You know, being a Texan has always been fun for me. I’m not one of those in-your-face, way-too-proud Texans, but I like living here, precisely because this state is so larger-than-life and over-the-top (I can’t stop hyphenating). It’s entertaining. It’s fun to watch the cut-throats in the oil and cattle business do their old school Texas thing. It’s delightful to watch the new breed of cowboy try to leaveÂ his mark in electronics, software, or whatever field with whatever new-fangled six shooter he wears. And it’s a pleasure to keep tabs on the eccentric turns the Texas political system takes all the time. It’s just the way things are here.
But the Texas State Board of Education, which is made up of at leastÂ seven members (there are 15 total) claiming creationist beliefs,Â has been the architect of some veryÂ suspect actions over the years, and the last few months have only added toÂ itsÂ unsteady history.
Let me bring you up to speed, first on a story you may have read about that reallyÂ heatedÂ up toward the end of 2007, and thenÂ on a couple more developments involvingÂ the TexasÂ board.
In July, 2007,Â Texas Governor Rick (The Hair) Perry appointed self-professed creationist, Don McLeroy, to head the Texas State Board of Education.Â Despite the fact thatÂ McLeroy is open with his fundamentalist leanings, everyoneÂ assumedÂ the appointmentÂ was going to be a non-issue. We wereÂ not too far removed from the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School DistrictÂ case, so it seemedÂ naming McLeroy to head the state board in Texas was at worst just another stupid decision by Gov. Perry.Â No one thought it wasÂ going to lead to another Kitzmiller scenario.
Well,Â it quickly became clear thatÂ the science education ofÂ the children of Texas wasÂ indeed in danger of being co-opted by a set of backward thinkers whose ideas would fit better in the Dark Ages than in the proud, progressive state that Texas is and should be. There was a real possibility that the fundamentalists on the board wouldÂ try to devalue the concepts of biological evolution by including Intelligent Design in the science curriculum. They seemed poised to try to do what the federal court said the Dover, Pennsylvania school board could not.
You see, shortly after McLeroy was appointed, things took a turn for the idiotic. No surprise, considering the kind of ass backward thinking Perry, McLeroy, and others demonstrate without fail. For example, according to the Austin American Statesman:
In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didnâ€™t comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasnâ€™t factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nationâ€™s largest Baptist college.
In 2003, McLeroy voted against approving biology textbooks that included a full-scale scientific account of evolutionary theory.
At any rate, a staunchly religious, creationist governor had appointedÂ a hardline, fundamentalist to head the State Board of Education. And then in November 2007, Chris Comer, the Texas Education Agencyâ€™s Director of Science Curriculum was forced to resign by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for sending out an email announcing a talk by anti-creationism advocate Barbara Forrest.
Even more so when you find out why Comer was let go. Again from the Austin American Statesman:
[Texas Education] Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, â€œit directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.â€ The memo adds, â€œMs. Comerâ€™s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speakerâ€™s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.â€
My thought at the time was: The Texas Education Agency is required to remain neutral when it comes to science versus antiscience?!?!?!? Shouldn’t one of the TEAâ€™s (particularly the Director of Science Curriculum) main purposes be to promote science over antiscience, and to actually teach children the difference between reality and fantasy? My god, if its goals do not include making a stand against detractors of quality education as well as against pseudoscience, antiscience, trash science, codswallop, claptrap, and quackery, what exactly are its goals? On what issues is the TEA allowed to take a side?
Of course Ms. Comer claimed that her forced resignation was political in nature, and that she was being railroaded. And given what we know about the case, her claim appeared to have quite a bit of merit.
The state education standards were scheduled to be reviewed early in 2008, and one could indeed make the case thatÂ Comer was forced to resign because the top TEA administrators and someÂ board members wanted her out of theÂ way before the state science standards were examined, revised, and rewritten. In fact, it was widely reported that plans were underway by someÂ state boardÂ members and TEA administrators to diminish the requirementÂ to teach evolutionary biologyÂ as part ofÂ the state’s standardizedÂ curriculum and to require instead that biology instructors â€œTeach the Controversyâ€ about the â€œweaknessesâ€ of evolution. If that were indeed the case, it would only make sense for the board to quiet any strong detracting voices, ifÂ it could.
