The State Board of Education Is Looking at Science Curriculum. Again

Maybe the State Board of Education members got bored waiting for the next fight over evolution and whether dinosaurs ever hung out with humans. Maybe they were just itching to dig back into discussions about what constitutes a "fair" representation in social studies textbooks of various topics including slavery, Native American conflicts, segregation and the gay rights movement.

Heck, maybe they honestly believe that teachers would appreciate fewer curriculum requirements. Whatever is driving the notorious SBOE, they've decided to delve once more into the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements for core subjects, starting with science.

 So why is the board "streamlining" the TEKS? 

Well, the official reason is pretty basic. The curriculum requirements are simply being shortened, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said in an email. "There has been a concern that the curriculum standards for all the core subjects are too long. So the board is appointing review committees that will examine the TEKS to see if some standards can be eliminated or combined with others," she told us.

However, the real reason that the State Board of Education is taking another look at the curriculum requirements for all the core subjects is a little more complicated. 

It goes back to the board's epic culture wars in 2009 and 2010 over the science and social studies curricula, respectively. Back in 2009, the state's science curriculum was the subject of a fierce battle between those on the board who were pushing to include creationism as a scientific explanation of how humans came to be here versus those who were fighting to make sure the board didn't toss out Darwinian evolution altogether.

The creationists succeeded in making it a requirement to mention the Bible-centric view of how people came to be on the Earth, but only to a point. Textbook publishers opted to skip the TEKS requirements that would have booted basic tenets of evolution out of the science textbooks.

"The publishers ignored that stuff and published books with real science," says Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization that has been focused on the board's approach to textbooks for years.

Teachers have had to find materials outside of the textbooks to teach the stuff not included in the textbooks. 

So the textbooks didn't end up reflecting the full extent of the science curriculum, while at the same time the curriculum itself quickly became a problem. The end result of all the bickering on the board was a set of science TEKS so long, detailed and unwieldy that teachers had trouble getting through the curriculum over the course of the school year.  

Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring the board to take another look at the curriculum and come up with standards that are more manageable so teachers stand a chance of actually covering everything in a school year. Even though Governor Greg Abbott vetoed the bill, the education board decided to take another look at the TEKS for the core required classes anyway, starting with science. 

“It's kind of damning when you think about it. I'm glad they're going to fix the problem, but they're fixing a problem that they created and taxpayers have to pay for it,” Quinn says. 

First, the curriculum requirements for each of the required high school science classes, including chemistry, physics and biology, will be evaluated by committees. Anyone can apply to be on these committees, but the SBOE members will review the applications and select the people who will actually serve on the committees.

Committee members will meet over the course of several months in Austin to make recommendations to the board, and they'll be asked to supply "invited testimony" at the SBOE meetings, according to the TEA website. (The gig may not sound like much fun, but the costs of meals, travel and lodging will all be reimbursed, so there's that.)

In January 2017, the board is slated to vote on whether or not to approve the new and improved streamlined science TEKS. It's impossible to tell right now how the revision process will actually go, Quinn says. “Biology is the one that could be the most problematic because of evolution,” Quinn says. “There's potential for problems in all of the science courses, of course, but my suspicion is the creationists on the board will oppose any change of the standards.”

Once board members have dealt with science, they'll move on to the real challenge — they're scheduled to tackle the infamous and controversial social studies TEKS next. While publishers chose not to pay heed to Texas education requirements when writing the science textbooks, they got on board with the social studies curriculum standards. That's how we ended up with textbooks in classrooms that teach children that Moses basically invented the United States and alluded to slaves as immigrant workers, as we've previously reported.  

By the time board members will be delving into the social studies issue in 2017, SBOE candidate Mary Lou Bruner may very well be at the table. Bruner has some rather, shall we say, unusual views about many things. According to Gawker and apparently her own Facebook — which is now private — she believes that teaching evolution causes school shootings, that the Democrats assassinated JFK to get LBJ into the White House,  and that there were only baby dinosaurs on Noah's ark (a size issue) and the babies may have been too young and unable to reproduce post-Biblical flood.

She's also claimed that President Obama spent his twenties as a drug-addicted gay prostitute, as the Washington Post recently reported. Yep. Seriously. 

Anyway, Quinn is hoping the board ends up wading into all of this and truly addresses problems with the TEKS. It would be nice if the board would at least shorten the curriculum requirements without throwing in anything else that is misleading, factually unsound or, you know, completely bonkers, but Quinn warns it's a mistake ever to underestimate what the SBOE is capable of.

“I've been following the State Board of Education for far too long to be naive about it," he tells us. "But you know what? I could be surprised. I would like to be surprised."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray