Double Standards

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Politically, things started to look good for the TAD, as well. Since the fall, the six-member conservative faction on the state board of education had urged that parts of the TAD be incorporated into the TEKS English standards. In May, though, they proposed junking the English TEKS altogether and substituting the TAD. The motion failed on a 7-to-7 vote (one board member was absent), but the near-miss gave the media the chance to chew on something that heretofore had seemed impossible: The board in its final vote on the TEKS in July might throw out a document that took three years and millions of dollars to produce and adopt something cooked up by a handful of teachers.

Those heady days didn't last long. Donna Garner's renegades had succeeded in building standards that posed a legitimate threat to the state's proposal, but as the board vote neared, that threat diminished with each passing day. The TAD was hurt, in part, by criticism that it was the work of only eight educators. How could eight people presume to be the voice of all teachers in a state with 1,044 districts? In an op-ed circulated to newspapers statewide on June 25, Mike Moses, the state's commissioner of education, asserted--wrongly--that the names of the authors of the TAD "are not known or identified in this document." The TAD, he added in a letter to board members, "has not been subject to the type of intense scrutiny and review that is absolutely necessary if it is to be viewed as credible and usable in the field."

How could eight people presume to be the voice of all teachers in a state with 1,044 districts?

The TAD group's close ties with the so-called religious right also proved a double-edged sword. On the writing team, Garner had often been backed by Stephanie Cecil, the education liaison for the state Eagle Forum, the gadfly advocacy group of conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly. And without the support of Donna Ballard and other conservatives on the board, the TAD probably would never have even gotten a hearing. But such backing also guaranteed the TAD fierce opposition. Garner says one board member liked their document but made it clear he would never vote for it. "I will go to my grave fighting the religious right," he said.

Perhaps most important, as the TAD won a higher profile, it became seen as flawed. The TEKS standards may have been vague and unspecific, but even some of their critics argued that Garner's group had overcorrected for those failings. The TAD, for example, listed 60-odd Latin roots and Old English and Greek prefixes for 8th grade students to master. It also noted with excruciating exactness the grammar and punctuation rules to be taught in the early grades, even citing seven specific verbs that 1st graders would be expected to conjugate: "come," "see," "go," "do," "bring," "be," and "have." Such detail made the TAD "more appropriate as a textbook on teaching rather than an outline of the state's education expectations," declared the Dallas Morning News in a June 29 editorial. Even some of the researchers whose work Garner had tapped found the TAD too prescriptive. In a letter to Moses, Isabel Beck of the University of Pittsburgh said that the alternative document suggested a reading "hierarchy," with students mastering how to decode words before actually reading stories. Reading, Beck argued, should be taught instead "in a more spiral fashion," with students reading stories that have the letter-sound correspondences they are learning.

In the political arena, Garner and her group failed in their bid to pressure Bush to endorse the TAD. Garner had limited political experience--she had once hobnobbed with U.S. congressmen while serving on a federal panel on immigrant education, and she had lobbied the state board to reject federal Goals 2000 money--but she was savvy enough to understand that the governor's earlier criticism of the TEKS now put him in an awkward position. And she and the other TAD members knew enough to alert the media to their David vs. Goliath struggle. After the board's 7-to-7 vote in May, newspaper columnists in Texas and outside the state challenged Bush to back the TAD, tweaking the first-term governor with not-so-veiled references to his father's "Read my lips" flip-flop on taxes. "Where is Governor George W. Bush Jr.?" wrote Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle. "While he criticized an earlier TEKS draft, he has failed to come out solidly for TAD. Sort of like dad, President Mush."

The TEKS that Bush would review in June, however, were much improved from the ones he had blasted in November. Not long after Bush's critical remarks, Moses disbanded the TEKS writing teams, thanked them for their service, and then turned his staff loose on the documents. Within a few months, they had whittled down the TEKS for all subjects from 1,800 pages to 1,000. At the same time, state officials were revamping the TEKS turned over by the English writing team. The team had done a very good job, says Robin Gilchrist, head of the state's reading initiatives. "We just took it from that point and made it match up better with what research said."

'That document was a slap in the face to the members of the writing team.'

Joseph Rubin,
TEKS writing team

By June, the TEKS' facelift was nearly complete, and even some of the researchers who had helped Garner now hailed them. Marilyn Jager Adams, the reading researcher who reviewed both the TEKS and the TAD as they evolved, declared that the contest between the two documents had improved both, but the TEKS were better. "This is the political process at its best," she wrote to Moses. "Texas and its citizens are to be congratulated."

Finally, on June 30, Bush threw his support to the TEKS. "This document in terms of the reading program puts Texas on the leading edge of educational change," he said. The TAD, he proclaimed, was simply too prescriptive. It may have been a document written by teachers and for teachers, but according to Bush, very few teachers would like it. "Teachers," he said, "don't want to be told what to do on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis."

Fall has come to Waco, and Wayne Garner and his Midway High football team are sweating through temperatures in the 90s as they prepare for their homecoming matchup. Donna Garner, meanwhile, is busy preparing for the celebrations and dance to follow the game.

The battle over the TEKS is officially over. As expected, the state board adopted the standards in its July vote. Nine members of the board--six Democrats and three Republicans--voted for them, and the six hard-right conservatives voted against them. There were plenty of fireworks--some board members went so far as to threaten a lawsuit over parliamentary procedures. But in the end, Garner never even got the chance to make the case for the TAD. She was 73rd on the list of 78 speakers scheduled to testify, and the board cut off public comment after hearing from roughly half the list. The six board members who would vote against the standards argued that the witness list had been rigged to give preference to TEKS supporters, but their cries went unheeded. The board moved on to its vote, and Donna Garner had never even left her seat.

That was nearly three months ago, but no one seems ready to quit the fight. With the TEKS due in the schools in a few weeks, Commissioner Moses is touting the document again in an op-ed running in newspapers statewide. The TEKS have rigor, he promises, and they're endorsed by many "esteemed scholars." Researchers who worked on the TAD, he notes, eventually endorsed the state's work, "proving that working together in a constructive manner improved this process and strengthened our curriculum standards."

Donna Garner, too, is still talking about the standards. Shortly after the board vote, she fired off an op-ed of her own that denounced the TEKS and solicited support from foundations, businesses, and philanthropies to foot the bill for reproducing the alternative document. The TAD is getting praise from all corners of the country--calls have come in from North Carolina, Nebraska, and as far away as Alaska--but Garner wants most of all for the teachers in Texas to see it so they can judge for themselves whether it's better than the TEKS. "When the TEKS get to the schools, I really want them to have the TAD," she says. "Then, we'll just see what happens."

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