Extreme Right State Board of Education Members Attempt to Adopt
Discredited Ultraconservative English Language Arts Standards

Steven Schafersman
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 February 14
Updated: 2008 March 26

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(Last updated: 2008 March 28)

Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) Chair Don McLeroy and Vice-Chair David Bradley were ready to scrap two years of work and many tens of thousands of dollars already spent on the official Texas Education Agency (TEA)-realigned (actually, revised) English Language Arts (ELA) standards in favor of a substitute alternative plan from Donna Garner submitted only two days before the February 13 meeting. Although Texas Citizens for Science (TCS) has always been an advocate for better science standards, curricula, and textbooks--rather than for ELA, Social Studies, and Math standards, which of course are just as important and even more so in some cases, since reading, writing, and math are fundamental intellectual skills that students must master to learn literature, history, and science--I wish to step outside our area of expertise to say that McLeroy and Bradley's proposal is not only a bad idea, it is loony. If the SBOE actually voted to adopt the Garner plan, it would have made the Board the laughingstock of the nation and the object of incredulous scorn from every ELA teacher in Texas, perhaps the country. As prominent elected state education officials, SBOE members  should follow policies, procedures, and principles, not act like irresponsible children. I trust that the continuing revision of the ELA standards over the next month will proceed smoothly and the majority of SB members will ultimately reject the alternate proposal and vote to approve the ELA standards prepared by the official TEA ELA TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the Texas curriculum standards) writing panels with the help of the StandardsWork (SW) ELA facilitator.

Dr. McLeroy called the official ELA standards produced by the SW-ELA teacher team "not acceptable" and "inadequate." David Bradley was also unhappy with the official standard document:  "It's unreadable. It's mangled. It's confusing." In his questioning of SW facilitator Susan Pimental, McLeroy said his main objection to the official ELA standards is that they fail to provide for sufficient content knowledge or richness, and that "the missing structure right now is [background] knowledge." He said the proposed ELA standards don't address content knowledge, saying that "students are tested on process skills and this is unfair to them if they don't have background knowledge." He  mentioned the name of E. D. Hirsch, a retired University of Virginia professor of education and humanities who wrote the books Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. Hirsch's educational philosophy, which Dr. McLeroy obviously supports, can be found on his Core Knowledge website and in a long article (pdf file) by him published in American Educator. Hirsch's idea is that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills (i.e., recognizing word definitions, including unfamiliar words from context) but also wide-ranging cultural background knowledge. He concluded that schools should not be agnostic about what is taught but should teach a highly-specific curriculum that would allow learning-reader students to understand things writers take for granted.

I certainly agree with E. D. Hirsch and Don McLeroy about the need for such content knowledge in K-12 education, but I am not sure that highly prescriptive ELA standards are the best way to help students achieve such excellent cultural literacy. Standards should not include a suggested reading list, since such a list will be assumed by both publishers and teachers to be a required--not suggested--list, that that will certainly be too prescriptive. On the other hand, students must be exposed to some readings that provide the necessary cultural literacy. Perhaps the final standards can be accompanied by a separate suggested reading list--not part of the official standards--that will help teachers engender in students the attributes of possessing background content knowledge and cultural literacy.

As it turned out, this was only the first battle between the extreme right conservatives on the SB and the ELA teachers. The next two are related: first, the degree to which the proposed ELA curriculum should be specific about reading content, with the teachers saying the Garner standards were too prescriptive and restrictive, and the SB members saying the proposed ELA standards are not specific enough. The second battle concerned the type or nature of readings (literature students are required to read in schools). In most U.S. schools today, ELA readings are both traditional (classic) and multicultural in nature, providing literature written by both Anglo males and by women and ethnic minorities. Conservatives want classic American and English literature taught, almost all written by white males, taught exclusively while modern educational practice--termed postmodern or constructivist--wants multicultural readings used. Perhaps the major objection of Texas ELA teachers to the substitute Garner ELA standards was that this document actually lists specific readings, all classic American and English literature. However, most reading experts today believe that some multicultural literature must be presented to students, since we live now in a multicultural society and many students themselves are not of the traditional white, Anglo background. TCS would suggest, as many educators do, that a balance be found between the two genres of literature, traditional and multicultural.

