.