Widely Debated and Currently Controversial

In the state of Texas, a new law took effect on September 1, limiting what public social studies teachers can teach. The bill passed in the state legislature on an almost perfect party-line vote.

Among other things, the law, House Bill 3979, mandates that in required courses,

a teacher who chooses to discuss [a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs] shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

Today, NBC News has reported on the effect this law is having in the Dallas/Forth Worth suburb of Southlake, where the school district is already embroiled in a political battle over racism. The district’s curriculum director was recently recorded (surreptitiously) during a training session with teachers, acknowledging their fears about the law. She told them,

We are in the middle of a political mess. And you are in the middle of a political mess. And so we just have to do the best that we can. … You are professionals. … So if you think the book is O.K., then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together.

But she added, giving an example of a potential conflict,

As you go through, just try to remember the concepts of [H.B.] 3979, and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing—that has other perspectives.

Teachers heard on the recording reacted with shocked disbelief, speculating that this directive would apply to a book like Number the Stars, a widely taught historical novel about a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

She said, “Believe me, that’s come up.”


EDIT: On social media, many people have been attacking the administrator for supposedly suggesting it could be legitimate to present students with “opposing” sides on the Holocaust. I think they probably have misinterpreted what happened here.

Southlake has been at the center of a very public controversy over racism at its high school. That is presumably why NBC News was provided with this audio recording in the first place; NBC has been covering this situation in depth. In this context, Southlake school district is likely to have been targeted by far-right extremists; that’s how the world often works today.

In the audio released by NBC, the curriculum director is heard clearly indicating that she finds H.B. 3979 outrageous, committing herself to support teachers when they choose to teach controversial books. But she also provides teachers with strategic advice for protecting themselves against the law.

Because the text of H.B. 3979 does not discriminate against far-right extremist ideas.

In my reading, it is significant that the curriculum director corrected herself when she started to talk about supplementing the curriculum with “a book that has … an opposing” perspective on the Holocaust, switching to “a book … that has other perspectives” on the Holocaust.

Remember the actual language of H.B. 3979: When a teacher discusses a controversial social studies topic, they must “explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Given that language, teachers targeted by extremists would be providing themselves with legal cover for teaching the Holocaust truthfully if they could find “diverse and contending perspectives”—which could mean a lot of things other than Holocaust denial or approval—to include in the discussion.

And given Southlake’s recent history in the public eye, I’m inclined to believe the curriculum director, at least in a general way, when she says this issue has “come up” already.

I certainly hope that any court would rule that the Holocaust does not qualify as a “widely debated” topic. (“Currently controversial,” unfortunately, would include, by definition, virtually anything that resulted in a teacher being targeted.) But teachers and school districts do not have infinite resources for going through the process of finding out how courts will rule when they interpret bad laws.


A second EDIT to add: It is also worth understanding the internal dynamics of Southlake’s school district, to the extent they are publicly known.

The Dallas Morning News and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram report that a fourth-grade teacher there—a Carroll ISD 2020 “teacher of the year,” in fact—was recently the target of political harassment for having in her classroom a book called This Book Is Anti-Racist. The politicians on the school board—including two who had received donations from the parents’ PAC who complained—voted to reprimand the teacher for doing her job. In making this decision, the politicians were overruling the school administration, who had investigated the complaints and had cleared the teacher of wrongdoing.

In an environment like this, for anyone to attack a school administrator for trying to protect teachers against political harassment, as the curriculum director in the most recent controversy did, is to compound the chilling effects of Texas law, making it more dangerous to be a history teacher in Texas, not less.

“A Teacher in My District Died of Covid Yesterday”

Texas governor Greg Abbott in 2018 (photo by Jay Godwin, public domain)

One of my good friends is a schoolteacher in Texas, my home state. There, the governor, who is running for a third term in 2022, has ordered school districts and public colleges not to enforce basic pandemic precautions, even as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are returning to last winter’s levels.

My friend has written the following update, which I’m reposting here with their permission.


“A teacher in my district died of Covid yesterday. His last day at school was one week ago, the first day of classes. He welcomed groups of 12 year-olds back for a new year, and then today those kids learned that he is no longer alive. And they learned this news at school, because classes are still in session at every campus. I don’t know how many cases we’ve had at any of those campuses because the district isn’t required to report that information, so they aren’t.

“I didn’t know this teacher, and I also don’t know when or how he got Covid. I assume he was with me 11 days before he died, crammed into the high school entryway for breakfast and a vendor fair with all the rest of the district faculty and staff, and later crowding the hallways playing teambuilding games. I don’t know if he was one of the 15% or so of people wearing a mask as we all sat together in the gym and the superintendent told us that he and the school board weren’t willing to end up in a courtroom over trying to impose a mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.