I know who Donna Garner is and am aware of her long experience as an ELA teacher. Like her, I am a curriculum specialist (not in English, of course, but certain sciences) and have long teaching experience, and I am just as knowledgeable about the various "wars" between education experts who advocate for or against the competing traditional and constructivist instructional methods. Donna Garner's December 2000 exposition of her ELA standards philosophy is available to readers . Frankly, I sympathize with much of what she writes about. Like her, I am also an opponent of reform or constructivist learning philosophies and methods, especially in science, but I am more moderate than her in my opposition. These postmodern instructional methods have made their inroads into science education as well as reading, math, and social studies education. In California, scientists and engineers led the campaign against reform conceptual math instruction, because it was hurting student math achievement there. I am generally convinced by various studies that show that many of the constructivist or reform educational methods have not improved student learning, but often caused a decline.

However, I believe that dealing with these competing instructional methods is best left to curriculum experts, school district discipline supervisors, and individual teachers. It is a mistake to attempt to legislate for or against these educational philosophies from the level of the State Board of Education. It is a mistake to attempt to impose very prescriptive instructional program standards on the public schools. As SBOE member Pat Hardy says, curriculum standards, which the SB has responsibility for, are not curriculum programs or instructional methods. Donna Garner's proposed ELA curriculum consists of more than standards--it is a program, and would only be acceptable to some ELA teachers, but not all or most. Teachers testified that her ELA curriculum is too restrictive and narrow, contains only "suggested" classic readings which will certainly be considered as required by teachers, overemphasizes spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and prescribes formulaic writing assignments and drills, and is frankly out of date. It does not advocate ELA teaching methods and skills that result from research. The Garner standards document is totally opposed to "multicultural" readings and authors, which is just not acceptable today. This attitude is really authoritarian and smacks of state censorship. Teachers should be able to choose what readings to use in their classes. Garner's proposed ELA standards were rejected in 1997 by the TEA as unacceptable and are no better now. In fact, they are worse, since ELA teaching methods have improved in the last decade.

There may very well be some superior features in Donna Garner's alternative ELA curriculum. I don't know, since I am not an ELA curriculum expert (but see here and below for her description of its advantages). But more than a few days or weeks is necessary to fully evaluate this curriculum. Why wasn't the Garner curriculum evaluated earlier in the process? To turn to it now--at the very last minute after over two years of work and review--is very irresponsible and violates accepted procedure.

During the meeting, the radical right members on the SBOE seemed to go out of their way to invite controversy. They implicitly insulted the English teachers present who testified by proposing a motion to consolidate the substitute Garner ELA standards with the official TEA-SW standards. SB member Cynthia Dunbar was particularly aggressive, challenging an English teacher's understanding of a word she used (disparate), which brought boos from the audience (to her credit, Dunbar later apologized). The main insult, of course, was their eagerness to force TEA staff and ELA teachers to adopt all of or elements from the Garner ELA standards document. SB member Terri Leo kept trying to get the StandardsWork facilitator to agree to use the Garner document as the framework and have her list things from the TEA-SW-teachers document that could be added to Garner document, not the other way around as one might expect. This is nonsense, of course, and the SW facilitator never actually agreed to do this! Gail Lowe said the Garner document is the work of several authors named at the end, not just Donna Garner. Geraldine Miller told the audience that the other "contributors" named in the document are really just experts whose work Garner used, not actual authors of the substitute standards. Donna Garner insists she is not the sole author. Lowe also said the prescriptive classical literature reading list in Garner's standards document contained "examples" that are not required. But that's nonsense. If readings are in the standards, teachers will assume they are required. Reading lists are supposed to be separate and suggestive documents; readings are typically chosen by districts, schools, and individual teachers. Lowe also said the Garner document was not a "last-minute thing as some suggested," because the SB members received it on Monday (two days before!). Why? Because they only received the proposed TEA-SW-teachers' document in late January. So both were last-minute, implying that it is unfair to characterize the Garner document as "last-minute." Her reasoning is breathtaking.

The SW/English teachers revised ELA standards and many other documents can be found at TEKS Realignment Page  on the Texas Council of Teachers of ELA website. You should visit this webpage to keep up with further developments. Donna Garner's substitute standards document is available here (1.4 MB Word doc) on the TCS website. Also, you can read Donna Garner's ELA philosophy here on the Lone Star Foundation website.

