For more than three years, members of the Texas state board of education have been directing an effort to revise the state’s standards for English-language arts and reading—a document that will apply to $626 million in instructional materials due to hit Texas classrooms in fall 2010.
But in the lead-up to next week’s scheduled meeting and vote on those standards, participants in the process were scrambling to provide copies of the final proposal to all board members and the public, a measure of just how complex and controversial the process has been.
“Usually, the document is pretty well finalized after first reading, nearly two months before the vote,” Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which provides staff for the board, said in an interview last week. “For whatever reason, English is always the more difficult subject for us to adopt standards on, even more than science.”
The process has been made even more nettlesome, Texas educators and some state board members say, because of a sharp ideological divide on the 15-member board, which Chairman Don McLeroy said is split nearly evenly between what he calls “social conservatives,” like himself, and others.
In recent months, controversies have included whether grammar should be listed as a separate strand in the new English standards, and whether the document should include suggestions for specific books teachers should have students read—both ideas favored by the board’s conservatives.
Board members also have disagreed on whether high school students need explicitly to be taught reading-comprehension strategies, an approach favored by English and reading teachers in the state.
Who Was Involved?
One board member, lawyer Mary Helen Berlanga, publicly expressed discontent that a six-member committee formed at one point to review the revised standards didn’t include anyone of Hispanic background or an expert in second-language acquisition.
“We have this huge Hispanic population, and no one can tell us how this population can best learn,” Ms. Berlanga, who is Mexican-American, said in an interview last week. “If a student is Spanish-speaking and knows a little bit of English, the teacher needs to know how can I help them to learn vocabulary, how can I help them to learn to read. There was no expert helping them to close that gap.”
But another board member, Gail Lowe, a small-town newspaper publisher who considers herself a social conservative, said that Hispanic teachers and teachers with expertise in second-language acquisition took part in the teacher working groups convened to write the standards, so Hispanics weren’t excluded from the process.
The fact that Texas is expected to approve new standards for English language arts and reading is a big deal, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers School Division, based in Washington.
“They will shape a new curriculum in reading and English language arts [in the state] for the first time in 10 years,” he said.
The Texas Education Agency already has issued a proclamation estimating it will spend $626 million on instructional materials to be implemented in the fall of 2010. Those materials will be expected to be aligned with the state’s English language arts and reading standards.
Texas state board members are elected; five are Democrats, and ten are Republicans, including the chairman. Ms. Ratcliffe, of the state education agency, said that Dr. McLeroy, a dentist, replaced Geraldine Miller, also a Republican, last July as chairman of the board.
It was an 8-7 vote in March that stopped one of the proposals for revised English and reading standards put forth by a coalition of teachers. Seven conservatives and one other board member voted against the proposal.
Texas educators and some board members say the split has tended to correspond with a rift in educational philosophy.
“Some of the board members are willing to listen to the expertise of teachers and the research we bring forward on the best way to set standards,” said Cindy K. Tyroll, an instructional specialist for English language arts for the 80,000-student Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. “And some board members don’t seem to value the expertise of teachers.”
But Ms. Lowe summed up the division between her board colleagues this way: “The more socially liberal members would like to do what the teacher work groups say, and the more socially conservative members feel that the teacher establishment has dominated the process for the last 10 years, and it hasn’t necessarily worked.”
Controversies Over Content
Late last week, the Texas Education Agency posted a standards document that had been approved by the working groups of teachers. It contained reading-comprehension strategies throughout the grades. It didn’t contain a list of recommended books to read, an idea that the board had already agreed to drop. It included grammar as a substrand of writing, not a separate strand of its own.
Alana Morris, the language arts supervisor for the 60,000-student Aldine Independent School District, in the Houston area, who is a member of one of the working groups, said that working-group members had tried to address issues particularly of concern to conservative members of the state board, such as adding an expectation that literary classics would be taught in the curriculum.
Ms. Ratcliffe, of the state education agency, said that the board could still change the document submitted by the teacher working groups before its May 23 vote based on suggestions from experts or public testimony. The board is expected to meet May 21-23.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as Texas Curricular Debate Nears Conclusion