Monday, March 15, 2010

Who should be on a board of education?

Steven Novella at NeuroLogica commented on the Texas BoE's recent changes to their social studies curriculum guidelines.  The Texas Education Agency responded to this recent press by explaining exactly what they changed.  Accepting the normal media sensationalism (and with Fox News criticizing such a conservative boost, who knew?), I still believe that the BoE is downplaying the reality of their changes as they pertain not only to education in Texas but also throughout the country.  They stick to saying that they're only changing curriculum guidelines and not the textbooks themselves, as though textbook publishers aren't going to adapt to their guidelines and then sell those same versions to millions of other students around the country!

Either way, I became curious as to who the hell is on the Texas BoE.  First off, I would expect a fair representation from school administrators and those with careers/degrees in education.  That's a gimme.  But considering these are the people setting guidelines for students who are expected to enter college and/or contribute to the workforce within the next 10 or so years, I would also expect to have some people with professional backgrounds that might qualify them to comment on what students need to know to be successful in the future job market.  I'd expect at least a few people with backgrounds as lawyers, physicians, engineers, etc.  I'm not saying a physician or an engineer is an expert on 3rd grade education, but they nonetheless have insight regarding what a student needs to learn in order to be successful in their professions in 10 years.  They also understand the importance of objective critical thinking skills, which is what children are more likely to retain after they graduate.  I certainly don't remember all the details from my high school US history class, but I remember to consider political, societal, and military motives when analyzing historical accounts.

With these wonderful expectations, I checked out the Texas BoE's list of board members.  After some investigation, some members' backgrounds inspired confidence while others left me wondering what the hell business they have determining what children in Texas should be required to learn.

 The board members include:

Name Roles & Committees Background
Rene Nunez (D) School Finance real estate broker, elementary teacher, college administrator
Mary Helen Berlanga (D) School Initiatives attorney
Rick Agosto (D) School Finance (Vice Chair) global financial sales and marketing
Lawrence A. Allen Jr. (D) Vice Chair, Committee on Instruction principal, teacher
Ken Mercer (R) Committee on Instruction (Vice Chair) businessman
Terri Leo (R) Secretary, Committee on Instruction special education
David Bradley (D) School Finance (Chair) historic district member, boy scout?
Barbara Cargill (R) Committee on Instruction (Chair) biology teacher, founder of Wonders of the Woodlands Science Camp of The Woodlands United Methodist Church
Don McLeroy (R) School Initiatives dentist, bachelors in electrical engineering, 4th grade Sunday school teacher, Army veteran
Cynthia Noland Dunbar (R) School Finance high school anatomy & physiology teacher, attorney
Patricia Hardy (R) School Initiatives high school world history/geography teacher, school district administrator
Geraldine "Tincy" Miller (R) Committee on Instruction real estate broker, reading specialist for dyslexic children,
Mavis Knight (D) School Initiatives (Vice Chair) active church member and Sunday school teacher, psychology degree, instructor, substitute teacher
Gail Lowe (R) Chair, School Finance classroom volunteer, journalism
Bob Craig (R) School Initiatives (Chair) attorney, Army Reserves veteran

A lot of the biographies were disappointingly vague.  Some of them talked all about the person's party affiliation or other committees they served on, but why the hell should I care about that?  Being a Democrat or a Republican doesn't make one more or less qualified to discuss what elements of history an 8th grader should learn.  I also don't see how being an active Sunday school teacher qualifies one to determine science curriculum guidelines unless that person also has a strong science background.  Also, what about the relevance of a person being a Boy Scout or Eagle Scout?  If students need to learn how to survive in the woods with 3-5 adults using flashlights, camping gear, an iPhone, and a wilderness guidebook, then by all means tell me about his scoutiness, but I don't see that being terribly relevant in determining education guidelines in the 21st century!

Regarding the BoE's response to the coverage by Fox News, I wonder why they think it's satisfactory to only teach students about historical American figures through the 8th grade?  Yes, elementary and middle school students should know about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  But what about teaching them more about the actual realities of our historical figures when they get into high school?  Every high school graduate should know who Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, etc. were, but they should have a more in-depth knowledge of who they were than just thinking of them as historical Santa Claus-like men of a fairy tale nature with no idea of how they accomplished what they did.  These men did a lot for our country, but they weren't omniscient saints!  I don't mean they have to tear down these historical figures, but they need to know more about who George Washington was than just saying he was the first president and he chopped down a cherry tree.

The reality of the situation is that education in the US is really suffering.  I don't blame that solely on the education system either.  Families and communities don't stress education as they should.  College isn't for everyone, but every student should be able to get through high school.  I think many of our political troubles today are also due to a lack of education on current issues and an inability to think critically and objectively.  And don't even get me started on the fact that the board of education in a state ranked #49 in SAT verbal scores and #36 in high school graduation rates has so much bearing on education in the rest of the country.  They were also ranked #39 in state public education in 2005.  Impressive Terrifying numbers, indeed.

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