The testimony of the English teachers was eloquent and inspiring. They are obviously extremely dedicated, hard-working, well-spoken, intelligent, and patient considering what they have had to contend with. The process began 2.5 years ago, they worked for two years and devoted hundreds of hours to the process, but they had to start from the beginning last November when the SW facilitator was hired. This person gave the Texas English teachers a brand new draft document to start with, and they had to carefully revise this over about two months with a one day face-to-face meeting and subsequent email discussion and conference calls! According to all the ELA teachers, this document was acceptable but still needs some work. Apparently the work with the facilitator went okay, since the facilitator--while keeping ultimate control of the document--was very fair in highlighting changes and seeking both positive and negative feedback during the process of making changes. In short, the facilitator did not try to impose her own beliefs to create the standards, but listened to the teachers and accepted their good revisions within a good framework. Then, on Monday, February 11, Don McLeroy called the SW/English teacher standards "not acceptable" and "inadequate," and introduced the Garner document as a substitute. This is bad policy as well as insulting to the state's best English teachers and the StandardsWork facilitator, all of whom are experts and professionals.

I very quickly reviewed Donna Garner's substitute ELA standards. I could not find anything overtly religious in them as some claimed. Her standards are, however, very conservative. They contain readings that are all classic American and English literature, all written by white, Anglo males--most long dead--with absolutely no multicultural literature. Her standards are devoted entirely to the phonics method of teaching reading, with no whole language. Garner's substitute ELA document represents the traditional way of teaching English that has long been replaced by modern methods.

A friend told me that the Garner standards are compatible with Reading First,  a No Child Left Behind reading instructional program driven by ultra-conservative moneymakers tied to President Bush. Reading First emphasize phonics, no multiculturalism, classic literature only, etc. The Bush Administration was giving out millions of dollars from No Child Left Behind funds to states that would adopt only five reading programs of this type, all produced by those Republican cronies. States that said they would use other programs, such as whole language or even phonics programs from other publishers, got nothing. The Federal government started an investigation of this program, and the person who headed it resigned. I didn't have time to investigate this episode further, but this sounds like a typical example of Bush Administration cronyism.

Using the Web, I investigated Sandra Stotsky, whose name was prominently mentioned as a reading expert who could help TEA evaluate and write ELA standards. She is an education curriculum standards expert and consultant who is opposed to the multiculturalism in schools. Her name is also listed as a contributor at the conclusion of the Garner substitute ELA standards. A biography of her can be found here. A review of her book Losing Our Language at  says this:

Stotsky demonstrates that instruction in reading has been degraded into a vehicle for the preaching of sociopolitical ideology -- especially the array of racial and sexual dogmas which travel under the name "multiculturalism" -- and that intellectual development is relentlessly subordinated to the goal of inculcating students with multi-culti views and attitudes.

So this explains why her name was invoked by the proponents of the substitute ELA standards amendment. I read the very favorable book review, one of whose authors is a good friend of mine whom I greatly respect, and I found I agreed with several points. Stotsky is correct about some of the academic excesses she ascribes to multiculturalism, especially when it promotes anti-intellectualism and focuses solely on the gender and race of authors and reading subjects. But I also disagreed with several conclusions in the review. The excesses of multiculturalism she describes in her book are deplorable, but those are certainly the exception.  Some multiculturalism in education is important in our modern world. We must include some readings by and about women and ethnic minorities, because we live in a global society and many of our students today are not white Anglo males. Students must be able to identify characters similar to themselves in literature to develop a love for reading. But we also can't completely exclude the English and American classic literature, since we need to provide students with the necessary background cultural knowledge. So there must be a balance. I have some personal knowledge of literature and readings in Texas high school English classes, and I believe that this balance is being accomplished by our teachers without interference or pressure from the SBOE.

