The Texas State Board of Education and History Standards: A Teacher’s Perspective

As a young boy growing up in the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s and 1960s, I was indoctrinated into the myths of the Alamo and Texas exceptionalism, although I do not recall learning much about the right of Texas to secede from the Union. Despite learning more about Texas high school football than the contributions of blacks and Hispanics to the making of the state, the conservative orientation of the curriculum did not prevent me from questioning the Vietnam War and embracing the Civil Rights Movement as a first generation college student. And I have confidence that the teachers and students of the Texas public school system will be able to rise above and see through the narrow and partisan history standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education which have drawn the ire of many historians throughout the nation.

Unfortunately, this debate over standards often rages with little input from history teachers who are expected to implement mandated curriculum. This attitude derives from a fundamental lack of respect in our culture for teachers. Thus, it is assumed that dentists and real estate agents are better equipped to make curricular decisions than are history educators.

Of course, I must confess that I was not too impressed with my high school history teachers, who were primarily football coaches. Class activities were limited to outlining the textbook and preparing reports from Encyclopedia Britannica. One could either take a test on Friday or choose the Southwest Conference trivia option. But in defense of these coaches, it should be pointed out that their employment was dependent not upon their history knowledge, but rather their won/loss record on the football field. Fortunately, even Texas has moved somewhat beyond the stereotypical high school football coach as history teacher.

There are also some credential issues with history educators as often a teacher with a social studies degree may be teaching American history with as few as six college hours of history. Nevertheless, there is a strong movement to enhance history education around the nation, led by organizations such as the National Council for History Education, Society for History Education, World History Association, American Historical Association, and Organization of American Historians. The federally-financed Teaching American History grants provide excellent models of collaboration between university professors and teachers in the schools. Opportunities for summer history education are also available through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

Perhaps the biggest problem for organizations such as the Texas State Board of Education, however, is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding history as an academic discipline. There is a popular assumption that history must be easy to teach, as it is an unchanging body of knowledge which does not require the analytical rigor of science and mathematics. Yet history is an exercise in interpretation in which we filter the past through the lens of the evolving present. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement and feminism have encouraged a more inclusive history that considers the contribution of women, Latino/as, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans to the building of America. The question is not simply which facts, but whose facts. It is a matter of perspective. The history of Western settlement may differ depending upon whether the story is told from the point of view of a pioneer or Native American. In fact, it seems to be the concept of multiple perspectives that most frightens those seeking to impose absolute standards upon the schools.

For example, it is not unreasonable that consideration be given to the role played by groups such as the National Rifle Association and “moral majority” in the 1980s resurgence of conservatism, but it would be difficult to tell the whole story of American politics in the late twentieth century without also including Ted Kennedy. Likewise, it would be a serious omission to discuss the rise of industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without taking into account the countervailing power of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party, which enjoyed strong support in Texas and Oklahoma before the First World War. The discipline offers an excellent opportunity for teachers to instill critical thinking by encouraging students to reach their own conclusions based upon research and analysis of primary documents and sources,

It is the fostering of critical thinking to which the Texas State Board seems most opposed. Rather than encouraging students to investigate the role of religion in the forging of the American nation, students are instructed to accept that the founders envisioned a Christian nation. According to the Texas standards, the Second Amendment is to be treated as an absolute, rather than presenting alternative interpretations and letting students reach their own conclusions. After all, the First Amendment freedom of speech is not recognized by the courts as absolute. It is important to examine the role of Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War, but it is equally essential to appreciate the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, for American history must be placed within the global context in which students will be living during the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the issue boils down to the traditional nostrum that the purpose of history is to instill patriotism in the youth. Yet to assume their duties as citizens in a democracy, our students must learn to think critically and question the conventional wisdom. It is this type of engaged citizenry, rather than rote patriotism, which will propel the United States forward in the next century.

And this is the type of teaching which I attempt to offer my students. I tend to align myself more with the Howard Zinn school of historiography and an emphasis upon history from the bottom up. It is, however, a perspective which I share with my students, urging them to challenge me with differing points of analysis. I view it as my charge to present students with multiple perspectives. Thus, when we study the New Deal, it is crucial for them to understand the concept of a social safety net program such as Social Security. It is equally important to recognize that the liberalism of the New Deal was questioned by conservatives who believed that the welfare state was undermining American individualism, while critics on the left insist that Roosevelt missed an opportunity to fundamentally alter the face of American capitalism.

If a teacher is going to foster multiple perspectives, one must be tolerant of opposing interpretations. One young man in my class took exception to the caricature of John D. Rockefeller as a robber baron. He wrote an outstanding research paper of approximately twenty-five pages defending the oil tycoon. I composed a five page rebuttal of my own, but he certainly deserved an A for his scholarship. In fact, some of my most memorable teaching moments arise from classroom debate in which students, with whom I disagree, raise challenging questions. This dialogue keeps me on my toes and makes me a better teacher. I hope that my classroom models a civil discourse which is all too often missing in the halls of Congress.


Yet, it is this type of vibrant democracy which the Texas State Board of Education seeks to stifle. For over thirty years, I have taught American history in an independent school, and I recognize that many of my public school colleagues are under greater pressure than I to adhere to state standards. Nevertheless, I have faith that dedicated teachers and inquiring young minds will find ways to subvert the antidemocratic directives of the Texas board. After all, the real teaching and learning begins when the classroom door closes.

Ron Briley

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Republished with permission from The History News Network.

