Could Curriculum Debates in the Texas and Arizona State Boards of Education Change the Course of History and Science in the United States?

Updates: This Progress Report story was originally published on October 19th. On October 22,  the  Arizona State Board of Education voted to continue teaching evolution as a scientific fact. This article discusses that final vote. 

Good curriculums change with the times, and kids benefit greatly from new and improved textbooks. But lately civil rights organizations worry some state boards of education want to lead science into extinction and send already underserved students back to the Dark Ages. So advocates want students, parents, and the general public to pay attention to what these boards are discussing, since these changes could  impact children’s ability to compete in the modern world.

On November 16, the Texas State Board of Education will make a final decision on whether to remove key figures from U.S. history such as Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from its social studies learning standards. Texas has a large textbook publishing industry, so decisions like these could ultimately determine what goes into history books there and in other states.

On October 22, the Arizona State Board of Education will vote on whether to qualify the word “evolution” by striking it or using open-ended language that suggests it is a theory, not a fact, a move many scientists say will lead to the teaching of creationism as science.

The move by these state boards of education to review their curriculum is not unusual. The concern is these reviews coincide with a rise in political and social conservatism spurred by the Trump administration, and what that means for teaching inclusivity, separation of church and state, and ensuring all students a competitive future.

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One such critic is Texas State Board of Education member Erika Beltrán, a former UnidosUS education policy analyst. She favors keeping names like Clinton and Keller in the curriculum and she is pushing for even greater diversity of historic figures.

Every six to eight years, the Texas State Board of Education launches a review of the standards for what—or who—stays and goes from its history curriculum.

“It’s a process of cleaning it up, making it narrow-focused because they say our curriculum standards are a mile long and a mile wide,” says Texas Education Agency Media Relations Specialist DeEtta Culbertson.

This year’s streamlining would not add any new content. Rather it would simply ask board members to review a laundry list of historical figures in an effort to help teachers meet educational standards in the span of a semester or a school year. But Beltrán feels the board was too narrow in considering who counts.

“As a member of the Texas SBOE, I can attest that we do have a rigorous process for reviewing standards. Unfortunately, the question still remains as to whether this board has the political will to provide an accurate or complete picture of American social studies for our students,” Beltrán says. “Rather than teach a more inclusive, objective view of history, this decision will feed millions of students the same good old American stock stories that neglect to account for the truth and opt out of including perspectives from individuals and institutions that fall outside of the dominant culture.”

Beltrán says the Texas SBOE spent days listening to feedback from educators, historical experts, professors and students from across the state.

“Their plea to our board has been to ensure the inclusion of Latinx leaders, African Americans, and women. Moreover, they have provided evidence that religious figures like Moses who was added back into the curriculum as a major influencer of the US founding fathers, actually had little if any impact on them,” Beltrán says.

“Texas’ 5.4 million public school students—the vast majority of whom are Latinx and African American—will have a limited and narrow view of history that neglects to fully acknowledge colonization, slavery, segregation, exploitation, and discrimination and those who fought valiantly to reverse or overcome these injustices. Similarly, young women will lose their strong female role models, and religious minorities will lose opportunities to contribute to the dialogue of what it means to be a melting pot,” Beltrán adds.

One of the historic issues most directly affecting Latino history was a debate over whether to use the word “heroic” when referring to defenders of the Alamo, in which American settlers seeking secession in the Mexican state of Texas and the right to own slaves defeated the Mexican Army. Many see this battle, which claimed the lives of around 200 Texans compared to some 600 Mexicans, as a symbol not of freedom but of imperialism.

“The recommendation was to eliminate the word heroic because it’s a value judgement— teaching values instead of content,” says Raul Ramos, a history professor at University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

Discussions of how to handle the Alamo were ultimately abandoned after Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted: “Stop political correctness in our schools. Of course Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’! I fully expect the State Board of Education to agree. Contact your SBOE Member to complain.”


What does it mean to be inclusive and inquisitive in science when the vast majority of scientists contend that evolution is a fact, not a theory, and the United States government is not supposed to dictate religion?

The last state review of Arizona’s curriculum took place 15 years ago, so it seems reasonable there would be another to account for a world which increasingly relies on the STEM industries. But that’s gets complicated in a state whose official motto is “Diat Deus” or “God enriches.”

The debate began this spring after Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas appointed Earth creationist Douglas Kezele, who believes there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark, to sit on a committee to review standards on the teaching of evolution, sparking harsh criticism from science educators.

For Steven G. Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, presenting evolution and creationism as two possible options sets young people up for failure in the modern world.

“It is vital that we support what is best for Arizona’s youth and continue to teach evolution, as accepted by nearly 97 percent of the scientific community,” says Zylstra, citing data from the Pew Research Center. “The changes would be a step back for science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—education, and the progress we have made in strengthening its impact on the school system.”

He notes that Douglas proposes changing the curriculum from the current standard that asks  high school students how the process of evolution results from natural selection, to instead question how the process of evolution may result from natural selection. Douglas has also proposed a repeal of language that shifts from asking students to understand how adaptations contribute to the process of biological evolution to how traits within populations change over time.

“In the language, ‘mechanism of biological evolution” would be replaced with ‘change in genetic composition of a population over successive generations,’” Zylstra explains.

And he says the curriculum is also weakened by a proposal to remove a reference to the Big Bang Theory.

“What once asked students to analyze ‘supporting evidence for the Big Bang Theory and the scale of the universe” has been edited to ‘theories related to the scale and expansion of the universe,” he says. “The Arizona Technology Council firmly stands with Arizona science teachers in rejecting this attempt to weaken science standards. Evolution is a proven fact based on science.”

In most public schools, children would talk about religion in the context of a social studies course that dealt with a diversity of world views. Scientist Gabriela A. Gonzalez, a doctoral student at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, obtained her public education in Washington state, where the line between science and religion was clearly drawn. But she isn’t opposed to calling evolution a theory.

“I am a scientist at heart and I do believe in evolution because I see more scientific support for it, but I can look at creationism as an alternative, albeit not a very credible one,” says Gonzalez, a scientist and self-described person of faith. “I believe that the scientific space is a space for continuous inquiry, questioning, and exploration of what is fact. We should teach children to apply scientific method to determine what is a fact versus what is a theory.”

Whatever the Arizona school board decides, Gonzalez believes it’s important that parents encourage their children to be curious in any school subject matter.

“Parents can support by encouraging their children to keep an open mind, to read material that is for and against their views, to ask questions, remain curious, challenge societal norms, and how they themselves contribute to that knowledge,” she says.

Empirical, intellectual, and scientific curiosity is a concept UnidosUS Senior STEM Manager Juliana Ospina Cano wants to see more of among youth.

“At UnidosUS we approach STEM education from a civil rights perspective, and we work tirelessly to empower teachers, parents, guardians, and students to stay informed of potential changes to educational curricula. That in and of itself fosters inquiry, empirical knowledge, and innovation. We all need those skills for a rapidly changing and often polarizing world,” Ospina Cano says.

Whether it’s key historic figures of the last few centuries or the ancient origins of humankind, Raul Ramos of the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies says the debates going on at the boards of education underline the need for civic engagement. “We’ve been here before—50 years ago, 70 years ago,” Ramos says. “The subtext is defining who we are.”

-Author Julienne Gage is the Senior Web Content Manager for Progress Report.