Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller Voted Off History Curriculum in Texas

by | September 17, 2018 AT 10:10 AM

By Lauren McGaughy

History curriculum in Texas remembers the Alamo, but could soon forget Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller.

As part of an effort to "streamline" the social studies curriculum in Texas, the State Board of Education voted on Friday to change what students in every grade are required to learn in the classroom. They voted to remove several historical figures, including Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller.

The board also voted to add back into the curriculum a reference to the "heroism" of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses' influence on the writing of the founding documents, multiple references to "Judeo-Christian" values and a requirement that students explain how the "Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict" in the Middle East.

The vote Friday was preliminary. The board will take a final vote on these curriculum changes in November and can make further amendments before then.

The Dallas Morning News reached out all 15 members of the State Board of Education for comment about the Clinton and Keller deletions. Barbara Cargill, a Republican from Houston and former board chair, responded, saying, "the recommendation to eliminate Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton was made by (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) work groups. However the board did vote to agree with the work groups' recommendations.

High schoolers have been required to learn about Clinton, who was the first woman to win a major political party's presidential nomination, in history class. She was included in the curriculum under a section about citizenship, where students were required to "evaluate the contributions of significant political and social leaders in the United States," including Andrew Carnegie, Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Barry Goldwater was also removed from this teaching requirement. A work groups tasked with the streamlining recommended axing American evangelist and Baptist pastor Billy Graham, but the state board added him back earlier this week.

Third-grade social studies teachers have also been required to educate kids about the life of Keller, who despite being deaf and blind went on to college and a life of activism and authorship. But Keller did not make the work group's cut, and students in other grades aren't required to learn about her life.

Removing figures like these from the curriculum wouldn't mean teachers are forbidden from teaching them, but they will no longer be required to do so. Any changes made to the curriculum also won't affect textbooks and other instructional material, which the board is not updating at this time.

So why didn't Clinton, Keller and several dozen other historical figures make the cut?

The News spoke with two teachers who sat on a group of volunteers that made these recommendations to the board. Both said the state requires students to learn too many historical figures, so the kids fall back on rote memorization of dates and names instead of real learning.

That 15-member volunteer work group came up with a rubric for grading every historical figure to find of who is "essential" to learn and who wasn't. They asked questions like, Did the person trigger a watershed change? Was the person from an underrepresented group? Will their impact stand the test of time?

Out of 20 points, Keller scored a 7. Out of 21 points, Clinton scored a 5. Eliminating Clinton from the requirements will save teachers 30 minutes of instructional time, the work group estimated, and eliminating Keller will save 40 minutes.

By contrast, local members of the Texas Legislature (who are taught in fourth grade) got a perfect score, as did Barbara Jordan, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Henry B. González. President Donald Trump isn't included in the list by name, but students are required to learn about the current president, governor and mayor.

Earlier this year, the work group split up and each took a group of figures to grade using the rubric, according to the two teachers, who both said they wanted to keep politics out of the decisions.

"There were hundreds of people" kids had to learn, Misty Matthews, a teacher in Round Rock, told The News. "Our task was to simplify. ... We tried to make it as objective as possible."

Jana Poth added that the work group did "not want to offend anyone" with their choices. "But there's too many people."

Third-graders, for example, are required to learn about three dozen people. Fourth graders have to learn about 69, and in eighth grade, when students take the STAAR social studies test, they must learn about 50 historical figures.

Neither Poth nor Matthews said they were in the small group that made the decisions about Clinton and Keller. In a note next to the deletion from the Grade 3 social studies curriculum, where Keller is included in a lesson about "the characteristics of good citizenship," the work group wrote, "Helen Keller does not best represent the concept of citizenship. Military and first responders are best represented."

There was no comment next the recommendation to remove Clinton. Students in that grade are still required to learn about former President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

Work groups were assigned to look at each grade's curriculum and suggest ways to streamline it. These groups -- made up of volunteers nominated by the state board -- made dozens of recommendations. The state board accepted many of the changes and rejected some.

The board's members are elected to four-year terms and represent specific geographic areas. Five Democrats and 10 Republicans currently sit on the board.

Each year, the board discusses and debates new classroom standards for Texas' 5.4 million schoolchildren.

The process has always garnered attention -- and often controversy. Five years ago, they clashed over whether science books should have to teach an alternative to evolution. In 2014, math standards were revised, drawing criticisms from parents and teachers. And earlier this year, a new Mexican-American studies course was the subject of the latest culture war.

Many of the work group's recommendations that the board did not accept dealt with descriptions of the nation's "Judeo-Christian" heritage. Texas Values, a conservative Christian political advocacy group, appeared earlier this week to speak out against removing these descriptions. On Friday, they applauded the board's decision to add them back in.

"In Texas, you don't mess with the Alamo and you don't mess with our Christian heritage. We applaud the majority of the State Board of Education for doing the right thing by restoring our foundational rights and history," Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz said in a statement. "We are prepared to fight to protect these standards all the way to the end."

But some others criticized the board's vote. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner urged its members to add Clinton and Keller back into the curriculum.

"If Helen Keller was an important historical figure when I was in school (and she was), then she still is today," Turner, D-Grand Prairie, tweeted. "Clinton is the 1st and only woman to be the presidential nominee of a major party in U.S. history. Enough said."

(c)2018 The Dallas Morning News