Part 2 of a two-part series.
When the State Board of Education passed new social studies standards in 2010, there was an outcry from critics who said they prioritized conservative views over historical facts. As the board edits the standards this year, some see an opportunity to correct these inaccuracies.
The Texas Freedom Network advocates for improvements to public school curriculum and standards. Spokesman Dan Quinn says even minor changes to the standards could dramatically change how students learn about slavery.
“For generations, Southern kids have been taught, especially in Texas, that the Civil War was fought over some noble cause like states’ rights,” he said. “Well, no, the reason the Civil War was fought was because Southern states wanted to defend the institution of slavery.”
The current standards say a student should be able to "explain the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery."
Quinn says everything other than slavery should be thrown out.
“It’s a good opportunity for the board to go in and at least remove the bad history,” he said. “Even if they can’t remove all the problems, they can at least take the bad history out and make sure that what students are learning in their classrooms is based on real facts.”
Another standard Quinn wants tweaked: "The student understands the importance of effective leadership in a constitutional republic."
It goes on to list certain people who, according to the standard, made significant political and social contributions to America, including Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Stonewall Jackson.
Quinn wants Jackson, a top Confederate general, off the list.
“It’s just bizarre to suggest someone who took up arms against his own government is to be modeled as an effective leader in a constitutional republic,” he said.
Jessica Jolliffe, the social studies supervisor for the Austin Independent School District, says the broadness of standards makes teaching slavery tough.
“I definitely think the standards could be reworked or revised to provide more specificity in certain areas,” she said.
Ideally, Jolliffe said, educators should teach what daily life was like for slaves, but that information is not always handy.
“Teachers have to really go out and seek out that information on their own. ... In the textbook, it's very additive: It's an insert in the textbook; it’s one little sidebar story," she said. "But it’s not something that students can really read about and be invested in.”
Jolliffe said she also doesn’t like how slavery gets presented as a brief point on the timeline of American history.
“Instead of learning in September or October that slaves get brought over, and then in the spring, ‘Oh, and by the way we’re having the Civil War and some of it involves slaves,’” Jolliffe said. “We’ve tried to be more intentional about that.”
She’s been adding more literature to classrooms about slave experiences. But teachers have only so much time to focus on these stories.
In Texas schools, the Civil War is taught mainly in eighth grade. Students also have to take a state assessment in history that year. If teachers spend extra time on the realities of slavery, it could take time away from other lessons that are on the test.
“It also [creates] some anxiety on the part of the teacher to deviate from that state curriculum,” Jolliffe said.
The state board's first work group met earlier this month to discuss potential changes. It can't add anything new to the standards, but it can remove language. The board won’t take an official vote on these standards until later this year.