Texas education leaders unveil Bible-infused elementary school curriculum

Texas education leaders unveil Bible-infused elementary school curriculum
1 month 2 weeks 4 days ago Saturday, June 01 2024 Jun 1, 2024 June 01, 2024 9:45 AM June 01, 2024 in News- Education
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Mrs. Eden's fourth grade class practice reading tables during a lesson on April 24, 2024 at Jack Frost Elementary School in Georgetown. Credit: Sara Diggins/American-Statesman via REUTERS

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Elementary school curriculum proposed this week would infuse new state reading and language arts lessons with teachings on the Bible, marking the latest push by Texas Republicans to put more Christianity in public schools.

The Texas Education Agency released the thousands of pages of educational materials this week. They have been made available for public viewing and feedback and, if approved by the State Board of Education in November, will be available for public schools to roll out in August of 2025. Districts will have the option of whether to use the materials, but will be incentivized to do so with up to $60 per student in additional funding.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said the materials are based on extensive cognitive science research and will help improve students’ reading and math scores. In 2019, less than half of students met grade-level standards for reading, and that percentage has declined since the pandemic, based on state standardized test scores.

The new materials have prompted criticism, though. The education news site The 74 first reported the redesign on Wednesday and included excerpts of lesson plans with biblical references. They also reported that a New York-based curriculum vendor, Amplify, opted out of bidding on a contract after the state sought to insert biblical materials, but not other religious texts, into the curriculum. The state education agency rejected those claims, saying multiple religions are included throughout the curriculum. Because of Texas' size, textbooks that are developed for its schools are often used in other states.

Morath told The Texas Tribune on Thursday that religious materials are a “small piece of the content pie.” His office could not quantify what percentage of each grade’s textbook would be devoted to biblical references. The Tribune has not reviewed all materials, which include the state-designed textbooks as well as proposals from 25 different vendors.

But an initial review of the proposed state textbooks show that religious materials feature prominently, with texts sourced from the Bible as the most heavily used.

“It’s a tiny fraction of the overall fraction — it’s just where it makes sense to do that,” Morath said. “It’s a very small but appropriate fraction.”

The textbooks mark a shift toward a “classical, broad-based liberal arts education,” from a more skills-based curriculum, Morath said.

“You’re trying to build vocabulary, build background knowledge so that when kids are reading Steinbeck in high school, they get the references,” Morath said.

The instructional materials were unveiled amid a broader movement by Republicans to further infuse conservative Christianity into public life. At last week’s Texas GOP convention — which was replete with calls for “spiritual warfare” against their political opponents — delegates voted on a new platform that calls on lawmakers and the SBOE to “require instruction on the Bible, servant leadership and Christian self-governance.”

Throughout the three-day convention, Republican leaders and attendees frequently claimed that Democrats sought to indoctrinate schoolchildren as part of a war on Christianity. SBOE Chair Aaron Kinsey, of Midland, echoed those claims in a speech to delegates, promising to use his position to advance Republican beliefs and oppose Critical Race Theory, “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives or “whatever acronym the left comes up with next.”

“You have a chairman,” Kinsey said, “who will fight for these three-letter words: G-O-D, G-O-P and U-S-A.”

Mark Chancey, a Southern Methodist University religious studies professor who focuses on movements to put the Bible in public schools, said there is “nothing inherently inappropriate” with teaching the Bible or other religious texts, so long as it’s done neutrally. But he’s concerned by some of the proposed curriculum, including lessons that he said seem to treat biblical stories as “straightforward historical accounts.”

“It serves a civic good for students to be taught about religion,” he said. “But that's different from giving students religious instruction. The question is going to be whether these materials teach about religion, or whether they cross the line into giving religious instruction.”

For example: The curriculum promotes lessons on Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” alongside the Gospel of Matthew, which centers on Jesus’ crucifixion and its atonement for human sin. “These are very strong, central claims of Christian theology,” Chancey said. “And students will have questions about that. How are teachers supposed to respond to those questions?”

It’s not unforeseeable, he said, for those conversations to lead to even thornier areas that are still divisive even among Christians.

If the state education board approves the materials in November, schools will not be required to use them. But a measure approved by lawmakers last year will offer more money to public school districts that do choose to adopt any of the materials.

Some of that content includes a first grade lesson stating the Liberty Bell “reminded [the Founding Fathers] of how God helped free the Hebrew people in the Bible” as well as a fifth grade poetry lesson on “A Psalm of David,” described as “one of the most popular poems ever written.”

Other religions are also included. A second grade lesson highlights the Jewish celebration of Purim. A fourth grade poetry unit includes Kshemendra, a poet from India who “studied Buddhism and Hinduism.”

Some State Board of Education members told the Tribune they had not yet read through the materials and would decide whether or not to approve the content based on standards they’ve already established.

