Of all the political races to be decided on November 8, the ones for seats on the State Board of Education may be among the least sexy—and the most consequential. With several incumbents already unseated in primaries, and several more facing tough opponents in the general election, the new year could usher in a more right-wing band of politicians who will decide how children learn history in Texas—and across the United States. “The people behind the scenes in public education are fascinating,” said journalist Grace Lynch, who hosts the new podcast Teaching Texas. “It was pretty miraculous to me that everywhere I turned there was another person whose absurdity was only matched by their influence.”

The podcast charts decades during which religious activists and like-minded politicians have fought to keep lessons about evolution, sex education, and racial issues from making their way into Texas classrooms—and, because of the state’s massive market share, into textbooks nationwide. “It struck me as one of those stories that is far more complicated than it appears on its face, or far more nefarious,” Lynch told Texas Monthly. She maps the rise in influence of evangelical textbook screeners Mel and Norma Gabler in the 1960s; zealous politicians of the Christian right, such as Cynthia Dunbar and Don McLeroy, who sat on the State Board of Education in the 2000s; and activist groups such as Moms for Liberty and the current flare-up over social studies standards.

In short, this year the board was preparing for a massive overhaul of when and how children learn history in kindergarten through eighth grade. But the inclusion of gay rights, racial issues, and adjectives such as “indigenous” elicited complaints of “wokeness,” flooding the state education board with angry and often factually inaccurate public comments.

Many educators have responded that reducing all discussion to a culture-war debate makes an already cumbersome and expensive task—revising the curriculum and creating new resources to accompany it—less likely to result in quality teaching and learning. Teachers are hoping for State Board of Education members who will listen to those tasked with delivering the curriculum in classrooms. Though teachers were asked for input via a survey on the Texas Education Agency website, many, particularly elementary and middle school teachers, say that was not enough. “I have yet to find a teacher who had any participation in this survey,” said Emily Countryman, a social studies instructional specialist in Northside ISD in San Antonio. She and others want a more meaningful role in the conversation moving forward.

Under pressure

Texas reviews and updates its curriculum subject by subject on a rotating schedule, amending the statewide standards that need to be taught. These standards are called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills—TEKS—and they run teachers’ lives. When the TEKS come up for revision, politics and pedagogy often collide.

This year was even more complicated, because of issues with both the politics and the pedagogy, said Countryman. In the first major social studies overhaul in more than a decade, she was hoping to see changes to make the curriculum more “culturally responsive,” she said. Updates could make classroom learning more relevant to students from non-white backgrounds, more historically accurate regarding the treatment of people of color and Indigenous people, and more specific on issues for which a teacher’s own politics might influence their understanding of a historical event.

For instance, one of the fourth-grade teaching standards requires that students be able to “explain the effects on American Indian life brought about by the Red River War, building of U.S. forts and railroads, and loss of buffalo.” A culturally responsive revision might make clear what some of those effects were: the decimation of Indigenous life and culture. But the revision process also opens the door to a different point of view; educators who want to see more patriotic and heroic versions of history might say that the effect was the “civilization” of American Indian tribes.

Lynch’s podcast recounts many such debates over the decades, sometimes over single words or phrases:

—Whether evolution is taught as a debatable theory full of holes and inconsistent with biblical teaching, or as the best theory science has to explain human development.

—Whether Moses should be listed as an influence on the U.S. Constitution.

—Whether students should compare and contrast ideas in stories, or whether they should seek to identify the moral lesson in each one.

Lynch pulls an audio recording from a recent State Board of Education hearing during which public commenters question whether “incarceration” is an appropriate substitute for “internment” when describing the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and whether the term “indigenous” implies superiority to settlers. “[Native Americans] were not a species that is indigenous to the soil of our republic, nor is anyone else, to the best of our current knowledge,” said one man, speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It implies a primary claim upon the land on which we stand. So, what it does is it fosters animosity and division among the people.”

Complicating the ethical ambiguity of some of the teaching standards is 2021’s Senate Bill 3. The law prohibits teachers from contradicting the version of American current events, economics, government, and history favored by the Republican politicians who wrote the law. The bill takes explicit aim at the curriculum developed as part of New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s the 1619 Project, and it prohibits teachers from teaching, as the the 1619 Project does, that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States,” or that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist.” There’s nothing that explicitly prohibits teachers from balancing out some of the other biases they might see in textbooks. But they are warned not to include in their lessons anything that smacks of “critical race theory”—a college-level framework for understanding structural racism, which isn’t, and hasn’t been, taught in Texas public schools. After hearing Republican state senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who wrote SB 3, explain the law in a State Board of Education hearing, Countryman doesn’t believe impeding teachers was the intention of the bill, but it has certainly had that effect. “It made teachers really fearful of addressing challenging topics and questions from students in class because they didn’t want to end up on the news.”