The problem is that good educational practice or pedagogy means that finding that balance should be left to school districts, schools, and teachers, not to the State Board of Education. If members of the SBOE are so concerned about their alleged excesses of multiculturalism and neglect of the Western Literature canon in ELA readings, perhaps they can work with professional ELA teachers organizations and schools of education to achieve the balance they seek. I have no idea if our state's English teachers, organizations, and education schools have gone overboard with multiculturalism, constructivism, and postmodernism. If they have and this is actually the case, I would agree that the SBOE's extreme conservative members are right to try to correct the problem. But I really don't think this is the case. The main point is that the SBOE's right-wing members are going about fixing their perceived problem in the wrong way, since they do not have the authority, knowledge, or responsibility to specify readings or instructional programs such as phonics, traditional computational math, abstinence-only sex education, and specific unscientific details about science topics, all of which it has done in the past with execrable results. Educational pedagogy--methods to transmit knowledge and promote learning--must be left to the professionals, not SBOE members, most of whom are frankly not experts in education (although they all individually think they are). Imposition of highly specific reading lists and instructional content smacks of authoritarianism and censorship, two characteristics for which the Texas SBOE has earned a well-deserved negative reputation over the last three decades. From my point of view--after opposing the authoritarianism and censorship of the SBOE for 27 years about  science curricula and textbooks--it is not advisable for the SBOE to persist in this activity. If the right-wing Conservatives want to root out multiculturalism, whole language, reform conceptual mathematics,  inquiry-based science, and other constructivist/postmodern educational practices, they should go to the state's education schools and teachers organizations and start a dialog. I would be happy to participate, since I am not an advocate of postmodernism or constructivism and thus partly agree with the social Conservatives on this issue while opposing them on almost everything else.

Pat Hardy initially led the SB members opposition to David Bradley's motion. Later, Bradley withdrew the original motion to consolidate the two opposing standards documents and made a more conciliatory motion that listed the two standards plus input from other interested parties, including ELA teachers. When he withdrew his original motion, the audience applauded, but he said, "You haven't heard my next motion." I'm glad Bradley has a sense of humor. But even the second motion was not acceptable to Mary Helen Berlanga, who spoke out strongly against it. She charged that it makes no sense to abandon over two years of work and even consider substitute standards that were rejected 11 years ago. Pat Hardy suggested a substitute motion that allowed all sources of input to revise the TEA-SW-teachers ELA standards without specifying any specific alternative. All mention of Donna Garner's standards was removed from this third motion, which eventually passed (see text below). It resulted in appointing a "balanced SBOE subcommittee" (McLeroy, Lowe, Miller, Allen) to work with TEA staff, the ELA teachers, and the SW facilitator to get a document everyone would approve. All the ELA teachers who testified at the meeting opposed the substitute standards, and all said the SW/teachers standards just needed a little more tweaking to be acceptable. The final document will be voted on March 27. There will be a full day of public testimony March 26.

As readers of my essays know, the ELA episode is another threat to science standards, just like the math textbook episode, which is why I examined the ELA standards in some detail.   If the SBOE can--by majority vote--substitute a single-source (Donna Garner) ELA standards document given to them at the last minute (two days before the meeting) for the official TEA ELA standards written by ELA teachers and reading experts and the ELA facilitator over two years, or force them to be consolidated (as the motion ultimately specified), they can do the same thing for biology curriculum standards (also environmental science, Earth and Space Science, and any other science standards). This possibility was so obvious that SBOE member Mary Helen Berlanga asked, "If we're doing it now, are we going to do it in science?" Precisely.

I can imagine that the Discovery Institute is right now writing an alternate biology curriculum standards document--with specific "weaknesses" of evolution listed--to substitute for the official biology standards being prepared right now by TEA biology teachers and professors and that will be submitted this summer to the SBOE. They will give this document to Chair Don McLeroy who will ask that "a balanced subcommittee of SB members be appointed [by McLeroy] to work with TEA staff and the biology TEKS panel to consolidate the best aspects of both biology standards documents," just as was asked for the ELA standards. The precedent was going to be set, but a small number of determined SBOE members opposed the Radical Right members (i.e., the "Conservatives")  and the original motion failed. The motion that passed did not mention the Garner ELA standards, but the (not really very "balanced")  subcommittee of SBOE members was appointed to work with staff. This episode was just another SBOE right-wing power play, the same as rejecting the math textbook last November with no legitimate statutory justification. We should all be worried about the consequences for biology later because of this ELA power play today.


Compromise Motion, passed at the 2008 February 13 SBOE Meeting

The Chair shall appoint a balanced subcommittee to work with agency staff.  The subcommittee shall consider the "StandardsWork" document, and input from all interested parties including members of the existing work groups to complete the final standards document. This will include an expert review with experts chosen by the subcommittee. The facilitator will facilitate this content review team and be charged with writing the final document. The final document will include the college readiness standards per HB 1. The subcommittee will sign off on the final document. The Committee of the Full Board will review the final standards document. First reading will occur March 27, 2008, with final adoption May 22, 2008.

