Texas, Textbooks, and the Politics of History Standards

November 26, 2014

By Dr. Margaret Crocco

Last week in Texas, the state social studies curriculum was once again at the center of political controversy. Back in 2010, there was uproar over proposed revisions to the social studies curriculum, and particularly the history standards. These proposed changes included a move to call the United States’ terrible slave trade history the “Atlantic triangular trade,” as well as a proposal that President Obama be referred to as “Barrack Hussain Obama.” Some of the more outrageous proposals were eventually dropped, but major changes were still made, such as listing Moses as one of the Founding Fathers and suggesting McCarthyism and anti-communism was justified. This set of standards – known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies – have been back in the news lately as educational publishers bid for the rights to provide the new social studies textbooks and curricular materials that align to them. Ever since the adoption of the new Texas standards, many in education have been paying close attention to the reaction of the major textbook companies. Much like Iowa and New Hampshire electorates do in Presidential election years, Texas curriculum holds a disproportionate sway over the content of textbooks printed for a national audience. For the foreseeable future, however, students in the Lone Star state will be having very different history lessons than students in other states leading some top publishers, like Houghton Mifflin, to lose or withdraw their bids for a part of the state’s lucrative social studies textbook contracts. This week, MSU professor Margaret Crocco comments on this event, providing insight on the periodic politicization of history/social studies curricula, the centrality of Texas in national curriculum, and the potential impact of the Common Core on textbook development and content.

History Curriculum and Politics

History standards periodically cause political controversy. English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics standards also provoke their own controversies, but for somewhat different reasons than history.

All standards are related to a vision of the curriculum that should be created from the standards. As such, both standards and curriculum are normative statements about “what knowledge is of most worth.” The judgment about this matter rests on a set of values, assumptions, desired ends and the means to achieve those ends that inevitably provoke disagreement: Should this be a skills-oriented or content-oriented curriculum? Should the curriculum focus on the classics or on modern, relevant texts and ideas? Should the curriculum be culturally relevant or universalistic? These are just a few of the longstanding debates that all curricular change seems to engender.

History standards cause controversy for a number of distinctive reasons: They speak directly to our shared sense about our past, its meaning, and our national identity, and in schools, this process of socialization is intimately related to the citizenship mission of public education.

Some citizens wish to promote a narrative about our history that emphasizes our “exceptionalism,” that is, the notion that the United States is better than other nations; it purportedly provides a “beacon of hope” for other nations; is more moral than other nations, and so on. This narrative of exceptionalism has persisted since the establishment of democracy and the nation state in the 18th century. Our “origin story,” if you will, at the founding of this country was all about defining ourselves in opposition to the corrupt European, Old World systems of aristocracy and monarchy. The United States represented the new world order, a “city on a hill” that would be a beacon for fledgling democracies worldwide.

In exceptionalist narratives, the problems of racism, sexism, and discrimination tend to be downplayed, if not overlooked entirely. The emphasis is on all that is good about America. However, in the last forty years, much historiography coming from professional historians has emphasized the nation’s shortcomings, if you will, how the country has fallen short of its ideals. College teaching and textbooks, monographs and research articles have moved towards a far less unified, more multi-perspectival approach to teaching history. Thus, the stories of the American past have been “fractured” to get away from a unitary narrative implying that every American citizen had the same story and has the same experiences. We now know much more about women’s experiences, the history of slavery, Native Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, to name a few—and it’s often not a pretty picture supporting the exceptionalist self-image.

If you look online at the debates around the AP American History framework, you see many of these same tensions being played out. In sum, the history standards are the “story of us,” as one textbook author Joy Hakim put it. We are conflicted, in a sense, about who we are and what our history adds up to. Thus, these competing perspectives make the history standards exceedingly sensitive and controversial.

The Texas Effect

In the old days of textbook production, the state of Texas and its State Board of Education (an elected group) had inordinate influence over the way textbooks were produced. Texas used to adopt textbooks on a statewide basis, providing a list of a set of approved textbooks for school districts. Because Texas is such a big state, with such a big population, it was a large market for textbook producers, buying roughly 48 million textbooks every year – a hugely profitable enterprise for publishers. Publishers wanted their books to be approved in Texas because it meant their sales would be stronger nationwide.

As one National Education Association article points out, “publishers are more accustomed nowadays to producing customized textbooks for different states.” As a result of changes in textbook production, the influence of Texas has diminished.

Despite recent changes that have allowed for customization of textbooks and diminishing influence for Texas, every few years over the last thirty to forty years, articles (see here, here and here) have appeared about Texas’s influence and battles within the Texas State Board of Education over various topics, and their meaning for the rest of the country. This year the battles have been over Moses’ place in the curriculum and the Sikh religion, but in prior years they have been about issues like creationism, capitalism, and globalization.

Enter the Common Core

In the last several years, textbook publishers have rushed to get their books “aligned with the Common Core.” This is how they are marketing their books, even when, in the opinion of researchers, judgments about this alignment are being oversold. The states that have not adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) worry that it is a national curriculum, and worry further that their options may be reduced because of the influence of the CCSS on textbook production.

They are right to worry: With 40+ states still committed to the CCSS, the outliers like Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota, may find the CCSS’s influence hard to avoid. Although publishers can customize books for them, the influence of the CCSS is inevitable.

With the school subject of history, which is relegated to the status of “disciplinary literacy” and subsumed under the ELA curriculum, is its future as a school subject dedicated to citizenship aims doomed? At the elementary level, many social studies teachers are concerned that social studies will only be taught as a handmaiden to literacy through the vehicle of “informational texts”. At the secondary level, I think we may see more of an emphasis in history texts on primary sources, close reading, evidence, argumentation, corroboration—all concepts prominently associated with the CCSS. What this all means for teaching citizenship has many social studies folks worried.

Bottom line, I believe that the influence of Texas will continue to erode in the creation of textbooks.

Dr. Margaret Crocco

Dr. Margaret Crocco is a professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. As a social studies scholar, women’s studies advocate, and educational historian she focuses her research on issues of diversity in social studies education in both national and international settings. She has published work related to human rights education, peace education, women and religion, and cross-cultural representations of women in literature.