Marty Kich has provided a useful supplement to Aaron’s review with respect to standardized testing in Texas by quoting extensively from an account of the role played by British educational conglomerate Pearson. He also quotes from two reports on the process by which Texas selects textbooks, in which ideological factors often play an outsized and deeply troublesome role. He concludes that “This sort of ideological pandering is what occurs when a multinational conglomerate pursues very profitable contracts at the expense of credible educational standards.”
That may well be the case, but the controversies over textbooks in Texas date from well before the advent of both Pearson and standardized testing. Indeed, rather than Texas pandering to Pearson (or other corporations) it is at least equally the case that these companies are pandering to the bizarrely horrendous Texas textbook approval process.
Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2012, Gail Collins reported that
Ever since the 1960s, the selection of schoolbooks in Texas has been a target for the religious right, which worried that schoolchildren were being indoctrinated in godless secularism, and political conservatives who felt that their kids were being given way too much propaganda about the positive aspects of the federal government. Mel Gabler, an oil company clerk, and his wife, Norma, who began their textbook crusade at their kitchen table, were the leaders of the first wave. They brought their supporters to State Board of Education meetings, unrolling their “scroll of shame,” which listed objections they had to the content of the current reading material. At times, the scroll was fifty-four feet long. Products of the Texas school system have the Gablers to thank for the fact that at one point the New Deal was axed from the timeline of significant events in American history.
The Gablers are now deceased, but their wacky organization, Educational Research Associates, lives on. The group’s website declares: “We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas. Our reviews have national relevance because Texas state-adopts textbooks and buys so many that publishers write them to Texas standards and sell them across the country.” Their “subject areas of concern include:
- Scientific weaknesses in evolutionary theories
- Phonics-based reading instruction
- Principles and benefits of free enterprise
- Original intent of the U.S. Constitution
- Respect for Judeo-Christian morals
- Emphasis on abstinence in sex education”
As Collins notes,
Texas originally acquired its power over the nation’s textbook supply because it paid 100 percent of the cost of all public school textbooks, as long as the books in question came from a very short list of board-approved options. . . . As a market, the state was so big and influential that national publishers tended to gear their books toward whatever it wanted. Back in 1994, the board requested four hundred revisions in five health textbooks it was considering. The publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston was the target for the most changes, including the deletion of toll-free numbers for gay and lesbian groups and teenage suicide prevention groups. Holt announced that it would pull its book out of the Texas market rather than comply. (A decade later Holt was back with a new book that eliminated the gay people.)
People for the American Way put it more succinctly in a 2010 study, “Texas Textbooks: What happened, what it means, and what we can do about it:”
The Religious Right has invested so heavily in Texas textbooks because of the national implications. School districts in Texas have to buy books from a state-approved list, and Texas is such an enormous market that textbook publishers will generally do whatever they can to get on that list. Textbooks written and edited to meet Texas standards end up being used all over the country. So Religious Right leaders in Texas can doom millions of American students to stunted, scientifically dubious science books and ideologically slanted history and social studies books. Advances in printing technology make it easier to prevent that from happening now, but it will take vigilance to keep publishers from following the path of least resistance.
In short, whether Pearson retains its privileged position in the Texas market or not, they and other publishers have been responding to a flawed political process all too often hijacked by outside ideologues. In the most recent controversies Pearson and other publishers produced textbooks that sought to conform to new standards for social studies textbooks, known as TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), established by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) four years ago. According to historian Edward Countryman, writing in The Daily Beast, “the explicitly conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave TEKS a D, on the grounds that it amounted to political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization.”
Countryman notes that
one of the problems is the hodgepodge way that SBOE assembled the TEKS standards, without regard to either intellectual coherence or historical accuracy. In some instances, the problem is sins of omission. Thus in seventh-grade Texas history, in eighth- and 11-grade United States history, and 10-grade world history, what TEKS requires simply does not show Native and African-Americans as among history’s makers. They remain mere victims and/or outsiders.
The new curriculum standards require students to learn about the supposed influence of individuals such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, William Blackstone, and even Moses on 18th-century republican thought and the American founding.
The problem began when the SBOE evicted Enlightenment thinkers from the World History standards and substituted a list that included Moses, Aquinas, Calvin, and Blackstone. Figures from that grab-bag list also made their way into the requirements for United States history and government. Never mind that Aquinas and Calvin were theologians, or that Blackstone believed all societies should require some form of absolute, unchallengeable sovereign power. The real issue turned out to be Moses.
It’s hardly surprising then that the textbooks submitted by Pearson and other publishers, which sought to address these new “standards,” were found severely wanting by a panel of ten prominent scholars. As Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who in September provided detailed excerpts from the reports, concluded: “When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.”