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Monday , November 12 2018
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Tag Archives: Mexican American Studies

“Names are Important”: Texas Activists Protest Renaming of “Mexican-American Studies” Course to “Ethnic Studies”

Texas activists pushing for a high school course on Mexican-American history won a hard-fought victory in April, when the State Board of Education voted to create the class.

But that victory was bittersweet, as Republicans and one Democrat on the 15-member board voted to name the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent” rather than “Mexican-American Studies,” the title that advocates for the class favored.

On Tuesday, a long line of Mexican-American activists and educators from across the state testified at a hearing in front of the board, calling for members to change the course’s title to Mexican-American studies. As each person testified, dozens of supporters sitting in the audience waved their hands in a silent show of approval.

“Names are important. They have an impact on students in numerous ways,” Elizabeth Santos, a trustee on the Houston ISD school board, said in her testimony. “Our children cannot help but be aware of who they are. This style of naming minimizes the role distinct identities and backgrounds play in shaping the diversity that is such an advantage for our state.”

The board was gathered in the William B. Travis Building in Austin ostensibly to hear public input on proposed curriculum standards for the course, modeled on a Mexican-American studies class that Houston ISD began teaching in 2015. But at Tuesday’s hearing, those standards were mostly an afterthought, as the speakers railed against the board’s decision to rename the course. The board could vote on whether to change the course title as early as Wednesday, when it reconvenes to discuss the curriculum standards.

Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican who chairs the board, pressed on the educators’ testimony, asking whether someone with Mexican ancestors who identifies as Latino or Chicano would feel comfortable with a course titled Mexican-American studies.

“Why is saying ‘Mexican heritage,’ when there are different ways of referring to yourself, why is that not appropriate?” she asked Santos and other representatives of Houston ISD. “I’m a 60-year-old white woman. I don’t understand how this world works.”

At a protest outside the Travis Building on Tuesday morning, local activists and Democratic school board members argued that the new course title represents an assault on their ethnic identity.

“I can tell you that April meeting was one of the hardest meetings I’ve had to attend,” Ruben Cortez Jr., a Democrat who represents Brownsville on the board, said at the protest. “This is nothing more than discrimination.”

Beaumont Republican David Bradley proposed the course title in April, saying he found “hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.” That claim drew the ire of Democrats on the board and advocates for the course: At the protest, Cortez called Bradley “the most mean-spirited” member of the board.

Bradley missed Tuesday’s hearing because, he said, he did not want to skip a full week of work. But he responded to Cortez’s criticism in an email, saying he has become “impatient with a board member, who after 4 years, is generally unprepared to debate issues and has yet to master even basic parliamentary skills.”

“Everyones [sic] initiative was to find a compromise that got the course passed,” Bradley wrote. “Mr. Cortez should learn to say Thank You.”

A Democratic board member, Georgina Pérez of El Paso, also voted for the ethnic studies title in a deal with Republicans to secure approval for the course. “I’ve personally invested years of effort into getting this course into classrooms,” she told The Texas Tribune after the April vote. “It has meant a great deal to me. That is why it was important for me to ensure that it was going to pass.”

Texas education activists have demanded an official Mexican-American studies course for years. In 2014, the board rejected a proposal to create the course on the grounds that it would be racially divisive.

The proposed curriculum standards — which would set uniform guidelines for any school district in the state that wants to offer the course — call for students taking the class to develop a grasp of the major events that have shaped the Mexican-American experience, with an emphasis on 20th- and 21st-century history, including the immigration enforcement initiative Operation Wetback and the activism of Cesar Chavez.

Juan Carmona, who testified at the hearing and teaches a Mexican-American studies course at Donna ISD, told the Tribune he was broadly satisfied with the proposed curricular standards, although he still sees gaps, especially in the area of indigenous and Native American history.

“The fact that it exists is a good thing. The fact that they’re looking at standards for it is a good thing,” he said. “Does it need some extra work? Yes.”

Also on Tuesday, the school board heard public testimony on possible adjustments to the social studies standards adopted in 2010 — a set of guidelines that critics deride as “a triumph of ideology over facts.”

As currently written, the standards downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War and require students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address. Several people who testified at the meeting called on the board to remove language from the standards that identifies “states’ rights” and “sectionalism” as causes of the Civil War.

“We are in a national moment where we’re correcting history on this score, all around the country, even in Texas,” said Ryan Valentine, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network, in his testimony. “The board has an opportunity to join that righteous cause and make sure that history in our classrooms in Texas is truthful and honest and accurate.”

