Commentary: National standards will help prioritize education's importance

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has some bad news for the Vatican. Archbishop Oscar Romero, the influential cleric infamously assassinated by a right-wing death squad, a man who made a valiant stand for human rights during El Salvador's U.S.-backed civil war, just wasn't a big enough deal to be included in Texas' social studies curriculum.

Romero, murdered 30 years ago this month, is being considered for sainthood in Rome and is indisputably a central figure in the history of the late Cold War era. But he is just one of many historical figures who no longer make the cut in the Texas Board of Education's revised curriculum standards.

It's a lesson in just how treacherous the waters will become as the nation seeks to standardize what is taught in America's public schools. The Texas board's deliberations about social studies have been unabashedly political.

In the debates, conservatives — backed by the governor — have pushed American exceptionalism, sought to aggrandize the Christian piety of the nation's founders, and peddled a distinctly ahistorical theory of the Constitution's biblical inspiration. The board defeated a Democratic proposal that would have called on students to examine the reasons why the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

Racially charged debates have broken out about whether to include Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor and civil rights cases concerning Mexican-Americans. Conservatives have argued that too many minorities are being wedged into existing curriculum. One board member even proposed adding country music and deleting mentions of hip-hop.

Obviously, not enough hours exist in the school day to please and include everyone. The problem is the nation's schools operate with standards that vary widely from state to state. Some are rigorous, others not so much. And Texas, owing to its large population, has enormous sway in how textbooks used nationally get written.

That's why a move toward national education standards is long overdue. Such standards are supported by the vast majority of governors and leading educators.

"Race to the Top," a new program under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education, is supporting the effort to create national standards. A panel of educators has released a set of standards for math and English curriculums. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Association of State Boards of Education support the move. So far, Alaska and Texas are the only two states that have refused to participate — although some educators in Massachusetts have argued for sticking with that state's even higher standards, thank you very much.

The Texas approach to education is tragically misguided on two counts. First, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it hurts America's youth, the future of our nation. Here's a fact not up for debate: U.S. students are falling woefully behind the academic standards of other industrialized countries. Whatever changes are made should enhance our academic standing globally, the ability of future workforces to compete. National standards can help reverse our decline, but all states, especially those with the pull of Texas, have to participate.

Perhaps more insidiously, the conservatives on the Texas board seem to regard education as little more than indoctrination — and they want the doctrine to be theirs alone. What makes a figure like Archbishop Romero anathema to conservatives is that his life and death might raise questions in a classroom about American power abroad, about the social role of religion, about capitalism. Can't have that.

Note the phrase "raise questions." The best education focuses on teaching students how to think, not what to think. If we can't trust students to think for themselves — and teachers and good textbooks to help them — we're in deeper trouble than we think.