2014 Archives

SMU experts address controversial content proposed for Texas’ new public school textbooks

‘This is not a political issue. It is simply whether the books provide good history.’

David Brockman is interviewed by CBS 11 News.

September 19, 2014

DALLAS (SMU) — SMU Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences faculty members Ron Wetherington, Kathleen Wellman, David Brockman and Edward Countryman are speaking out about what they see as “flawed” and “distorted” textbooks being considered for Texas classrooms.

Wetherington, Wellman and Brockman addressed the State Board of Education (SBOE) at a daylong hearing in Austin on Sept. 16. Earlier that week Brockman and Countryman participated in a press conference, releasing research findings that have garnered national attention.

Citing historical and cultural inaccuracies, SMU faculty members say corrections are needed before the textbooks get adopted this November for use by Texas’ more than five million public school students in 2015. The new texts under consideration would replace books published 12 years ago.

Countryman, an SMU history professor, and Brockman, an adjunct instructor in religious studies, were contracted by the religious liberties watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) to conduct a comprehensive review of 43 proposed textbook packages (including written, video and audio materials) for sixth- through 12th-grade history, government and geography classes in Texas public schools.

Countryman and Brockman joined faculty and researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Mary Washington in Virginia to provide findings independent of Texas’ official state review, which the TFN says lacked a broad representation of subject-area scholars.

“Of the more than 140 people assigned to the official state review panels we could identify just four who appear to be faculty members at a college or university,” the TFN said in its September 2014 report, “Writing to the Standards: Reviews of Proposed Social Studies Textbooks for Texas Public Schools.”

Ron Wetherington
Ron Wetherington
Kathleen A. Wellman
Kathleen Wellman
David Brockman
David Brockman
SMU History Professor Edward Countryman
Edward Countryman
Mark Chancey
Mark Chancey

The TFN charges that the new textbooks, produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and other smaller publishing companies “suffer from many of the same serious flaws that plague the state’s controversial curriculum standards” approved by the SBOE in 2010.

Countryman agrees. The distinguished professor says publishers’ attempts to align with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements “led to errors, misconceptions or worse.”

For example, TEKS calls for textbooks to list slavery as one of the last reasons for the U.S. Civil War, he says, denying what Confederate leaders including Jefferson Davis and the secession conventions were saying at the war’s start. Other text describes the Inca civilization before the Spaniards as a “welfare-state with huge bureaucracy,” suggesting it was one of the reasons the civilization fell.

Countryman’s other objections include passages he says misrepresent the doctrine of the separation of church and state. In particular, the TEKS requirements forced the textbook publishers to assert direct Biblical origins for the U.S. Constitution, “despite there being no evidence at all to support that idea,” he says.

“This is not a political issue,” Countryman told The Dallas Observer. “It is simply whether the books provide good history that makes the best possible sense of what happened.”

Brockman, who reviewed religion-focused content, found “a kind of subtle Christian tilt” in many of the textbooks, “which would seem to assume the students and instructors are themselves Christians,” he notes. In addition, he says Christianity’s violent past is downplayed in the textbooks while Islamic violence is exaggerated.

“It’s very important that all religions be presented fairly and accurately in the public school classroom,” he says.

Brockman told the SBOE panel that the TFN compensated him for his work, but that the group's “particular views did not shape my reviews of the textbooks.” His research and reporting work was conducted over several months.

SMU history professor Wellman chose to address the SBOE Sept. 16, telling the panel that several U.S. government and history textbooks she has reviewed exaggerate the influence of biblical figure Moses on America’s founding fathers.

“These books make Moses the original founding father and credit him for virtually every distinctive feature of American government,” she said, noting that if the books are adopted as-is, Texas schoolchildren will grow up “believing that Moses was the first American.”

SMU anthropology professor Wetherington informed the SBOE panel of “archaic, misleading and unintended racist commentary” that included use of the expression “Negro race.”

“The term 'Negro' is archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning,” he said. “It should categorically not be used in a modern textbook.”

Wetherington was featured in the 2011 PBS documentary “The Revisionaries,” which addressed the culture wars in America by looking at the inner workings of the Texas Board of Education. The documentary won the 2014 duPont award, the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2008 he was appointed one of six science experts by the Texas Education Agency to advise the State Board of Education’s revisions of science standards for K-through-12 public schools. After the scholars’ work concluded in 2009 and social studies standards were revised, Wetherington called out interpretive errors in many of the proposed changes.

Another SMU professor, Mark Chancey, is a nationally recognized religious studies expert on political and academic issues raised by public school Bible courses. He now serves on the TFN board.

Chancey published the 2013 study “Reading, Writing & Religion II,” which found that most of Texas’ 60 public school districts offering Bible study courses are not meeting a 2007 state law mandating the courses be fair as well as academically and legally sound.

For more on this subject, visit http://tfninsider.org/2014/09/14/tfn-in-the-news-review-of-social-studies-textbooks/.

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