EducationStatewide NewsPrimary Source Documents Could Reduce Classroom Bias, Claims Education Group

Teaching with primary source documents could defuse some of the debate over bias in social studies and history textbooks often used in public schools.
July 29, 2022
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As the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) considers once-in-a-decade revisions to social studies curriculum standards this year, some advocates are urging the state to expand the use of primary source documents in classrooms.

Political science professor Jeff Sikkenga says studying original documents is not just for college students, but can benefit middle and high school students in multiple ways.

“Once students get in the habit of reading primary source documents with help from teachers who know how to facilitate discussions, it really brings the past alive for them,” Sikkenga told The Texan.

He is the executive director of the Ashbrook Center, a non-profit organization that trains teachers in Texas and across the nation on using primary source documents in the classroom. In a recent column, he noted that only 37 percent of all Texans, and only 25 percent of those under age 45, could correctly answer six out of 100 questions on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services citizenship test. Sikkenga writes that focusing on documents related to the American founding would improve civic knowledge and participation.

Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation requiring public school educators to cultivate “an informed American patriotism” partially through the study of original sources, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and speeches from Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.

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The bill, authored by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), received bipartisan support in both chambers of the Texas legislature since legislators from both sides of the political aisle have expressed concern over bias in social studies textbooks.

Debate over historical interpretation has long raged among academics, but came to the attention of the general public in recent years with efforts such as The New York Timessince-corrected1619 Project” and counterpoint “1776 Project.” Many of these debates over how to interpret history have seeped into K-12 social studies and history textbooks.

Sikkenga and others claim using more primary sources could help defuse some of the politicization of historical content presented to students.

“One of the advantages of using primary source documents is that it’s not an all-or-nothing, high-stakes battle over which textbook to adopt with a particular point of view,” explained Sikkenga.

“Let’s say on the New Deal we bring in primary documents from [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] but then we bring in speeches from Herbert Hoover criticizing New Deal policies. This brings alive the historical debate that actually happened at the time.”

Battles over curriculum standards, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), take place each time the SBOE considers updates or changes. These debates often draw national scrutiny, as the state is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country.

Controversy erupted last month after rumors circulated that the SBOE would change the word “slavery” to “involuntary relocation” in the K-2 curriculum, but the recommendation for the change in verbiage came from a group of educators, not the SBOE, and the wording was unanimously rejected by the board.

The 15 elected members of the SBOE have appointed nine advisors to make recommendations for revisions to the social studies standards this year, including University of Texas Professor of American History Steven Mintz. On August 1, the board will meet again for discussion and a public hearing on proposed changes to K-8 social studies standards, which will be finalized in November 2022.

In addition to adopting standards that include required founding documents, the SBOE will also need to navigate another new state law that prohibits the teaching of ideas derived from critical race theory.

While the SBOE considers how to implement the state legislature’s directives on the use of at least some primary source documents, the Ashbrook Center is already holding free seminars for teachers on how to present resources to students and facilitate discussions. Last month, the group taught teachers in Austin to use original documents in a seminar on “Civil Rights, the Great Society, and Backlash,” and this weekend will host a two-day event in Dallas entitled “Liberty and Equality in the American Founding.” Later this year, Ashbrook will host a one-day seminar titled “Ulysses S. Grant: General and President” in Houston, and has multiple available online seminars.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.