Day 47: The Texucation System

originally published February 16, 2012

How do I write an article about the education system in Texas without making derogatory jokes about the 43rd president or country music? Probably not going to happen, but I’ll try.

There are a number of entries about education in Texas. The first that caught my eye was something called ‘No Pass No Play’. No, actually the first thing I noticed was an item called ‘PEIMS’, because I thought it said ‘PENIS’. But it’s just a database that creates reports for the government, so not particularly interesting.

But ‘No Pass No Play’ has a bit of a story. In 1984 Governor Mark White asked Texas businessman and future rouser of rabble Ross Perot to head up a study on public education. The results of that study were not worthy of an article on Wikipedia, apart from this one: Perot noticed that a number of athletes and marching band musicians were flunking.

Pictured: a bunch of slackers.

The No Pass No Play rule says that any student participating in an extracurricular activity has to have a passing grade, or else they don’t play. A passing grade is apparently considered to be 70% in Texas, which makes me wonder how George W. Bush managed to… whoops. Almost slipped up there.

But really, 70%? When I was in high school, that would have been a low B. 50% counted as a pass. I guess educational standards are just that much higher in Texas, which makes me wonder why they listen to so much country mu – oh crap, I just about did it again.

This policy, which was adopted between semesters of the 1984-85 school year, worked. Failing grades dropped from 16 to 13%, and 23 out of 26 school districts reported an improvement. Maybe the other three districts just had a problem with the curriculum.

“Gun Use” was discontinued as a part of the kindergarten curriculum, for example.

And this brings me to my next gem of a subject, the hallowed grounds of the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, which stands for Trouble, which rhymes with Bubble, which starts with B, which rhymes with C, which stands for Controversy. It’s almost like it was planned that way.

TEA oversees the Texas school curriculum, which you may have read about in the news in the last few years. Maybe you heard about Christine Comer, the Director of Science in the curriculum branch of the TEA, who had to resign in 2007 because of a single email.

Name doesn’t ring a bell? Check this out. In October, Comer sent out an email to a public forum, advising people to check out a talk by philosophy professor (and noted pro-natural-selectionist) Barbara Forrest in Austin. This blasphemous act pissed off Lizzette Reynolds, the deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs. You see, TEA employees are supposed to remain publicly neutral on the issue of evolution vs. creationism.

Hint: one of these places is pretend.

To be clear, the person in charge of the science curriculum in Texas is not allowed to express an opinion on which is more science-y, evolution or creationism. Seriously. Even just to say, “Hey, this lady is interesting. Check her out.”

Reynolds called the email “highly inappropriate”, and “an offense that calls for termination”.  Comer was placed on administrative leave right away, and within two weeks of the email, she resigned.

The national media jumped on this scandal, and for a while in late ’07 it became the big story, finally giving us relief from stories about the Queen’s anniversary and the controversial ending to The Sopranos. Most of the (goddamn Liberal lamestream grumble grumble) media spoke in Comer’s defense. But when she sued for wrongful termination, she got nothing.

Of course by then most of us were back to arguing the merits of this scene.

Dentist Don McLeroy, who was indicated as a prime example of the rampant religious conservatism in the State Board of Education, probably because he was vocally displeased with the 11-4 vote back in 2003 to purchase textbooks that did not champion creationism, was made chairman of the State Board of Education in 2007.

To reiterate (mostly because it’s almost too insane to be real), almost a third of the people who are in charge of what kids get taught in Texas wanted textbooks that taught the science of the Earth being created in six days. I’m not ragging on anyone’s faith here, but faith is faith and science is science. God, Jesus, Allah and Krishna aside… there’s a lot of science behind evolution and the planet being 4.6 billion years old. I’m just saying that science class should focus on science. The kind that scientists produce.

The TEA also got into a spitting-scuffle over their social studies curriculum. They decided that it was important to have conservative topics taught as a part of history class. For example, students should be taught that new documents verify that Joe McCarthy’s claims of communist infiltration in the US government were valid. I don’t know, because that’s important? Because it justifies the witchhunts? Also, they wanted to downplay that pesky little church-and-state separation that Thomas Jefferson fought for. Other items to be downplayed: Martin Luther King Jr., Abe Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and slavery. States’ rights and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’ role in history were to be emphasized.

All music classes must devote at least one month to teaching the theme song from The Dukes of Hazzard.

Some of the criticism is also directed at TEA’s attempts at ‘impartiality’, in that TEA’s idea of history exams would come down to memorizing dates and people, rather than asking students to critically analyze and discuss the events that occurred. The amendment to require all history classes to be taught by Howard Hesseman never squeaked through.

Of course if you aren’t happy with the education system in Texas, and if you live in the state (possibly because you are an aspiring country singer), you could always home-school. Texas has some of the fewest restrictions on what constitutes home schooling in the country. The TEA has no authority over home schooling, neither does the local school district. There are no minimum hours or days of instruction, no achievement tests for high school grads… in fact, you might not even need a proper home, or even a kid for home schooling.

It’s clear that Texans need to demand a little more from their education system. It seems that Don’t Pass Don’t Play is actually one of the bright spots in their educational history.

That is, unless you can get your 70% by simply answering “God did it” on all your exams.

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