“I have worn a mask in the building every day since I returned on August 4th, except when I am alone in my classroom. I am not enjoying it, and I’m not looking for any social bonus points for doing so . . . I just want to survive (and maybe even thrive). Actually, I feel a bit stupid wearing a mask in spaces where 95% of the people around me aren’t. Does it even matter? That ratio has improved over the past few weeks, but I don’t know whether it’s enough. I’d say roughly 1/4-1/3 of my students have masks covering some portion of their face at any given point during class.

“But of course, I’m not wearing a mask to protect myself from them. I’m wearing a mask to protect them from me (and hoping enough of them will do the same to move the needle). Because the other piece of this is that, although I don’t know how many people in this building have been vaccinated (the county is at less than 40%), I know they all at least could be if they chose to. Everyone else in my family is spending all day surrounded by people who definitely aren’t. All of my kids are under 12, and my spouse teaches pre-K. Their school has already had so many staff out sick that they’ve decided to impose a mask mandate effective today. I haven’t heard yet how that’s going. My 4th grader complains that I make her wear a mask even though only 3 other kids in her class do, and her teachers don’t, either. The 2nd grader is in pretty much the same boat. (Their campus has had 6 cases in the first 5 days of school, and 55 in the district as a whole.) And of course my toddler’s daycare is . . . a daycare; just a petri dish with 4 walls and a roof.

“I can’t stop thinking about 5 years ago when the Trump campaign put out an ad that said, ‘If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?’ in reference to desperate Syrian families seeking asylum. You’d be hard pressed to decide whether the analogy was more stupid, more racist, or more lacking in basic humanity (the Trump trifecta), but the basic analogy suddenly feels like it has merit in this whole new context that he and his party have landed us in. There are bowls of Skittles all over Texas with a few poison ones mixed in, and every teacher and student in the state is being told to reach into a bowl and eat a Skittle every single day. I’m being asked to gamble the lives and the health of my family every day, weighing the small but ever-present risk of disease and death against the certainty of losing my livelihood. Some choice.

“Conservatives like to say ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’ And it’s certainly a fact that they don’t care about my feelings . . . But they also don’t care about my health, my well-being, my life . . . or facts.”


My friend’s update is explicitly partisan in a way I normally avoid at this blog. But under the circumstances, I think it’s important for me not to censor their thoughts.

I’m hearing similar stories of frustration from a lot of other educators in states whose leaders have rejected their public responsibilities.

“How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction”

Although I’m not quoted, I had the privilege of speaking with Holly Brewer this week as she worked on an important opinion essay for Washington Monthly. Here’s a taste of her argument:

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

—Holly Brewer, “How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction,” Washington Monthly (Aug. 4, 2021)

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Image: McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland, College Park; cropped photograph by Radhika Kshirsagar, 2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Red or Blue, Your State’s History Standards Probably Aren’t Great, a Review Says

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, has released a report called The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.

This review concludes that a bipartisan mix of governments—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.—have state-level standards for American history and civics that excel in “content, rigor, clarity, and organization.” At the other end of the grade curve, the report gives its lowest marks to a red-blue mix of ten states: Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

I’ve read enough to say it’s an interesting document. I don’t share Fordham’s views on “school choice,” but so far, I don’t see any reason for that to affect my assessment of the report. I’m skeptical of the notion that it’s possible to assign a meaningful grade or linear ranking to a state’s standards, but then again, I know how disseminating a report through news media works.

My primary problem with its approach—again, so far—is that I don’t share the authors’ faith that specificity in state history standards is always a good thing. In this respect, I tend to agree with the criticism of the external advisor Meira Levinson (Harvard GSE), who comments on page 11 that “there is just too long a history of teachers’ treating packed knowledge standards as content to be marched through.” On the other hand, I tend to side with the authors, rather than Levinson, on (for example) the importance of chronological organization.

And I deeply appreciate other aspects of the report. For example, it advocates a strong emphasis on U.S. (and other) history throughout K-12 education, calling out state standards that relegate history courses to a small part of a student’s career.

The full document is almost 400 pages long, with assessments of the history and civics standards in every state, so it’s bound to include plenty of observations and claims that teachers of any background can argue over. What I appreciate most is that such debate is likely to be both possible and rewarding. This kind of review is difficult to do in a fair-minded way, especially at the present moment. There’s a lot of material here that seems good for thinking with.

You can read more about the review in Cory Turner’s story for NPR.

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)

Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”

I do have some things to say about that.

On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””