Social Studies

Criticism of Texas Social Studies Standards Overblown, Analyst Says

By Erik W. Robelen — September 17, 2010 2 min read
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You may recall all the controversy earlier this year over the work by the Texas state school board, led by a bloc of social conservatives, to revamp the state’s social studies standards.

But if you look at the final product, the controversy was way overblown, according to Gilbert Sewall, the founder and director of the American Textbook Council, an independent research organization in New York City that reviews history textbooks and other educational materials.

In a new commentary posted on The Answer Sheet, a blog from The Washington Post, he offers some analysis that is sure to ruffle feathers among the board’s sympathizers and its sharp critics.

“Whatever the fine points and actual language, millions of Americans think Christian extremists on the Texas state school board have completed a radical history overhaul destined to corrupt textbooks nationwide,” he writes. “If it is a conservative victory, it is a Pyrrhic victory with a great cost to the Texas state board and social studies.”

He continues: “No doubt a few changes—out of thousands of items—were pointed. Republicans tried to use state power to spin historical accounts as they saw them, exactly as multiculturalists have done since the 1990s. Claims of a radical assault on history are false.”

In the end, Sewall contends that the “final Texas standards are for the most part conventional and inclusive. A few items betray a conservative viewpoint. They do not warrant the attention and defamation they have received nor the hysteria they have generated. Texas is not rewriting textbooks. Little has changed. The new standards on the whole conform to what’s already in textbooks, and the impact on history textbooks nationwide will be very limited.”

Sewall founded the New York City based organization in 1989 to promote better-quality history textbooks. He’s a former history instructor at Phillips Academy and former education editor at Newsweek.

He suggests that in some cases, conservative board members and their allies generated more negative attention with their rhetoric than with what actually ended up in the new standards. And indeed, as he notes, a lot of initial revisions were softened after debate.

“The truth is, in the final version, the board majority made many adjustments or retractions to meet criticisms. The one world history item that originally dropped Jefferson restored him. Dolores Huerta stayed. Latino contributions to Texas history remain largely intact. Diversity was alive and well.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.