Study Shows Bible Courses Plagued by Insufficient Teacher Training, Religious Bias, Poor Instructional Materials

January 16, 2013

While the number of Texas school districts teaching courses is increasing, widespread failure to implement key guidelines passed by the Legislature has undermined efforts to resolve serious problems documented in such courses six years ago, according to a new report from a Southern Methodist University professor of religious studies and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. The problems range from factual errors to blatant religious bias and even discredited claims about the Bible and race.

The report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12, reveals that at least 57 school districts and three charter schools in the state taught courses about the Bible in 2011-12. That’s up from 25 school districts in the 2006-06 school year. In 2007 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1287, which included guidelines designed to improve the quality of such courses while protecting the religious freedom of students and their families. The new report shows that state agencies and many local school districts have largely ignored those guidelines, said Kathy Miller, president of the TFN Education Fund.

“For once Texas got in front of a thorny issue and passed solid guidelines designed to fix a real problem,” Miller said. “But if everybody is allowed to ignore those guidelines, they have no teeth. And if the state isn’t going to enforce its own guidelines and fund even basic teacher training, maybe we should leave instruction about the Bible to religious congregations who will treat it with the respect it deserves.”

While HB 1287 required in-service training for teachers of public school Bible courses, the Legislature provided no funding for it, the Texas Education Agency didn’t develop it and many school districts ignored the requirement. Moreover, the State Board of Education failed to adopt specific curriculum standards, as required by HB 1287, that would help school districts develop academically and legally sound courses. Despite clear direction from legislators, the state board instead adopted broad guidelines based on standards designed for a wide a variety of special elective courses school districts may offer.

Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, authored this new report as well as an initial study of public school Bible courses in 2006 — Reading, Writing & Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools. A 2005 report on a prominent Bible course curriculum is available here.

While some districts succeeded in offering legally appropriate and academically sound Bible courses, most such courses in Texas public schools continue to suffer from the same serious flaws that were common six years ago, Prof. Chancey said.

“As a biblical scholar and especially as a parent, I want our state’s public schools to take the study of the Bible’s influence as seriously as they do the study of science or history,” Prof. Chancey said. “But the evidence shows that Texas isn’t giving the study of the Bible the respect it deserves. Academically, many of these classes lack rigor and substance, and some seem less interested in cultivating religious literacy than in promoting religious beliefs. Their approach puts their school districts in legal jeopardy and their taxpayers in financial jeopardy.”

Prof. Chancey’s analysis is based on information obtained from requests to school districts under the Texas Public Information Act. Those requests asked for copies of instructional materials, records related to teacher training, and other relevant documents regarding Bible courses taught in the districts’ schools.

Key findings in the report:

– Most school districts were unprepared to offer courses about the Bible’s influence in history and literature. Just 20 districts and two charter schools reported that their teachers had ever taken any academic coursework related to the scholarly study of religion. Even fewer districts — just 13 — submitted documents demonstrating any type of professional development for Bible course teachers. The lack of specific curriculum standards from the State Board of Education almost certainly contributed to the poor quality of instructional materials used in many school districts. Many of those materials include numerous errors, distortions and other problems.

– Many Bible courses reflect the religious beliefs of their teachers and the sectarian instructional materials they use in their classrooms. In some cases the bias appears to be intentional, but in many others it seems more indicative of a lack of training and preparation. In every course in which religious bias is present, instruction reflects a Protestant — most often a conservative Protestant — perspective, including a literal interpretation of the Bible.

– Many courses teach students to interpret the Bible and even Judaism through a distinctly Christian lens. Anti-Jewish bias — whether intentional or not — is not uncommon.

– A number of courses and their instructional materials incorporate pseudo-scholarship, including claims that the Bible provides scientific proof of a 6,000-year-old Earth (young Earth creationism) and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles. At least two districts’ Bible courses include materials suggesting that the origins of racial diversity among humans today can be traced back to Noah’s sons — a claim that has long been an important element of some forms of racism.

– Despite the state’s failure to implement HB 1287 effectively, a number of school districts did succeed in offering Bible courses that largely comply with legal and constitutional requirements, are academically serious and avoid many of the worst problems noted in most other districts. These successful courses can be found in urban, suburban and rural districts.

The report includes recommendations that would help school districts create better Bible courses that are legally and constitutionally appropriate. Among the recommendations:

– The Legislature should appropriate funding for teacher training, and the Texas Education Agency should develop such training.

– The State Board of Education should adopt serious and specific curriculum standards for Bible courses.

– School districts and teachers should adhere to Bible course guidelines proposed by the Society of Biblical Literature and the First Amendment Center, and they should avoid relying on sectarian instructional materials for course content.


The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund is nonpartisan research and citizen education organization that promotes public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.