The State Board of Education Won't Stop Their Interference

Op-Ed Column by Steven Schafersman
2008 March 26

The Texas State Board of Education has a seemingly endless appetite for controversy. The Religious Right members of the Board are not shy about making their opinions about education known, and unlike most citizens, they have the power to put their opinions into action. In recent months, they rejected a math textbook from a series that was being used successfully in Dallas-area public schools to improve students' mathematics performance. The book was illegitimately rejected with no reason given, in violation of statutes, because a bare majority of social Conservatives on the Board didn't like its educational philosophy, regardless of the fact that hundreds of math teachers use the text to successfully teach math to thousands of Texas elementary students. These same Board members have openly expressed their desire to insert their alleged but scientifically false "weaknesses of evolution" into the biology standards in violation of Federal law to further weaken science instruction in Texas high schools. That fight will come later this year.

The controversy of the moment is the effort by the same Religious Right Conservatives to force the English Language Arts and Reading (ELAR) standards to reflect a traditional and narrowly-focused model that social conservatives love. After almost three years of work by Texas English teachers and curriculum experts, plus the hiring of a professional English facilitator, the Conservative members wanted to replace the newly-written ELAR standards and replace them with an old and once-rejected ELAR curriculum.

After the work of the alleged "balanced" subcommittee of the State Board, the old and new ELAR standards were melded in a way that did not please the professional ELAR teachers. The proposed "compromise" ELAR standards document has several esoteric problems, but I will focus on two major problems that will cause a great deal of controversy and difficulty if adopted. First, at a time when the number of Hispanic-Americans in Texas schools is now 47% of the total student population and rising each year, the request for input from Latino English reading experts was deliberately rejected.  Hispanic-American Texas legislators asked State Board Chair Don McLeroy to include their input, but with an--in this modern age--unusual cultural obtuseness, he refused, claiming there was no time. Dr. McLeroy neglected to mention that he himself was largely responsible for disrupting the process at the last minute--by first appointing a facilitator and then trying to substitute an alternative set of decade-old standards-- and losing precious weeks.

Second, the "compromise" ELAR standards have specific "suggested" readings listed throughout. Rather than including readings written by a variety of people, including women authors, Hispanic authors, contemporary authors, and authors of other world cultures, the readings are almost overwhelmingly written by Anglo males, most of whom are deceased. In the schools of most states, heritage/classic/traditional readings (Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Twain, etc.) are balanced by contemporary/multicultural readings. The reason to have a variety of readings is so that student readers in our very multicultural state and country will be exposed to people similar to themselves with whom they can identify and be motivated to keep reading. The reason not to list specific readings--even suggested ones--is that publishers will consider them mandatory and put them in the literature books to the neglect of everything else. These literature books will be purchased by Texas for the use of public schools, who will usually not be able to afford other literature books that contain the multicultural readings most teachers want to use. The effect of the Conservatives' ploy is to force a narrow literature--written by white, dead, Anglo males--onto an ethnically-, culturally-, and gender-diverse student audience. This sort of thing has been against academic practice for several decades now, so the policy is to go backwards in time. Dr. McLeroy castigated having Texas students read a Chinese story, not appreciating the fact that China is our country's major creditor, so perhaps it would be wise for Texans to understand something about them.

The Religious Conservatives on the State Board of Education are using the ELAR revision process to demonstrate their power. Rather than just approve ELAR standards prepared by experts and professionals, they are unprecedentedly inserting themselves into the process and specifying readings, discipline subject matter, teaching methods, instructional strategies, and pedagogical philosophies, all of which have been traditionally left to classroom teachers and school districts. This is the real problem: an over-active State Board of Education that thinks they know everything and will defy English teachers, math teachers, and science teachers. State Board member David Bradley explains: "Ultimately, the debate comes down to who gets to decide on the list, and it falls to the 15 folks who were elected." Is this really the way education in Texas is supposed to work? The fifteen State Board of Education members will decide everything? From my point of view, if they can do this with English, they can do it with science. Who is going to stop them?

Every Texas citizen should be alarmed at the supercilious attitude of the Religious Right State Board members. Rather than push through their outmoded English and reading standards, the Board members should allow the Texas ELAR professional teachers, curriculum experts, and Hispanic-American experts more time to finish their work without further interference from the State Board of Education.

Steven Schafersman is President of Texas Citizens for Science

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2008 March 26