Learning Curve

Barbara Cargill, the nominee to head the State Board of Education, talks about curriculum standards, how she would teach evolution, and the number of fossils she owns.
Fri February 15, 2013 10:30 am

Barbara Cargill has been fielding a lot of questions lately. The former biology teacher was first elected to the State Board of Education in 2004, and in July 2011, Governor Rick Perry appointed her as the chair. This session she must be approved by the Senate Committee on Nominations and then confirmed by the full Senate. Her predecessors’ fates should make her nervous: neither Gail Rowe nor Don McLeroy, Perry’s last two appointees to the position, managed to get senate confirmation.

Under McLeroy, the SBOE, which sets the standards for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and approves instructional materials for the public schools, garnered national attention. Critics argued that the state is effectively promoting conservative values in textbooks—not just in Texas, but around the country. The reasoning is that because Texas has so many school-age children, publishers have to write textbooks that meet the state’s specifications, or else they risk losing a huge slice of their sales. That history prompted a series of harsh questions from Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) during the nominations committee hearing on Monday. Watson asked Cargill to confirm that she would support requiring more credentials for experts on review panels and to reassure the board she could leave behind her personal beliefs when setting curriculum standards. The soft-spoken Cargill said that she would.

“I think creation is a very precious part of my faith,” Cargill told reporters after the hearing. But as for where it should be taught, Cargill was quick to specify that her three boys learned about creationism in the church and home, not the classroom.

The vote on her nomination is expected to take place on Monday, and earlier this week Cargill took some time to chat with Texas Monthly about her job.

How does the SBOE move from writing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills to influencing the content of a textbook that would be put in classrooms?

What publishers do is they use those curriculum standards, because the curriculum standards are the framework for what teachers teach in the classroom. And so then the publishers would look at those curriculum standards and try to cover the content for each one of them.

Who serves on the committees that review instructional materials?
We are required and encouraged by statute to not only have teachers but also business people and parents. But a lot of time the groups end up being mainly teachers, because their bosses—superintendents—will let them take off to come to meetings. One group I’m really trying to tap in on is retirees. I actually just heard from someone who’s retired from the oil and gas industry asking if he could help review the science textbooks, and I’m like, “Yes! Yes!”

You mentioned changing the title of a chapter in a social studies textbook on the Omaha Beach landing from “Nightmare at Omaha” to “A Day for Heroes.” Where does that fit into meeting these TEKS standards?

Well, our major emphasis is on correcting factual errors. When the review panels come together, they are trained to look for factual errors. They are not charged with looking for content to change. But regarding “Nightmare at Omaha,” a World War II veteran on one of the review committees brought it to our attention, and an agency staff member delivered the message to the publisher. The publishers actually do not have to agree to make any of the suggested changes at all. Even if it’s a factual error, they don’t have to agree to fix it—but that’s generally not a great idea because there can be fines they incur if errors do reach the classroom. In this case, the publisher very graciously agreed to make the change. Those textbooks are still in the classroom.

Currently, the SBOE can appoint up to seven “expert reviewers,” who must have a bachelors degree,


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