Thanks to my colleague Katy Vine, who follows the drama of the State Board of Education, for calling this blog post in the Houston Press to my attention. Here’s the post in full: The Houston ISD employees who were asked to draft a resolution asking the State Board of Education to step back from the changes it made recently in the proposed social studies curriculum for public school students, told the Houston school board today that students will be asked to memorize an overwhelming number of “dates and dead people” if the amendments stand. Angela Miller, the manager of secondary social studies curriculum for HISD said, for instance, that instead of the current 92 objectives to be mastered in U.S. History since 1877, the new curriculum calls for 127. Tenth grade World History objectives would go from 92 to 127. The result, school district Superintendent Terry Grier said, would be that students would be spending even more time in drill and kill exercises, rather than learning to think critically and explore higher academic skills. Miller and others from the social studies curriculum who wrote up a talking points document also challenged the changes on grounds that first graders for instance were being required to understand concepts way beyond their 6-year-old years and that some of the scholarship, for example how McCarthyism helped uncover how Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government, is suspect. Trustee Manuel Rodriguez had asked for the discussion at today’s board workshop. Several of the board members were clearly uneasy — as was Grier — about sending the resolution to the state board in its present state. Trustee Paula Harris said it wasn’t reasonable to question state board members for not just going along with the recommendations they were given by a committee; it is their responsibility to question everything. But just as clearly, most of the board members were uncomfortable with the sheer multitude of facts that the state board now wants students to regurgitate, mainly by moving more obscure historic figures from the “such as” category to the must-teach. In the end they agreed to allow the administration another stab at writing the resolution, this time asking the state to put a limit on all the changes it was starting up in one year. The debate was ongoing when an older but still familiar face popped into the room. Lawrence Allen, the son of State Rep. Alma Allen and a member of the State Board of Education in his own right, who works as a community liaison for HISD, sat down in one of the spectator seats until he was urged by board president Greg Meyers to address the trustees. The soft-spoken Allen told board members they could forget about asking the state board to go back to the original document developed by teachers and the state board’s own experts – the original recommendations that got significantly changed by the state board itself. He insisted that the state board was still open to suggestion but that it would never agree to a blanket decision to reverse the “such as” parts, but “would go line by line by line” through the amendments. “As you know these amendments were made by board members so they feel very strong about the amendments they brought forth” “We won’t do any big sweeps but we will look at a large number of categories.” He also said that further changes may be coming from State Education Commissioner Robert Scott, whose “voice” hadn’t been heard yet. It was interesting to see how school board members responded to Allen – Meyers said they’d “been honored to be joined by Mr. Lawrence Allen” – interesting considering that in 2002, the HISD administration of then-Superintendent Kaye Stripling yanked Allen as principal of Jones High School after parents of the Vanguard school within a school there gathered data that painted him as an incompetent bumbler. After a public outcry from the neighborhood and some of the parents of students in regular classes at Jones — aided by Quannel X and whatever other political forces that were in play (Allen’s mother was on the State Board of Education herself at that time), Allen was re-instated days later. His supporters considered him a role model; his detractors saw him as someone who couldn’t explain where the uniform money had gone, had allowed video game machines to be installed in the cafeteria, couldn’t keep raw sewage out of the bathrooms and courtyard or textbooks in the classroom. A followup investigation done by the district, in fact headed up by a family friend, found that Allen had, in fact, been doing a lousy job, citing Jones as a place where bills went unpaid, the principal didn’t oversee his staff or his budget and students roved the halls throwing trash. Eventually Allen was moved out of the school as was the Vanguard program which became Carnegie Vanguard on its own campus. And five years ago, Allen ended up filling the rest of the SBOE term of his mom when she moved on to state rep, although not without some discussion. At the end of his board address, Allen warned against a suggestion that HISD staffers make specific change requests. That was the job of the committee that gave the draft document to the board initially; they’ve already been through that process. He thinks HISD can make its case by stating that “We’re looking for a curriculum that’s really rich and rigorous for our students.” Allen defended the work of the state board, saying “We produced a document that we felt was a very good document for the state of Texas.” * * * * The social studies changes have been discussed at length in the state and national media and need no recounting here. What I find interesting is that HISD is criticizing the board for reasons unrelated to the politicalization of history that has drawn such ridicule. The required (“must-teach”) memorization of names and dates, which HISD critics refer to as “drill and kill,” will have the effect of undermining students’ critical thinking skills. This is a much more serious matter than whether Phyllis Schafly should be required reading. Good for HISD for bringing it up, and shame on Lawrence Allen for describing the controversial social studies curriculum as “a very good document for the state of Texas.”
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