LA Progressive


  1. Risheem Eli Muhamamd says

    My Comments Are directly related to my case with HISD & TWC for removing my ability to provide for myself and family and removing my unemployment benefits

  2. Risheem Eli Muhamamd says

    How can I be heard about my case with HousTON ISD

    I was recommeded for termination on 2/17/2010 upheld by the HISD Board of Education on 9/09/2010

    I have proof that I was wrongful terminated but legal fees are so outside my range I must write anyone willing to listen

    I need so help but it is tough Most Lawyers want to charge first
    and take 40% of your settlement upon the decision Whoa

    My Rebuttal
    Your employer does not have the right to demand that you perform an illegal act and then fire you for refusing to illegally perform the act. This is commonly referred to as a Sabine Pilot claim, Wrongful Termination or Wrongful Dismissal referring to the case law that supports these types of cases. If your employer orders you to do something that you know is in violation of a criminal statute or carries a criminal penalty, you should refuse to perform the act. If your employer fires you for refusing to act, you have been wrongfully terminated and you may need to speak to our wrongful termination lawyer in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio or anywhere in Texas as soon as possible. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff and it must be proven that this is the only reason the Plaintiff was fired. Your employer cannot retaliate against you for asserting your legal rights, for engaging in legal conduct, for your political beliefs and for many other reasons.
    Employers do not have the right to terminate you for discriminatory reasons. The traditional forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability and age, all apply to your employers right to terminate you. In a right to work state, the employer may terminate you for no reason, however, they may not discriminate against you for an illegal reason in the termination. Many state and federal laws exist to protect you from wrongful termination. Research of the applicable laws is necessary for each case in order to determine which applicable laws apply to the fact pattern supporting legal claims.
    Retaliation Discharge can occur in any number of situations related to sexual harassment, discrimination, or Sabine Pilot claims. The adverse actions of retaliation must be proven to be the result of the claim being made. Constructive discharge is also related to other types of wrongful acts by an employer including; breach of employment contract, sexual harassment, discrimination, Sabine Pilot and retaliation. One of the great necessities in a constructive discharge case is to prove that you were negatively treated to a greater degree of severity than other employees in your position with your employer.
    Even if you decide not to challenge the legality of your firing, you will be in a much better position to enforce all of your workplace rights if you carefully document what happened. For example, if you apply for unemployment insurance benefits and your former employer challenges that application; you will typically need to prove that you were dismissed for reasons that were not related to your misconduct.
    There are a number of ways to document what happened. The easiest is to keep an employment diary where you record and date significant work-related events such as performance reviews, commendations or reprimands, salary increases or decreases and even informal comments your supervisor makes to you about your work. Note the date, time and location for each event, which members of management were involved, and whether or not witnesses were present and their names. Whenever possible, back up your log with materials issued by your employer, such as copies of the employee handbook, memos, brochures, employee orientation videos, and any written evaluations, commendations or criticisms of your work. However, it would most likely be considered wrong to take or copy any documents that your employer considers confidential and this will be acknowledged if you decide to file a lawsuit. If a problem develops, ask to see your personnel file. Make a copy of all reports and reviews in it. Also, make a list of every single document the personnel file contains. That way, if your employer later adds anything, you will have proof that it was created after the fact.
    Please Review Attachment and Voice Recording My Direct Report , Filed about My Job Performance
    Projects Created while with the HISD – along with a list of my co-workers Letters of Support

  3. RonF says

    Paul McDermott:

    This is what happens when certain interest groups seek to promote their core interests by having particular historical prespectives mandated in the state teaching curriculum.

    True. But then, an emphasis on “diversity” over facts and figures is also the core interest of a particular group. This is not a debate over whether one group gets to pursue it’s agenda over a neutral presentation of history. It’s a debate over which group gets to pursue it’s agenda.

  4. RonF says

    Unfortunately, this debate over standards often rages with little input from history teachers who are expected to implement mandated curriculum. This attitude derives from a fundamental lack of respect in our culture for teachers. Thus, it is assumed that dentists and real estate agents are better equipped to make curricular decisions than are history educators.

    Well, no. Teachers are experts in how to teach something. That does not mean that they should be the final authority on what it is most important to teach. The author obviously has a point of view on the latter, and that’s fine. But the fact that he’s a history teacher does not make his point of view automatically superior to those of the members of the Texas Board of Education. It may be superior to theirs for other reasons. I think he’s right in at least some of his arguments. But that’s because I agree with his point of view, not because he’s a teacher. The people have a right to decide what the most important things are for their children to be taught.

    Teachers have earned respect. They have not earned deference.

  5. Paul McDermott says

    This is what happens when certain interest groups seek to promote their core interests by having particular historical prespectives mandated in the state teaching curriculum.

    For example, look at the California teaching standards for the 10th grade — Modern World History, Culture, and Geography (By the way, there’s almost nothing in the standards on geography, which has led to Californians knowing pathetically little about world geography.)

    The California teaching standard 10.9.6 mandates the following:

    (Students will)
    Understand how the forces of nationalism developed in the Middle East, how the Holocaust affected world opinion regarding the need for a Jewish state, and the significance and effects of the location and establishment of Israel on world affairs.

    Note the connection between the Holocaust and the “need” to create a Zionist settler-colonial state in Palestine at the expense of the people already living there. As a result of the California state mandates and the “informational” in-service classes offered to social studies teachers, high school graduates know almost nothing about what is really happening in that region.

  6. Marshall says

    I like much of what you said. Like those belly buttons, everyone has an opinion and that is what makes us great. The problem with opinions is when two presidents have opinions that differ so much.

    My example is these two opinions, both which can not be true..

    rigths of president #1;
    1.The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, shops, farms, or mines of the nation;

    2.The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

    3.The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his mily a decent living;

    4.The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

    5.The right of every family to a decent home;

    6.The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

    7.The right to adequate protection from economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

    8.The right to a good education.

    rights of president #2;
    You cannot permanently help men by doing for them what they should and could do themselves.
    You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
    You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
    You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
    You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
    You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
    You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
    You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.


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