Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Institutionalizing Ignorance": NAACP President Ben Jealous and Fmr Education Secretary Rod Paige speak out on the Texas Textbook fiasco

This week the State Board of Education is voting on whether to rewrite the history taught in Texas textbooks. Among the most disturbing aspects of the proposed changes which are based on ideology is their potential to handicap nearly 10 percent of the nation's students who are educated in Texas and affect what students across the country learn about American history.

Texans must compete for college seats and jobs with students from other states, who will arrive equipped with a more complete and mainstream education. Advanced Placement exams, which let students earn college credit while in high school, are not tailored to any particular state's ideology. Similarly, International Baccalaureate exams are benchmarked to world-class university standards. Students taking either exam will be expected to grasp concepts such as capitalism, a word which, under the proposed changes, would be stripped from the state curriculum. By narrowing students' exposure, we cut them off from opportunities for accelerated learning, and free college credits that will be recognized around the country and the world. Without exposure to a range of views and information considered standard in the rest of the country, graduates of high schools using Texas textbooks will lack a solid foundation in general knowledge.

Whether a student attends college or not, he or she will still need a strong and comprehensive foundation in American history and government to perform the duties of informed citizenship. Every voter on a referendum should know how our Constitution and laws have evolved to expand civil rights to all citizens.

Yet the Texas board's proposals would minimize those brave men and women's contributions to our national story. To make informed decisions about the limits of government power, students must know about its past abuses, such as those perpetrated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Yet the proposed standards would gloss over such injustices. Students who have studied poll taxes and their abolition will have a better perspective on when taxation is used inappropriately. Our future voters need a strong grounding in our nation's full history.

We are — and have always been — a nation of immigrants. It is vital for citizens who will work alongside diverse peers to have an accurate understanding of colleagues' background and culture. Minimizing or misrepresenting African American and Latino culture and history can lead to distorted beliefs regarding our fellow Americans. And it can lead students from those ethnic groups to have a skewed picture of themselves and their place in the world. Studies of high school dropout rates have shown that students became disengaged with classes because what they were learning didn't seem relevant to their lives. In a 2006 national study, more students cited disengagement and disinterest in their lessons as a factor in leaving school than those who reported serious academic challenges. With 50 percent dropout rates in some cities, can we really afford to drive any more young people from the schoolhouse door? If learning about César Chávez or Thurgood Marshall will inspire a student to study government or law, we cannot afford to pass up that opportunity.

When the board convenes today, we will raise our voices for accuracy and fairness. Our children are entitled to broad exposure to all the facts of American history, government and economic theory. No one expects a representative board of regular folks to manage the curriculum to that level of detail. Instead, we urge the board to vote down these proposed changes, take some more time to set out broad guidelines ensuring all students are equipped to compete and thrive, then follow the thoughtful recommendations of their fellow Texans who are educators, economists and historians.

Our future is at stake. Will we prepare our youth for success in the 21st century or let nostalgia for the 19th century hobble graduates and leave many students behind? Will Texas prioritize ideology over our children or give students the world-class education they deserve.

Rewriting history is not promoting patriotism; it is institutionalizing ignorance.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is President and CEO of the NAACP. Rod Paige is senior advisor to the Madison Education Group and former U.S. Secretary of Education (2001-2005).

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