The board is scheduled to discuss the social studies standards at the meeting on Wednesday. A final vote on the proposed adjustments to the standards will take place in November, according to Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the State Board of Education.

Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter 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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Author: DAVID YAFFE-BELLANY – The Texas Tribune

Texas Education Board Approves Course Formerly Known as Mexican-American Studies

Texas advocates for Mexican-American studies classes won a bitter victory Wednesday, in gaining approval to move forward with the class they wanted, but losing the course title.

The board had been debating more than four years over how and whether to offer teachers materials and guidance to teach Mexican-American studies. In a preliminary vote, the State Board of Education voted nearly unanimously to create curriculum standards for the elective class. But now it will be called “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

A final vote on the issue is scheduled for Friday.

The class will be based on an innovative course Houston ISD got state approval to offer in 2015. Texas Education Agency staff will make any needed changes to that set of curriculum standards and then bring it back for the first of two public hearings and votes in June.

Lawrence Allen, a Houston Democrat, was the only member to vote against the newly named course, expressing support for Mexican-American studies but criticizing the new title.

Starting a fierce debate with Democrats on the board, Beaumont Republican David Bradley proposed the new name for the course. When asked why he didn’t want to keep “Mexican-American studies,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to hyphenated Americanism. … I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

“As someone who identifies as Mexican-American, your experience is unlike my experience,” San Antonio Democrat Marisa Perez-Diaz retorted. “I’m asking you to be inclusive.”

Most Democrats, except for El Paso Democrat Georgina Perez, voted against Bradley’s proposal. But they were outnumbered. Standing outside the hearing room to discuss their strategy after the vote, Texas professors and teachers criticized Perez for voting to strip the Mexican-American studies class of its name and brainstormed future options.

“We can change the name in the public comment phase if enough of you turn out,” said Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez, who represents District 2 on the board and has been spearheading the fight for a Mexican-American studies course for years.

Of 38 people who signed up to testify on the issue, 37 noted they were in favor of approving the course. (The one person who signed up in opposition is Friendswood ISD board member Matt Robinson, likely to replace Bradley in January. He did not speak Wednesday.)

Even before the vote, Texas teachers could already offer Mexican-American studies as a social studies elective, but they have to put in additional work to build a course structure and choose textbooks. That left smaller school districts facing an uphill climb to get a class started.

With little centralized guidance on what to teach in Mexican-American studies, districts currently offer varying versions of the course.

Teachers already offering some version of Mexican-American studies shared positive reviews from their students who talked about being thrilled to see themselves reflected in their coursework. They also asked the board to approve a set of centralized standards for how to teach the course, so they could spend more time teaching than planning what to teach.

“Students have a lot more freedom when we learn about our culture,” said Damian Mota, a seventh-grade student at KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. “If you walk into our classroom, you’re not going to see a traditional classroom. We are passionate learners who back up our claims.”

Teachers and professors who testified cited research showing that students who learn their cultural histories do better academically.

“We’re not proposing a supplement to what is already being done,” said University of Texas at Austin professor Emilio Zamora. “Research has demonstrated that Mexican-American studies … does improve academic performance.”

At the board’s first public hearing on the matter in January, some Republican board members pushed back on the idea of an official course. Board member Marty Rowley, an Amarill0 Republican, said in January that a Mexican-American studies course could be exclusionary by not focusing on the contribution of “other Latinos to Texas history or American history.”

In 2014, the board rejected a proposal to create an official Mexican-American studies course, with some members arguing that creating a separate class would be racially divisive. Instead, board members voted to put ethnic studies, including Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American and Native American studies, on a list of social studies textbooks it would ask publishers to develop for Texas schools.

Critics of that decision have argued that asking publishers to create books without curriculum standards to reference is ineffectual. They said approving the course first, and the standards to go along with it, would give publishers much needed guidance as well as reassurance that school districts might actually buy their textbooks.

The board has twice put out calls for ethnic studies textbooks since 2015 and failed to find Mexican-American studies materials they wanted to approve.

Board members also voted Wednesday to create a process for approving other elective courses in ethnic studies. Just courses in Native American, Latino, African American and Asian Pacific Islander studies will be considered.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

Texas Needs a Proven Mexican American Studies Curriculum

At January’s Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting, the purpose of agenda item #10 was to discuss statewide academic standards for the teaching of Mexican American Studies (MAS) in Texas public schools.

Currently, MAS is taught across the state, but no statewide standards exist. A standardized curriculum would provide guidance for the significant number of MAS courses taught in Texas and for publishers to write textbooks according to these standards.

