What the backlash against critical race theory could mean for Texas social studies lessons

María Méndez
Austin American-Statesman

When the Texas legislative session began in January, Meghan Dougherty was excited.

The instructional social studies coach in Round Rock helps train teachers and hoped state lawmakers would pass bills to promote more civics training in the curriculum for high school and middle school students.

"Our goal is not to just regurgitate who wrote the Declaration of Independence or name how many stripes are on the flag," Dougherty said. "It'll help you on ‘Jeopardy,’ maybe, but that's not the knowledge that kids need going into becoming engaged citizens."

But those bills didn't gain much traction. What caught Dougherty by surprise: Republicans successfully rallied against critical race theory, passing House Bill 3979, which bars Texas public grade-school teachers from awarding students course credit for social or political advocacy work.

More:After House roadblock, GOP senators revive bill limiting school discussions of race, social issues

Meghan Dougherty, an instructional coach of social studies, is concerned with changes to the social studies curriculum in public school due to laws passed by the recent legislative season, Saturday, July, 3, 2021.

Critical race theory is a framework for examining racism in colleges and universities that has become a Republican catch-all term for what some see as divisive efforts to address racism and inequity in schools.

The new law also prevents schools from requiring teachers to discuss particular current events or “widely debated and currently controversial” issues, which Dougherty said goes against best practices in teaching.

“We learn through engagement ... relevancy, building on prior knowledge and making connections with the things we've already experienced to go deeper,” she said. 

She hopes state lawmakers stay away from social studies in the July special session, which Gov. Greg Abbott has said will include more efforts to “abolish critical race theory in Texas.”

But even if state lawmakers don’t revisit the subject, education advocates worry that the new Republican legislation could set the tone for the revision of the social studies curriculum standards by the State Board of Education set to begin this year.

“As a social studies educator, that's where I'm more concerned,” Dougherty said. “We have to teach what's in there.”

State Board of Education

Abbott and state lawmakers could take up social studies again Thursday, when one of at least two special sessions is scheduled to begin. But Dougherty and other education advocates have begun shifting their focus toward the state board.

The board, made up of 15 members elected to four-year terms, sets statewide curriculum standards called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which dictate what students must master in each course.

“A teacher could go beyond the TEKS to some extent, but if it's in the TEKS, you have to teach it,” Dougherty said.

The standards also inform which textbooks the board adopts for courses. Because Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the U.S., its standards historically have influenced what students learn in other states.

Because Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the U.S., its curriculum standards influence what students learn in other states.

The current standards, which don’t include critical race theory, were adopted in 2010 and streamlined in 2018. The board has not publicly discussed the new law because members are waiting to see what will happen in the special session, said member Aicha Davis, a Dallas Democrat.

Board Chair Keven Ellis, a Lufkin Republican, told the American-Statesman that he does not expect HB 3979, which included a laundry list of historical texts and information for students to learn, to influence much of the social studies standards review.

“We have done a comparison of the items in HB 3979 and our current TEKS, and all but a couple of them are already included in our current standards,” he said. “Based on that, I do not think it (will) have a significant impact on the upcoming revision of the TEKS. We will ensure all these items are included in our standards during our next revision.”

Some educators worried that the new law would constrain teaching of Texas' relatively nascent elective African American and Mexican American studies courses. But both Davis and Ellis said the law should not affect those courses because the electives are not considered part of the required social studies curriculum. (A bill that would have allowed students to count those courses toward social studies graduation requirements died in the Senate.)

Still, Davis and some education advocates say they fear HB 3979 will entangle the state board in political debates already overtaking local school boards, including the Eanes and Lake Travis boards in Central Texas, amid the conservative backlash against critical race theory and the 1619 Project, an initiative from The New York Times examining the role and legacy of slavery in the founding of the U.S.

More:Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts at the heart of fraught Eanes school board election

“What it's doing is setting up that part of the conversation ... leading to a curriculum that a lot of people fear will be, you know, not so inclusive," Davis said.

The State Board of Education is likely to see that same pressure, said Renee Blackmon, president of the Texas Council of the Social Studies, pointing to the politics surrounding the 2010 social studies standards adoption, which was dominated by conservatives.

Francesca Wigle, left, a retired Austin teacher, and Jasie Peltier, a social worker from Houston, were among those protesting State Board of Education revisions to social studies teaching standards in 2010.

“The board now seems to be a lot more relational with teachers, a lot more respectful of the input from the educators,” she said. “But I'm telling you that can all go out the window in a moment's notice when it comes to social studies.”

2010 revision

The last social studies standards revision took place amid the conservative Tea Party movement, and much of the debate focused on creating standards that teach students about the United States’ founding in Christian and free market values. 

“The overriding conservative political movement was to get in the ideas into social studies that America was a Christian nation founded on Christian principles,” Blackmon said. “And now what (conservatives) want you to know is America was not racist, and it was not founded as a racist nation, and systemic racism is gone.”

The Republican majority on the board also voted down past efforts to include more Latino figures in the state’s history lessons. And as today, conservatives back then called for teachers to focus on the end of slavery rather than its repercussions, said Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning group for religious freedom and public education.

“Race and history has always been kind of a fraught issue of the State Board of Education,” Quinn said.

More:Legislature is gone (for now). Here's what it did, and left undone, in the session

The result of the process was lengthy standards criticized by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative D.C.-based think tank that conducted a national review of U.S. history standards in 2011, for “avoiding clear historical explanation while offering misrepresentations at every turn.”

Since then, the Texas board has changed in membership and tone. Only Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican, and Lawrence Allen Jr., a Democrat from Houston, remain from the 2010 board. The more recent board unanimously approved the elective African American studies course in 2020 and signaled support for the creation of more ethnic studies courses. It followed years of efforts to approve the state’s first ethnic studies course on Mexican American studies.

“Why are we going backwards again?” said Lucero Saldaña, an educator in San Antonio who taught and advocated for the Mexican American studies course and now helps train other teachers on the subject. “Is it because, you know, we did have these small victories? Are you trying to silence these stories?”

Democrats also gained one more seat on the board in 2020, leaving Republicans with a nine-member majority. Most Republican board members, including Ellis, have remained quiet on the movement against critical race theory, but the politics seem to be seeping in.

Hardy, the lone Republican holdout from 2010, criticized HB 3979 but called for Abbott to do more against critical race theory, according to the Fort Worth Report. Hardy did not respond to the Statesman’s requests for comment.

The Statesman reached out to all current state board members, including one new Democrat and three Republicans elected in 2020, for comment. Only Georgina Pérez, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Matt Robinson and Will Hickman responded in addition to Ellis and Davis. 

Democrats Pérez and Bell-Metereau said they hope their Republican colleagues don't get sidetracked by the politics around critical race theory.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we are a far more centered board," said Pérez, of El Paso, who has served on the board since 2017.

But the Democrats said the June meetings were tense during discussions about the approval of new charter schools. 

"We all want to remain collegial and cordial and civil, but we have very different world views on certain aspects," said Bell-Metereau, of San Marcos, who flipped her seat in 2020.

Critical race theory has drawn stark takes even among members of the same party.

Hickman, R-Houston, said he has heard concerns about critical race theory from his constituents and is in favor of HB 3979. 

"And the concern for me personally is elevating one race over another, suggesting one race is inferior or superior to another," Hickman said. "I think that's very troubling. No matter what race is being elevated or put down.

"If everything is taught through a racial lens, then, honestly, I think the kids will be confused," he added.

Robinson, another Republican and a former Friendswood school board member, said critical race theory is not taught in Texas public schools, and he thinks local school districts should decide how to teach the social studies standards set by the board.

"Ninety-nine percent of all districts are going to be teaching the TEKS. I mean, they get in trouble if they're not," he said. "It's a problem that doesn't exist."

But he said the board could run onto rocky ground discussing what and how much to teach about the history of slavery in the U.S.

Audrey Young, another Republican elected in 2020, declined to comment on the matter.

What's next?

The board can appoint up to nine content advisers to review the current standards and make recommendations, according to the Texas Education Agency.

For core subjects such as social studies, the state’s higher education commissioner appoints two content advisers from higher education institutions.

Content advisers must hold a bachelor’s degree, have demonstrated expertise in the subject and receive the nomination of two board members. But advisers for the previous social studies revision included controversial figures, such as David Barton of the group WallBuilders, which seeks to emphasize Christianity in U.S. history. (The group's name is taken from the biblical book of Nehemiah, who led a grassroots movement to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.)

"That will really give you one early sense, I think, about where this is going," Quinn said. "It would be encouraging if they actually end up appointing real experts, but it'll give us a pretty clear sign about where things are going if they don't."

Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe stood with protesters at a "Don't White-Out Our History" rally outside a meeting of the State Board of Education as it made revisions to the statewide social studies curriculum in 2010.

Davis said the board is scheduled to nominate advisers in July and confirm them by the board’s next meeting in September. 

“As long as we try to stick to those folks who really want to do the right things for students, then I think it will be very positive what we come out with,” Davis said. “But again, you know, I'm still going to be monitoring and observing that very, very carefully and looking at those choices just in case.”

She also encouraged educators to apply to serve on the board's work groups, which review the content advisers' recommendations and inform the board on the direction for the standards. 

“Anyone from the public is welcome to apply to our work groups, and they're just as important, because they take that framework that's created by the content advisers and they kind of fill in the pieces with information,” Davis said. “So that's what's so important, making sure we have diverse representation in each of those work groups.”

Davis, Pérez and Saldaña said they hope this process makes the social studies curriculum more inclusive of the history of those often overlooked, such as African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans.

“It's American history,” Saldaña said. “It's just not seen as American history for some odd reason. It’s seen as the ‘other,’ which it shouldn't be that way at all.”

Dougherty said she wants the curriculum to focus on teaching students skills, such as engaging in civics and identifying reliable sources of evidence, as opposed to requiring students to memorize long lists of people and places and historical narratives.

“If we're truly looking for knowledgeable citizens, like, our goal should be educating kids in thinking critically, listening to diverse viewpoints and having empathy for different people coming from different viewpoints,” she said. 

About this story

This story is the second in a three-part series taking a deeper look at critical race theory and how the political fallout is affecting Texas.

SundayHow critical race theory has come to drive debate, confrontations in Texas.

Tuesday:Students share their experiences learning about race in public schools.