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.

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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, demonstrated expertise in his or her subject area, and experience working or teaching in the field they will consult on. When Senator Watson asked you why you voted against raising the requirements for these experts to an advanced degree and ten years of work experience, you mentioned not being able to call the historian David Barton as an expert because he lacks a Ph.D. Are there other experts you’ve consulted with for the SBOE that wouldn’t fit the definition of ‘expert’ under Watson’s proposed standards?
I don’t think I could remember all the experts I’ve nominated. So Senator Watson wanted someone with a Ph.D or 10 years of experience. And that “or” is critical. There might be some people who would be considered an expert, and they have their Ph.D, but maybe they haven’t been teaching at the college level for ten years. Or you might have someone with a master’s degree, who doesn’t have a Ph.D, but has been working in the field for thirty years. I would consider that person to be an expert. I certainly don’t have a problem with what Senator Watson suggested, as long as it’s an “or.”

Currently, the High-School Science TEKS require that teachers, in teaching the Theory of Evolution, “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” These are all terms that some have associated with creationism and intelligent design, but you maintained yesterday that they were part of evaluating and critiquing the scientific theories and evidence. You’re a high school biology teacher. How would you teach these concepts in your own classroom?

Now remember, it’s been about 20 years since I’ve taught. I’m not sure some of these things had even been named yet. I’m pretty sure stasis is a little bit new. Oh, good heavenly days. Well, I can’t tell you exactly how I would teach them, but I would follow the curriculum standards. I would rely also on the textbook and on online sources. But I always like my students to have their textbook right there because of the activities in the book.

Why did the board choose to include specific terminology like “sudden appearance” and “stasis” in the TEKs that outline the teaching of evolution? For example, why does it specify that the fossil record should be “analyzed and evaluated”?

Because that’s part of it. There are two parts to the theory of evolution. The first is microevolution, which is that all things change with time. I think we’re all in agreement with that. Macroevolution, I think, is where more of the debate comes in. That’s where the questions like “Where does life come from?” and “What is the origin of life?” crop up.

Certainly, the fossil record is a huge part of the study of evolution. You know, look at the parts of the fossil record that have been filled in, look at the parts that scientists have filled in, look at the fossils that have been discovered from the Mesozoic era. Millions of years ago or whatever the time line is that they show. So let’s look at this fossil record and show what it says about evolution. Oh but look, right here, there may be a gap in time! Of course, seeing million of years is nothing in the geologic time frame, I’m sure. But what might be some scientific reasons why there were periods of time where there were no fossils, where fossils didn’t change, where they stayed mostly the same? So that’s what stasis is.

And then we might look at other periods where there are a lot of fossils that just appeared at one time. What was it? Was it the environment? Was it because there was more of a food supply? Was it because certain predators got killed off? There are all kinds of things that the kids could brainstorm about, such as “why do you have stasis?” and “why is there a sequence to the fossil record?” I could go on and on. And my students always enjoyed it too and we’d make fossil prints. Actually I’ve got about five thousand fossils right now in storage that I give to kids, who said it was so awesome and that they loved having their own fossils.

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