Last year, Texas legislators passed a law restricting how teachers could talk about racism and slavery in classrooms, alongside more than a dozen other states. Educators at the time told Education Week about the questions and concerns they had over how such a law would directly impact their work.
The resulting months have given way to revisions in the law, a failed attempt to update social studies expectations, and mass confusion.
At an August 31 public meeting of the Texas State Board of Education on the proposed new social studies standards, the author of the revised state law, Senate Bill 3, sought to clarify questions of the law’s intent and how teachers can abide by it.
“That bill is not an attempt to sanitize or to teach our history in any other way than the truth—the good, the bad and the ugly—and those difficult things that we’ve been through and the things we’ve overcome,” said Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican.
Among other things, the law says teachers may not be compelled to discuss controversial public policy issues, and those who do “shall explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”
Teachers also cannot be required to teach about slavery and racism as being “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
Given the various developments in the state over the future of history and social studies instruction, Education Week wanted to once again hear from educators on how life has been working under the state’s law. We reached out to the teachers we spoke to last year to hear their updates, and sought some new voices.
Moderate or conservative teachers quoted in the earlier story didn’t respond to requests for comment. Conservative organizations such as Texas Values and Innovative Teachers of Texas, which represents teachers seeking an alternative to the state teachers’ association, either could not provide current classroom teacher members for comment or did not respond to requests for comment. A conservative Texas state board member also did not return requests for comment.
Angela Burley, 6th grade world cultures teacher at Dr. Frederick Douglass Todd Sr. Middle School, Dallas
Following the start of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd by police officers, Angela Burley was already contemplating leaving her heterogenous school to move back to a Black community to teach. But the passage of Texas’ law limiting discussion on race and slavery sealed the deal for her.
“I elected to leave an environment where I felt like my teaching certificate would be put in danger,” she said. “Where I felt like I would have to curb the things that I say, or where I felt like I could not allow the students to take conversations where they wanted conversations to go.”
She strives for her students to think critically when it comes to their experiences with systemic racism and racial issues. She wants students to be able to draw connections across history.
In one class, for example, she discussed how many Venezuelans no longer want Nicholas Máduro as president following a disputed election in 2018; many countries have recognized Maduro’s challenger as the rightful winner. Her students then asked if that was similar to how former President Donald Trump didn’t want to leave the presidency. The ensuing conversation she had with her students might not have been possible in another part of town where she felt broaching the topic itself would be discouraged, she said.
Senate Bill 3 emphasizes not requiring instruction on the concept that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Yet Burley wonders why that wasn’t law when she was growing up in Texas, when she was discriminated against and made to feel inferior as a Black student.
“Now all of a sudden, because white people are being made to feel uncomfortable because there’s a racial reckoning, now all of a sudden there has to be an issue?” she said.
At her current school she feels supported by administrators, parents, and students to teach the truth about the nation’s and the state’s history and make amends for her own education.
“I never learned anything about the Chinese Exclusion Act, or Mexican Repatriation, or aspects of Jim Crow. I learned nothing about that stuff,” she said. “But that’s exactly what I’m going to teach.”
Joseph Frilot, 6th and 7th grade humanities teacher at IDEA Montopolis College Prep, East Austin
Early discussions among district leaders following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing national protests left Joseph Frilot feeling hopeful that his school would commit to becoming an anti-racist institution.
But momentum toward new professional development offerings and changes to curriculum halted in the wake of the new Texas law, , Frilot said.
For example, Senate Bill 3 states that a school district may not accept private funding to use a curriculum or provide teacher training on ideas such as that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States,” the key concept of The New York Times’ 1619 Project.
“Teachers are self censoring themselves and trying to make sure that they follow the guidelines,” Frilot said. “Districts are trying to make sure that they follow those guidelines too, by providing training on the law and so teachers know what the law entails.”
More broadly, Frilot is now concerned about what laws like the one in Texas mean for the U.S. education system as a whole.
“We’ve kind of deviated from becoming an anti-racist education system, to kind of stick to the status quo and be even more fearful to discuss race and current events,” he said. “It takes resources and training for schools to become anti-racist, but with a lot of places, those resources and trainings are kind of depleted at this point.”
Juan Carmona, social studies teacher at Donna High School and dual enrollment instructor at South Texas College, near McAllen
Now that Juan Carmona teaches dual-enrollment courses blending high school and postsecondary students, he feels protected a bit from the Texas law, which focuses on K-12 education.
If anything, the law has led to engaging classroom conversations. He points out to his students that “if this was a regular class, I couldn’t teach you this, but we’re going to talk about this.”
In a regular K-12 class, Carmona said he feels he would be limited in discussing the origins of slavery in the United States and how it was intertwined in the nation’s founding.
“The U.S. progressed as a slave nation, and you can’t extricate slavery and its effects from anything,” he said.
He is, however, concerned for what the law means for the future of social studies instruction and civic engagement among students for course credit. The law states a teacher cannot “require, make part of a course, or award a grade or course credit” for a student’s volunteer work or internship in social policy advocacy.
Carmona is also more broadly concerned over how members of the state school board took the words of conservative organizations over working teachers and scholars when deciding earlier this year to delay revisions to the state’s social studies standards.
“We’re not approaching this as a political thing,” Carmona said. “We’re thinking about what’s best for our state, our children who will later run our state.”
“It belittles what it means to be a teacher when someone who doesn’t know what goes on in a classroom, they’re the ones who are seemingly now controlling what is going on in a classroom,” he concluded.