The Evolution of Texas Standards

Texas’ education standards are back in the news! In 2009, the state drew national attention–and criticism–when a powerful conservative bloc on the State Board of Education pushed science standards requiring public schools to scrutinize “all sides” when teaching about evolution. (Mariah Blake wrote an excellent article for this magazine about the controversy and the colorful players involved.) Last year, the Board, under a new chairwoman, adopted new, scientifically sound supplementary online curricula addressing evolution. But a new debate is brewing around the state’s math standards. This debate is, admittedly, less sexy than the debate over evolution (guess we’ll have to leave that one to Tennessee for now), but it may have broader national relevance.

Texas is one of only 5 states nationally that have not signed on to the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative to replace the patchwork of disparate, and too often weak, state student learning expectations with a common set of standards designed to put students on track to graduate ready for college and careers. Instead, this being Texas and all, the State Board is revising its own standards, which it claimed would be more rigorous than the Common Core.

But last week, the Texas Association of Business, a hugely influential state business lobby that has historically played a key role in supporting education improvement in Texas, sent a letter to the State Board of Ed criticizing the proposed math standards, which it says are both less rigorous than the Common Core and so poorly written that it called for a halt to the State Board’s current work on them. The letter is noteworthy not only because of the hardly liberal TAB’s influence in Texas, but also because it drew from a review conducted by Ze’ev Wurman, a former Bush administration official and vocal critic of the Common Core standards.

If they hadn’t brought this upon themselves, you’d have to feel a little bit sorry for Texas, once hailed as an education leader for early literacy and accountability reforms it enacted in the 1990s (which, hard as it is to remember now, actually played a role in powering George W. Bush’s election to office). As Matt Yglesias noted recently, low-income, white, African-American, and Hispanic student subgroups in Texas actually outperform their peers nationally. But lately, budget choices and actions like this make it seem like the state’s current elected officials are bent on running its education system–which, to be clear–still falls waaay short of being good enough–into the ground.

As broader context, advocates of the Common Core standards have been concerned for some time about increasing pushback against the effort from conservative groups and elected officials, who view the effort as creeping “federalism,” among other [nonexistent] conspiracies too wacky to mention her. These developments in Texas illustrate why the Common Core is valuable and a also mark a potential start of pushback to the pushback.