Last Friday, the Texas State Board of Education held a preliminary vote to remove notable historical figures including Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from history and social studies lessons in the state. Many are fuming as a result.
Headlines from major news organizations claim the SBOE voted to “erase” or “scrub” Clinton from the curriculum and the board’s Facebook page is littered with comments accusing them of an attempt to rewrite history.
District 9 State Board of Education member Keven Ellis says this characterization is unfair and there is more to the story than the removal of just two figures.
According to Ellis, the preliminary vote to remove certain historical figures was done to streamline a curriculum that had grown bloated with too much information, preventing students from understanding their lessons in depth.
“The legislature requested we do some streamlining of our TEKS,” Ellis said, referring to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards set by the Texas Education Agency. TEKS standards are implemented by the state to ensure that all K-12 students get a comprehensive education. These standards are closely tied to the STAAR tests given at the end of each year. SBOE members must pare down a huge range of topics to decide what goes in the TEKS so students can demonstrate learning comprehension with the STAAR test each year.
“Educators recommended this too,” Ellis said, referring to the streamlining process. “The problem was that there was too much material stuffed into the school year. This was true of a lot of the topics but social studies was the chief offender.”
Ellis said a large number of educators and education professionals made suggestions about which historical figures to remove from the mandatory curriculum.
“We had 1000 educators put in suggestions. Then we had 50 volunteers who made recommendations. There were somewhere around 400 different historical figures K-12 students had to learn. The volunteer workers recommended taking out about 80 of those, so about 20 percent. Hillary Clinton was one of those,” Ellis said. He claimed this was not a political or partisan maneuver, as prominent conservative leaders were deleted from the curriculum as well.
“Not one of the Democrats on the board voted against deleting Hillary Clinton from the curriculum. Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern Republican party, was taken out as well,” Ellis said.
He added the suggestion to delete Helen Keller “did raise some eyebrows because she was such an amazing woman” but the decision to remove Keller from the curriculum was ultimately reached after the board determined she did not meet the standard for inclusion.
Ellis said the preliminary vote in no way barred teachers from including these figures as part of classroom lessons.
“Teachers are still going to be free to teach their students about these figures if they so choose. It will just no longer be specifically required to be taught. We trust our teachers to teach what they think is best,” he said.
The board also attracted criticism when they considered a proposal to remove the descriptor “heroic” in reference to the defenders of the Alamo and to remove a requirement for students to learn about William B. Travis’ famous letter “To The People of Texas and All Americans in the World.” Ellis explained the board decided, instead of deleting these requirements, to leave these topics in the curriculum with modified language.
The language now says students should learn about “William B. Travis’s letter ‘To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,’ and the heroism of the diverse defenders who gave their lives there.”
Ellis said the recent vote was only preliminary and another vote is scheduled for November.
“We always do a first and second reading of our process,” Ellis said. “The first reading is a review and it will be published so the public can review it.”
Ellis said he has not made his mind up on his November vote and will continue to study the issue until that time.
“I’m always open to listen to thoughts and input. I’ve had quite a bit of input on this. I will always look at that before making my decision,” he said.
Asked about the public response claiming the board’s action were partisan, Ellis said “It really wasn’t. If you look at those 80 names, it’s all across the spectrum. Colin Powell was recommended to be deleted and so was William Jennings Bryan. I think it was a little bit unfair to just point out a couple of those names and not look at at the entire 80.”