An eighth-grade teacher interviewed in Lynch’s podcast expressed frustration at the revisionism in the new law, which makes it difficult to teach simple historical realities. For instance, SB 3 requires teachers to teach the founding ideals of the nation from its founding documents, but the law also makes it illegal to teach that slavery was anything other than a violation of those ideals. When Austin ISD middle school social studies teacher Zach Kent teaches the Constitution, he has to avoid noting that approval of slavery is codified within the document. “You want me to teach that there are founding ideals, but at the same time those founding ideals are betrayals of those same founding ideals. It just cannot be done,” he tells Lynch in episode seven.

The board was under pressure from SB 3 as well, chair Keven Ellis said. With a December 2022 deadline to bring the social studies teaching standards into compliance, the SBOE needed to make the revisions fast. At the same time, the board wanted to make bigger improvements. “If we were knocking things out of the park on our social studies scores, we’d leave it alone, but that was not the case,” Ellis said.

Instead of updating and clarifying current standards, the board presented a whole new framework for consideration. Students currently learn basic concepts in kindergarten through second grade. Third graders learn about their community. Fourth and seventh graders learn Texas history. Fifth and eighth graders learn U.S. history. Sixth graders take a contemporary world cultures class. The new framework proposed a linear progression from 8000 BCE, starting in third grade, to the modern era by fifth grade. Texas and U.S. history would be taught concurrently in sixth through eighth grade. The proposed standards included concepts Countryman had never seen, topics that sounded more like those of master’s theses than daily lessons for fourth graders.

Concerns flared up immediately, Ellis said, about the ability to make all of world history accessible to third and fourth graders—nine- and ten-year-olds—and whether a blended Texas and U.S. history curriculum would shortchange the teaching of Texas history. “Both sides had concerns over what we were doing,” he said.

But researchers and education experts who were called in to advise the board assured its members that more context was better. Understanding what was happening in the U.S. at the time of the Texas fight for independence from Mexico would make that struggle more relevant, they said. Understanding the development of civilization worldwide would make U.S. history more comprehensible. Ellis, perhaps the most optimistic politician in Texas, urged everyone to wait to see what the working groups produced as teaching standards to fit this new framework. Perhaps Neolithic culture could be made digestible for third graders, and perhaps three years of combined U.S. and Texas history would do justice to both.

Protectors of Texas exceptionalism

No one, not even the optimistic Ellis, expected to make it through the revisions without some political pushback. As Lynch points out in Teaching Texas, when science or health standards are reviewed, the advice of biologists and physicists can often prevail over the opinions of ideologues. But when it comes to social studies, “everybody thinks that what they knew about American history—that’s factual,” Dan Quinn tells Lynch in the podcast. Quinn is a longtime watchdog with Texas Freedom Network, a progressive organization countering the Christian right on issues of civil liberties, public education, and religious freedom.

The proposed standards had a lot to offer those who had been fighting for more-inclusive social studies curricula. They included broader views of history, lessons on more cultures in a global context, and the history of LGBTQ rights for eighth graders. The push for ethnic studies courses has always included a desire to see African American history, Asian history, and Latino history emphasized in more than just high school electives, and these standards took a meaningful step in that direction.

The Texas Freedom Caucus in the state legislature was quick to draft a letter accusing the new standards of “teaching subjects associated with critical race theory” and violating the forerunner to SB 3. The letter contested the proposed teaching of George Floyd’s murder as “race-driven,” noting that the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd was not charged with a hate crime. The letter also decried what it described as the de-emphasis of American exceptionalism, Texas exceptionalism, and Judeo-Christian values, including the use of BCE (before the Common Era) instead of BC (before Christ) in the writing of ancient dates. “The proposed changes also eliminate Texas history as a standalone course, in favor of intertwining Texas history with other historical subjects, in effect watering down our heritage and putting it on the same level as all other cultures. This is unacceptable—Texas is exceptional, and that should be reflected in our public education system,” Freedom Caucus chair Mayes Middleton, a Republican member of the Texas House from Galveston, wrote in a public statement accompanying the letter to the State Board of Education.

The Freedom Caucus also took issue with the new standards introducing world religious practices, including divination—in particular, the use of oracle bones for supernatural guidance in ancient China—to third-grade students. For Countryman, that particular backlash made her wary because of the challenge it portended for elementary school teachers. She remembers the questions she got from parents when she was a middle school teacher covering world religions. Every year, parents would express concerns that students were being indoctrinated by learning about the existence of Hinduism, Islam, and other faiths. If this were happening in elementary school, she said, parents were likely to revolt.

Old enough to know better

Like many of the teachers who reached out to Ellis and other board members, Countryman said her concerns weren’t political. Instead, her alarm bells went off when she looked at the working groups assembled by the State Board of Education to revamp the social studies teaching standards and saw very few teachers of students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

The standards proposed by the groups were far more esoteric than any elementary teachers were ready for, she said. References to the hierarchical governance structures in early civilizations, geography of prehistoric migration—it was a lot of new content for elementary school teachers who are already struggling to find time to fit social studies into school days focused heavily on math and reading. “The teachers in elementary are instructional specialists, not content specialists,” Countryman said. “They don’t have the time to do hours and hours of research to teach these concepts” in ways appropriate to the ages and abilities of their students.

Because they were not written age-appropriately, the proposed standards were open to misunderstanding or misrepresentation, Countryman said. Teachers who weren’t familiar enough with the concepts to translate them into developmentally appropriate language would have to either teach the concepts as written, sailing over most kids’ heads, or risk oversimplifying.

In an online guide to censorship in schools, the National Coalition Against Censorship makes a distinction between how educators use the concept of age-appropriateness and how the term can be used politically to strike issues such as racism and LGBTQ identity from elementary school curricula. “The term is often used to mean that students of a particular age shouldn’t be exposed to the material, not that they are too young to understand it. The objection usually comes up when the material concerns sexuality, reflecting a fear that exposure to this subject undermines moral or religious values.”

By contrast, complexity and abstract thinking develop over time, and children build on knowledge gleaned in previous years of school. So, just as a third grader is not ready for algebra, she may find it difficult to “identify the historical significance of a barter economy, food surpluses, and the emergence of permanent settlements as results of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution,” as required in the proposed third-grade teaching standards. 

Ironically, topics such as world religions were gone from the middle school standards, along with the contemporary world cultures class for sixth graders, who are at the age and maturity level to put those lessons in context. Countryman recalled watching Afghan middle schoolers, part of Northside’s newcomer program for refugee children, proudly explaining their home culture and the experience of “push and pull factors” in immigration to classmates, and she wondered whether there would be a place for that in the new curriculum.

History on the ballot

When Countryman called Democratic and Republican members of the State Board of Education after the proposed standards were released, she quickly found that “it didn’t sound like the representatives had read the proposed standards.” As she explained how the new standards would only pile more pressure on top of an already taxed teaching force, many of the board members had “aha” moments, she said.

Ellis confirmed that Countryman was far from the only teacher who raised concerns over the developmental appropriateness of the new standards—he heard from few, if any, teachers who had political concerns—or over the significant investment of time and money that would be required to help teachers reorient their social studies lesson plans. He said the board had seriously considered the extra work the changes would require for teachers who would have to modify their lesson plans significantly, but he also said that with professional development and a realistic timeline, that burden wasn’t a reason not to make the changes; it was just a reason to make them carefully. There was no way the board was going to reach a consensus on the new standards in time for SB 3’s looming December deadline, so the SBOE decided to delay the revisions until 2025, and it asked Texas Education Agency staff to recommend updates to ensure that the teaching standards were compliant with SB 3.

It disappointed Countryman that the framing of the standards in most media coverage focused on the politics and not the challenges the requirements posed to effective teaching. But, as Lynch’s podcast points out, the politics aren’t irrelevant. The slower process will undoubtedly be politicized, and the heavily conservative Texas Legislature has the entirety of its 2023 session to get more laws like SB 3 on the books. But Countryman and Ellis—who is running unopposed for reelection—both hope the extra time will also allow for more teacher input on what will be a fundamental change to middle and elementary school education. Fourth-grade teachers who have been teaching Texas history for years probably want to have a say in how they will be trained to teach global civilization from 550 BCE to 900 CE. And that’s true not only for Texas teachers, but for teachers all over the country, as the Teaching Texas podcast points out.

Lynch isn’t from Texas, but the impact of the state’s purchasing power in the textbook world caught her eye while she was recording her previous podcast, Winning Wisconsin, about the Badger State’s oversized power in presidential elections. While she was talking to experts for that serial, she said, several compared Wisconsin’s clout to Texas’s outsized influence over the nation’s textbooks. That influence is less pronounced in the days of digital editing, but publishers have a strong financial incentive to win the favor of Texas’s politicians, which will give them a built-in market of 1,200 school districts and more than five million students. The main politicians they must please aren’t the ones on the top of the ballot. They are the fifteen members of the State Board of Education. And all of them are up for election.