Double Standards

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Twenty-four days. That's all it took to write and ratify the Declaration of Independence, arguably the most eloquent document produced by any government anywhere. Thomas Jefferson, of course, deserves the most credit: In that sweltering summer of 1776, he turned around a draft in less than three weeks. His editors also deserve praise, though. The 50-odd delegates of the Second Continental Congress were nitpicky--they went so far as to swap the phrase "utterly neglected" for "neglected utterly"--but they were speedy, too.

The proposed curriculum standards in Texas will never be confused with the Declaration of Independence. Three years in the making, they were forged in a process that moved with the deliberateness of a funeral procession. More than 425 people had a hand in drafting them, and at least 18,000 more weighed in through an elaborate "public comment" process. Total cost to the state: $9 million.

Texans spent three years defining what students should know, only to have a band of renegade teachers denounce the process and set out to 'do it right.'

Today, however, on a July morning in Austin so hot that even the golden dome of the state Capitol seems beaded with sweat, all the machinations will come to an end. In a large hearing room in the 12-story locus of power that is the William B. Travis State Office Building, the 15 members of the state board of education have gathered. And if all goes according to plan, they'll OK the standards. Most of the state's education leaders are talking them up--"Probably the best in the country," they say--and Governor George W. Bush, son of the former president, is singing their praises, as well.

But there is one woman at today's meeting who hopes the board will take one last, long look at the standards. Donna Garner is perched on a folding chair in the hearing room's first row of seats. Clutching a notebook, the 56-year-old teacher peers intently at the proceedings through Coke-bottle-thick glasses, her brow occasionally crinkling in consternation under her graying hair. Once, Garner was a member of the team charged with drafting the standards for English and language arts. Today, though, the 26-year classroom veteran is scheduled to testify against what her team produced. For months, she has been leading a group of teachers writing a document to compete with--and hopefully replace--the state's proposed English standards. Cut away the politics and egos tangling up the board's decision, Garner argues, and everyone would admit that theirs is the better document. It is written by teachers and for teachers, she contends, a de facto declaration of independence against the tyranny of bureaucrats and wrong-headed reformers.

Such claims are, of course, overblown: Plenty of teachers in Texas embrace the state's proposed standards. But the work of Garner and her rag-tag group has drawn considerable praise from education scholars across the country, including cultural-literacy guru E.D. Hirsch. Indeed, this handful of teachers has become such a high-profile nuisance for the state that even the governor has had to take a swat at them--wasting some of the precious political capital that he is supposedly stockpiling for a White House bid in 2000.

In her testimony, Garner will make her last stand against the standards. When it's her turn to speak, she'll leave her seat, smooth her long, bright-red dress, and cross the room to a podium and microphone. Public testimony has been rationed today, so she will have only three minutes to explain her three-year crusade before a bell will ring gently, even sweetly, as if twinkling tones could make up for the fact that she's being told to shut up and sit down. And in those three minutes, in a stern voice that her students probably know all too well, she'll deliver the message that's being heard across the country: Standards done poorly are worse than no standards at all.

The standards movement launched nearly a decade ago was based on the simplest of ideas: Schools need common goals. Set those goals and set them high, the movement's backers argued, and school staffs will soon look like crack crew teams, knifing through the water with everyone working the oars in perfect concert.

In Texas, there's probably no fiercer critic of the state's proposed standards than Donna Garner.

Today, standards are so popular that they're widely seen as the salvation of public education. Yet scarcely few sets of standards produced to date have been greeted with hallelujahs. This seems particularly true of standards for reading and writing. Voluntary national standards unveiled by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association in 1996 were widely bashed. "The rules ooze with pedagogical molasses" and were written "in a tongue barely recognizable as English," lamented the New York Times in an editorial. English standards produced by the states have fared only slightly better. A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation gave high marks to standards in only five states; the 1997 American Federation of Teachers evaluation of standards cites only two.

In Texas, there's probably no fiercer critic of the state's proposed standards than Donna Garner. She's bird-dogged the process virtually from the moment in 1994 that state leaders announced that they would invest millions in revising the state's decade-old curriculum guidelines. "I thought that was an exorbitant amount of money," she remembers. "I figured that all you have to do is get good, tradition-minded teachers, put them up in a hotel for two or three weekends in a row, and they'll come up with a rewrite that makes sense and works at the classroom level."

An English and Spanish teacher, Garner works at Midway High in Hewitt, a suburb of Waco; her husband, Wayne, is a football and track coach there. Since Donna launched her crusade against the standards, their modest brick home has buzzed with activity. They've converted the former bedroom of one of their two grown boys into a makeshift office, and as a Mother's Day gift this year, Wayne bought Donna a copier. "He did it out of self-defense, really," she says. "He was tired of spending all our nights at Kinko's."

'In my opinion, [the standards were] put together by people who are not even residents of Texas.'

Cecile Richards,
Texas Freedom Network

For today's meeting, Donna and Wayne have made the 90-mile drive to Austin with their Toyota sedan stuffed with copies of the final draft of her group's alternative set of English standards, dubbed the "Texas Alternative Document," or simply, the TAD. Exactly who wrote the TAD has been a subject of much debate in Austin in recent weeks. There's even speculation that Garner and her group are a front for conservatives out to derail the standards process. "I don't want to get into conspiracy theories," says Cecile Richards, daughter of former Governor Ann Richards and head of a group that tracks so-called Christian conservative groups in Texas. "But in my opinion, that document was put together by people who are not even residents of Texas."

The TAD lists eight authors. Seven are teachers--five in K-12 schools, one at a junior college, and one at a four-year college--and the eighth is an educational consultant. Still, an air of anonymity clings to the group. According to Garner, the writers met face to face only a handful of times; while working on the TAD, they traded ideas through e-mail, over the phone, and in notes scribbled in the margins of drafts. "I don't know if they have husbands," Garner says of the TAD authors. "I don't know if they have children. I don't know if they have grandchildren. And I don't know if they go to church or don't go to church. We really and truly don't know each other well, personally, at all."

What has brought the group's members together is their opposition to the proposed standards, called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. Each of the teachers had been chosen to help draft the English TEKS, and each at some point had become disenchanted with both the process and the product.

Garner clashed with many of the 45 members on the team of educators writing the English TEKS from the very beginning. She joined the group in August 1995, nearly six months after its work had begun. She was one of a handful of new appointments that followed Republican George Bush's November 1994 defeat of Democratic incumbent Ann Richards. By then, the group already had reached agreement on significant procedural and substantive matters--matters that Garner took issue with in her first meetings. Among other things, she told the group that she would not abide by its decision to keep discussions private. "When you're working in secret, that sends out a negative message," she explains now. "Everything I do is going to be done in the light of day." She also told the group she would consider writing a "minority report" if she felt the final TEKS compromised her convictions.

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