Noted anti-creationist Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) commented at the time:
This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas. In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board.
Fortunately,Â Comer’s dismissal, and theÂ surrounding circumstances, garnered a lot of publicity, causing Perry, McLeroy, and the rest to scramble, like roaches exposed to the light.Â So early in 2008 when the science curriculum came up for review, they were under a microscope, and perhaps because of good judgement or perhaps simply because of the pressure, made no major changes to the Texas science curriculum standards.
The bad news is, even though the science standards were not overhauled, McLeroy and other board members still want the “weaknesses” of evolution taught. Their religious viewpoint is what influences their politics most.
And their political reachÂ stretches further than just education about evolution. It now seems the conservative board has had a negative impact on sex education in Texas as well.
Take a look at this video from a recent news broadcast in Houston.
Apparently, McLeroy and the conservative members have used their positions to reduce the amount of sex education information available to junior high and high school students. As McLeroy himselfÂ says in the news video, the prevailing view among the board is thatÂ sex and discussions aboutÂ sex should be mostly relegated to the confines of marriage â€” a perfectly fine point of view forÂ an individual.Â But this bitÂ of moralistic residue derived from a staunchly religious viewpoint simply has no value in terms of educating young people, and may very well be dangerous. It’s an antiquated idea, and one must wonder about the intelligence level of anyone promoting it as a general education standard.
Fortunately, this issue is being used strongly as a campaign point for a woman running against one of the conservative board members. What voters do with it is up to them, butÂ at least the public is getting information aboutÂ this issueÂ before they go to the polls.
And finally, in addition to evolution and sex, the Texas State Board of Education has beenÂ meddling with yet another subject close to my heart. The board members are now alsoÂ backing a new curriculum that increases the focus on English basics, including grammar.
Initially, I thought this was a good idea, considering scores for Texas students on language-related material have been dismal forÂ a long timeÂ now.Â Plus, as someone who hasÂ been paid to write for some 20 odd years, these failures were unacceptable. Admittedly, I personally was somewhat embarrassed by the results. I thought going back to the basics just might be the path to take to get the kids up to where they should be.
However, the article I linked to aboveÂ points outÂ that standardized tests like TAKS and the SAT â€” the measuring sticks for students’ language skills nationwide â€”Â don’t examine grammar skills in isolation. They test comprehension, and opponents of the state board’s stance on the issueÂ insist this area is where the focus should be placed, not on grammar basics. They also say the standards proposed by the board ignore at least 50 years of research on grammar instruction.
Kylene Beers of The Woodlands, Texas, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English and a senior reading adviser to secondary schools in the Reading Writing Project at Teachers College at Columbia University says:
People who yearn for a return to the basics usually attended school in the 1950s, and by the end of that decade only 20 percent of the best paying jobs required at least some college, in contrast to today’s figure of 56 percent.
When we talk about getting back to the basics in literacy education, the first thing that smart people have to do is to realize that literacy demands have shifted. What’s basic now isn’t the same as what was basic when middle-aged adults of today were in school.
Well, I think Beers has accurately described many of the state board members with that comment. Maybe there isÂ somethingÂ to the idea ofÂ focusing more on language as a whole these days. I mean, isn’t it just as importantÂ for communicating effectively in the modern world to know how the Internet and pop-culture work as it is to know the difference between an adjective and an adverb?
The point of all this is, I don’t begrudge anyone their political views â€” whether conservative or liberal. But nothing from either side (orÂ from theÂ middle of the road for that matter)Â should be brought into public discourse if founded upon outmoded thinking, or mystical philosophies, or mythology. And on these three issues, that’s precisely what the State Board of Education has done.
Whenever we come across a public official who hasÂ allowed his or her religious beliefs to taint the mission of his or her office, we shouldÂ speak up, speak out, and vote out, if necessary.
And then maybe we can let Texas politics get back to the larger-than-life circus sideshow it’s always been.