June 16, 2010

Students learn about the Texas Board of Education's controversial new standards and consider whether they approve of ten items included in the new standards.

To the Teacher

The Texas Board of Education's recent decision to change social studies standards for the Texas curriculum generated a national controversy. The reading below introduces students to this issue. Following the reading is an activity inviting student discussion and inquiry about ten items included in the new standards. The readings are followed by questions and issues for possible student inquiry.


Student Reading 1:

"A Christian land governed by Christian principles"

"Friday's meeting of the Texas Board of Education, charged with revising the state's social studies curriculum, began with a Christian prayer on behalf of 'a Christian land governed by Christian principles,' a prayer made 'in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,'" reported the Washington Post (May 21, 2010).

"I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the Spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses," said board of education member Cynthia Dunbar in her opening prayer. "I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it....I like to believe that we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion and as long as we do so no great harm can come to our country."

After these remarks, the final session of the Texas Board of Education began. The board had already had months of controversial meetings about the role of Christianity in education as part of a review of state social studies standards it must perform once every decade. At the meeting where Dunbar made her prayer, the board voted 9-5 to approve new social studies standards for K-12. The standards emphasize teaching about the Christian beliefs of the founders of the United States, the Judeo-Christian influences on them, and the importance of religion to Americans. (David Waters, "Jesus prayer opens Texas textbook meeting," Washington Post, 5/21/10)

The standards note that the founders did not include the words "separation of church and state" in the Constitution, nor did the Constitution include any commitment to a secular society. The new Texas standards call for students to: "Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'" The standards then ask students to "compare and contrast this to the phrase 'separation of church and state.'"

The standards have an influence that goes beyond the 4.7 million or so students in Texas. Publishing companies must reflect those standards in their textbooks or lose not only very profitable sales in Texas (whose textbook market is second only to California's) but also in other states. Publishers market their textbooks nationally, but they say that the influence of Texas has lessened since "the digital age allows editors to tailor versions of their textbooks to individual states." (New York Times, 5/21/10)


For discussion and inquiry

1. What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they be answered?

2. Do you understand the United States to be "a Christian land governed by Christian principles"? Why or why not? What evidence supports your opinion? What are the sources of this evidence?

3. What, if anything, does the Constitution say about the U.S. as "a Christian land governed by Christian principles"? Specifically, what Christian principles do you think Dunbar is referring to?

4. The treaty of 1796-1797 between the US and Tripoli declares: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion—and as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims) is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two countries." Presidents George Washington and John Adams supported the treaty. How would you explain their support? What is your opinion of it and why? What do you think Dunbar's opinion would be and why?

5. Does "the entire Bill of Rights" come from "the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it"? Why or why not? What evidence supports your opinion? What are the sources of this evidence?

6. How would you respond to the Texas requirement to "compare and contrast" the First Amendment statement "respecting an establishment of religion" to the phrase "separation of church and state"?

7. President Thomas Jefferson used the term "separation of church and state" in an 1802 letter to Baptists in Danbury, CT. He wrote that he revered the "act of the whole American people which declared that their 'legislature' should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' [the First Amendment], thus building a wall of separation between church and State." Does the First Amendment build "a wall of separation between church and state"? Explain what you understand Jefferson to have meant. Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Do you think the Texas board would? Why or why not? What have been later Supreme Court interpretations of this issue? If you don't know, how might you find out? Do you agree with each? Why or why not?

8. Why do Texas social studies standards influence social studies standards in other states?

9. What are social studies standards for your grade in your state? What is the content of the standards? What process does the state recommend, if any? What does the work of your class tell you about the standards? If you wanted to learn more about your state's standards, how might you find out?


Activity & Inquiry:

You as a Texas Board of Education Member

Ask students to imagine that they are members of the Texas Board of Education deciding on the new standards. Would they have agreed or disagreed with the majority on each of the decisions below? Why?

1. Eliminate the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration and suffrage advocate Carrie Chapman Catt's advocacy of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (women's right to vote).