Keven Ellis, a Republican state school board member who lives in Lufkin, said the role of the board is to make sure the materials are appropriate for each grade-level and that they align with the state’s curriculum standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.

“My focus will remain on approving instructional materials that improve outcomes in phonics, language arts and math,” Ellis said.

State curriculum guidelines spell out that “the instructional material should recognize and not contradict that parents have the right to 'direct the moral and religious training' of their children and the duty to support their children’s education.’” Ellis did not respond to inquiries about the religious material.

Staci Childs, a Houston Democrat who sits on the SBOE, said she believes it’s okay to include Biblical references as long as other religions are also introduced to students.

"As a Christian, I think it is okay [to teach the Bible] as long as you’re normalizing the introduction of all religions and all types of mythologies so students have a varied and robust and true depiction of the materials in the text of our past,” Childs said. “To only infuse Bible verses and teachings of the Bible is completely insensitive to all the different types of students we have in Texas and a disrespect to the faiths they may acknowledge.”

Last year, the state directed the TEA to create its own textbooks when the Legislature passed House Bill 1605. Lawmakers said the purpose of the policy was to give teachers access to high-quality instructional materials.

A teacher vacancy task force that had convened in 2022 found that teachers spend significant time creating and looking for lesson plans. Lawmakers said the new state textbooks will save teachers time.

In an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News this week, state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, and state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said the new materials “will provide much needed relief to teachers by eliminating the need to spend dozens of hours outside of the classroom developing curriculum.”

Morath said the materials are designed for Texas students, with references to the state’s geography and industries, as well as Texas-based historical figures like Clara Driscoll, known for her historic preservation work rescuing the Alamo from destruction, decades after the pivotal battle at the former Catholic mission in San Antonio.

“We’ve tried to make it as tightly based on the needs of Texas students as possible,” Morath said.

Soon after the materials were released on Wednesday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement saying he supported the curriculum.

“The materials will also allow our students to better understand the connection of history, art, community, literature, and religion on pivotal events like the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the American Revolution,” Abbott said in a statement.

When asked directly if Abbott had any role in developing the new content, Morath answered: “I’m not sure any. This was entirely a project of TEA.” Morath added that the governor is keenly attentive to the subject of public education.

“The governor has been very interested in getting back to fundamentals of education for a long time,” Morath said, “and so this is some of the lens that we think about, but he’s not alone in that perspective.”

Before HB 1605’s passage, the Texas Education Agency was creating new instructional materials in order to help improve students’ reading and math scores. Those materials were piloted in about 400 districts, a TEA spokesperson said. Some had full-scale, district-wide implementation while others tested the materials in a few grade levels.

Morath cited pilot studies in districts like Temple and Lubbock, where students’ reading scores increased by as much as 16 points after adopting the newer reading and language arts program.

About 300 people, most of whom are educators, are reviewing all of the instructional materials and will present their feedback to the State Board of Education. TEA did not provide a list of the reviewers but said they were selected by the SBOE.

Members of the public can also weigh in and offer feedback on the materials until August 16 and from there, the materials will go before the state board in November for final approval. If approved, the materials will immediately be available for download.

Chancey, the Southern Methodist University religion professor, said teaching the Bible in any public setting immediately prompts a variety of complicated questions. First among them: Which of the many Bible translations should be used? “The choice of translation brought into the public school has at times proven controversial,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chancey said, the proposed instructions on religious liberty in the original colonies seem to be a “tremendous oversimplification,” failing to note the persecution faced by other religious groups, namely Quakers and early Baptists. Omitting that, he said, misses the real lesson to be learned from studying America’s early settlers: “The dangers of religious favoritism.”

The proposed state textbook calls for excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to be paired with the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, whose defiance of the Babylonian leader Nebuchadnezzar is cited by King as an example of civil disobedience. And yet, the proposed curriculum does not appear to include any excerpts on the intended audience or a core theme of King’s letter: White moderates and clergy, whom King chastised for critiquing his civil disobedience while remaining “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

Morath said the excerpt chosen is the one that would be appropriate for a fifth grader, based on their vocabulary and knowledge-level.

“We would expect students to return to it in deeper and deeper ways,” Morath said. “You have to give him bits of knowledge that build on prior bits of knowledge, and you're steadily giving them more and more and more exposure.”

This instructional redesign for public schools comes amid an ongoing embrace on the right of Christian nationalism, which claims that the United States founding was ordained by God, and that its laws and institutions should thus favor their conservative, Christian views. Recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than half of Republicans adhere to or sympathize with pillars of Christian nationalism, including beliefs that the U.S. should be a strictly Christian nation. Of those respondents, PRRI found, roughly half supported having an authoritarian leader who maintains Christian dominance in society.

Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/30/texas-public-schools-religion-curriculum/.

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