Immediately following the testimony of several professors, teachers and experts, a cadre of SBOE members dismissed the preceding testimony and directed the conversation away from MAS standards to discuss “Latino Studies.” Born out of a history of political activism and a struggle for equity, MAS is a field that examines the historical and cultural contributions of indigenous, Mexican, and Mexican American peoples. In contrast, Latino Studies looks generally at the experiences of Hispanics in the U.S. A shift from MAS to Latino Studies would mean the civic engagement, activism and the transformative aspects of MAS would be lost.

Through this redirection away from MAS, the SBOE signaled that it would support Latino Studies standards at the upcoming meeting. If standards for a Latino Studies course are approved, this would signify the end for MAS course standards in Texas, as future efforts would be met with the response that standards for a Latino Studies course that include MAS already exist. A vote for Latino Studies would eliminate, by design, the rich historical and cultural content offered by MAS as well as its benefits to students. This possibility did not stop SBOE members from maneuvering the discussion to engineer, in an ad hoc manner, a replacement for MAS. A vote for Latino Studies standards would be no small substitution of curriculum. The looming threat of a Latino Studies vote is a rejection of thousands of MAS advocates, Mexican Americans and most importantly the students of Texas.

Unlike Latino Studies, still in its infancy by comparison, MAS is an expansive academic field that is 50 years old, is sanctioned by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, is an area of study that maintains centers, departments, initiatives, journals, and organizations and holds state and national conferences. In Texas, a coalition of educators has worked diligently for the past five years to institute standards for MAS courses taught in Texas.

While a few SBOE members maintain that Latino Studies would be “inclusive” of other Latino groups, the truth is that the presence of other Latino groups in Texas is a relatively recent occurrence and one that cannot be understood without first understanding the Mexican American experience. This explains why, in contrast to Latino Studies, MAS courses have been offered in Texas schools for decades. In practice, the inclusion of other Latino groups already takes place. MAS courses in public schools, colleges and universities incorporate Latino Studies within the curriculum including material related to other ethnic groups in Texas and the U.S.

It is the history of activism, the affirmation of a minority cultural identity and the threat of political engagement among Mexican American students and all students that has some SBOE members fearful that MAS standards will produce an identity-affirming curriculum. Call it what you will, but a denial of MAS standards in Texas looks an awful lot like the perpetuation of historical and cultural oppression. The SBOE must provide standards that allow school districts to create MAS curriculum should they decide to offer a MAS course or to streamline the course already in place.

Given the longstanding presence of Mexican-origin people in Texas, it is preferable to create standards for the proposed MAS course with Latino representation over an excessively broad, non-research-based, untested Latino Studies alternative for which no curriculum exists and for which few, if any, courses are taught. The course infrastructure for MAS is long-established and would be considerably less difficult to implement and less costly given the number of MAS courses taught in Texas.

Studies from education researchers Nolan Cabrera (Missing the student achievement forest for all the political trees), Thomas Dee and Emily Penner (Causal effects of cultural relevance), and Francesca Lopez (Culturally responsive pedagogies in Arizona and Latino students) confirm the positive outcomes for students taking MAS courses in public schools. Their research shows significant reductions in the achievement gap as well as openness to members of other cultures regardless of the students’ ethnic or racial background.

A rejection of MAS therefore amounts to the denial of a course that promotes academic success for all students. MAS boosts academic success precisely because MAS connects students cut off from mainstream curriculum. MAS provides students with a curriculum of liberation. A Latino Studies course, even if inclusive of MAS, would be too broad and too shallow to explore the types of questions surrounding identity, equity and inclusion that are fundamental to MAS. To include MAS in a Latino Studies course would be like covering Texas History in a World History class. The transformative aspects of the MAS curriculum would receive short shrift, if covered at all, and would be rendered ineffectual.

A replacement with Latino Studies material is neither a compromise nor a win-win as there is no Latino Studies coalition calling for the creation of standards. In this case, the groups at odds are those who favor MAS versus SBOE members bent on denying MAS to Texas students despite Texas’ unique history, our strong demographic representation of Mexican American youth in our schools and a successfully proven curriculum.

MAS advocates have fought too long and hard for a scholar-vetted, standards-aligned course to see it relegated to the dustbin of history. Our indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and Texan histories form important aspects of our culture and must be acknowledged and studied. Our place in Texas and our uniquely Texan and Tejano character requires nothing less than MAS standards. The SBOE must reflect carefully before making a decision whose outcome would be the deliberate and continued denial of our people, our history and our culture.

The University of Texas has been a financial supporter 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.

Author:   |  Column courtesy TribTalk.