What was the Seneca Falls Declaration? What connection, if any, did it have to passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution? What did Catt do to promote passage of his amendment and why?
Should the Seneca Falls Declaration and what followed from it be included in the Texas social studies curriculum? Why or why not?

2. Require students to analyze "the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis' inaugural address and Abraham Lincoln's ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address."

Should this requirement be included in the Texas social studies curriculum? Why or why not? What would such an analysis require? If you were a Texas student, how would you go about doing it?

3. Require students to be familiar with many Confederate officials and generals.

What officials and generals did the Texas school board include in its social studies standards? Select three for further inquiry and decide whether or not you think they should be included in the standards.

4. Replace Harriet Tubman with Clara Barton as the best example of "good citizenship."

Who are Harriet Tubman and Clara Barton? Which is the better example of "good citizenship"? Why If you need more information, how might you find it?

5. Exclude Ku Klux Klan (KKK) atrocities.

What were the origins of the KKK? What evidence is there for KKK atrocities? Should such evidence be included in the Texas curriculum? Why or why not?

6. Replace Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Veterans Day on a list of holidays students should know about.

Why did Congress establish each of these holidays? How would you decide which, if either, is more important for students to know about? Why?

7. Study the "regulation of some foreign nationals" alongside the US government's decision to confine over 110,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II.

What do you think the Texas board meant by referring to the "regulation of some foreign nationals" during World War II? To whom does it refer? Why? Most of those sent to camps during the war were not "foreign," but rather US citizens. Why were so many Americans of Japanese heritage removed from their homes? Should the two situations be studied together? Why or why not?

8. Have students "describe the role of individuals such as governors George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox and groups, including the Congressional bloc of southern Democrats, that sought to maintain the status quo [in the Civil Rights era]."

Who are George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox? Who were the southern Democrats and how did they seek to "maintain the status quo" during the Civil Rights era? Which of these should be studied? Why?

9. Exclude such organizations as the League of Latin American Citizens and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and exclude Latino leaders, such as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

Should Latino organizations be included in the Texas curriculum? Why or why not? Should Justice Sonia Sotomayor be included? Why or why not?


10. Require students to "explain instances of institutional racism in American society."

How might you begin an inquiry into "institutional racism in American society" that would enable you to "explain instances" of it? What questions might be significant for you to ask? How would you word them? What differences in the inquiry might the wording make?


For further discussion and inquiry

Texas Board of Education members focused on content in their discussions about new social studies standards. So did outside supporters and opponents of the standards. But how that content is taught might make a significant difference.

Ask students to imagine that they are a teacher being asked to carry out the new Texas standard requiring that students be able to "explain instances of institutional racism." They can choose between two approaches.

a) In the first method, you, as the teacher, prepare a lecture on institutional racism. Students take notes, memorize, and then repeat as best they can what they heard on a test.

b) In the second method, you engage your students in an inquiry into "institutional racism in American society." You ask students to carefully frame questions about this issue and then help guide their inquiry.

The first process could give students insights and background the teacher has gathered over years of experience. It might take considerably less time than the second. The second would involve students in a question-asking and answering and critical thinking process.

Which, if either, of the two processes would you choose and why? If neither, would you have a class learn about this subject at all? If not, why not? If so, how and why? In answering these questions, consider carefully what you would want to accomplish with your students.


To the Teacher:

For suggestions about how to help students ask good questions and think critically, see "Thinking Is Questioning" and "Teaching Critical Thinking." 

The teacher might also find useful certain "habits of mind," developed at New York City's Central Park East Secondary School under the leadership of Principal Deborah Meier. These include regular student attention to certain questions:

1. How do we know what we think we know? What is our evidence? How credible is

2. Whose viewpoint are we hearing, reading, seeing? What other viewpoints might
there be if we changed our position?

3. How is one thing connected to another? Is there a pattern here?

4. How else might it have been? What if? Supposing that?

5. What difference does it make? Who cares?

See the high school section of TeachableMoment "Separation of Church & State: Four Case Studies" and "Presidential Election 2008: Politics and Religion" for additional materials related to the Texas standards controversy.




This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: