Celebrating Mediocrity in Texas?

by Dan Quinn

This should tell you a lot about the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Texas State Board of Education. Last year the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute sharply criticized the state board for its “ideological manipulation,” historical revisionism and contempt for expertise in adopting new social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools in 2010. Today a new Fordham report gives science curriculum standards adopted by the state board in 2009 a grade of “C.” Yet here’s what state board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, had to say about the new Fordham report:

“As a science teacher, I am pleased that our standards received a score of 5 out of 7 for content and rigor. We look forward to continuing to work with Texas teachers to bring the best instruction to the classroom with our excellent science standards.”

Seriously? She celebrates a “C” grade? She really thinks Texas is giving kids the “best instruction” with “excellent science standards” that, in fact, get low marks from a conservative education think-tank? News flash for Ms. Cargill: Most parents don’t think mediocrity is something to celebrate, especially when it comes to the education of their children.

From the Fordham report’s section on Texas:

“Texas has produced a set of science standards with areas of strength—including a particularly well-done sequence for earth and space science—but also with weaknesses that cannot be overlooked. These include a tendency across nearly all disciplines to pay lip service to critical content with vague statements, and, somewhat less often, the presence of material that’s well below grade level.”

While giving the standards decent marks in some areas, Fordham describes other sections with words like “sketchy,” “redundant,” “riddled with errors,” and “woefully imbalanced.” Would you describe such standards as “excellent”? We doubt it, but an ideologue like Cargill does.

Don McLeroy, a former board member who served as chairman during the science curriculum standards adoption, was pleased with Fordham’s remarks about how evolution is covered in the standards. Says McLeroy:

“The report confirms what I have always insisted: that the creationists inserted real scientific rigor into the teaching of evolution.”

Good grief. Fordham actually said “evolution is all but ignored” in standards for primary grades, and discussions on the topic in middle school grades are inaccurate. The report points to one particular misleading section about the evolution of finches:

“Creationists often distort these important findings to argue that Darwinian macroevolution does not occur—instead, microevolution does. In addition, the word ‘evolution’ is never used in any of the middle school standards, and the term “natural selection” is never explained.”

Fordham does give the high school bi0logy of evolution good marks, noting that “there are no concessions to ‘controversies’ or ‘alternative theories.'” But that’s actually despite the efforts of Cargill and McLeroy, who wanted the standards to include phony “weaknesses” of evolution promoted by creationists. Fortunately, TFN and other supporters of science education kept that nonsense out of the standards.

And then this from Fordham:

“(T)he high school biology course is exemplary in its choice and presentation of topics, including its thorough consideration of biological evolution. Even so, the term ‘natural selection’ appears just three times, as does the word ‘evolution’ and its variants. It is hard to see how Texas students will be able to handle this course, given the insufficient foundations offered prior to high school.”

It’s no surprise Fordham found that “natural selection” gets short shrift in the standards — it was one of the core concepts that McLeroy and other creationists on the board specifically tried to weaken in 2009.

Public education is clearly under siege in Texas. The Legislature is cutting billions of dollars in funding for public schools. Thousands of teachers are losing their jobs. And members of the State Board of Education are celebrating mediocrity (or worse) in the curriculum standards they’re adopting.

It’s hard to imagine that voters need more evidence that this year — with all 15 state board seats up for election — will be critical to the future of public education in Texas. Check out TFN’s SBOE Election Watch page here.

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