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Texas Republican State Platform Critical Thinking

As exercises in "gotcha" journalism go, Politifact may be the most elaborate and well-researched. But once in a while its rulings should be subject to the same kind of arbitrary true/false analysis that its judgments bestow. Case in point: Do Texas Republicans really oppose critical thinking?

On Aug. 11, in a piece called "Says Texas GOP platform calls for end to teaching 'critical thinking' in public schools", Politifact cast its beady eye over a New York Times column by Gail Collins. The subject was the Republican Party of Texas platform, and claims that the GOP explicitly opposes critical thinking. Here's the section in question:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Why exactly Politifact went after Collins, whose column was mostly about Ted Cruz's golf-related conspiracy theories, evades understanding. After all, there were plenty of other people rolling their eyes at this GOP gem, including Stephen Colbert, Leonard Pitts and, erm, NewsDesk.

But here's where Politifact missed the point. Their 'fact checking' concentrated on outcome based education, a school of educational thinking championed by sociologist Bill Spady. Its basic philosophy is that the purpose of education is more about the goal than the process (that's a broad sweep description: Find out more here.)

Why does the GOP care about any of this stuff? That's what Politifact missed, and it's deeper down in this very brief statement:

behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority

OBE is supposed to be about dismantling the super-standardized, centralized method of education, and replacing it with common standards. Yet somehow in the GOP platform it becomes a tool for indoctrination. The fringe right of the GOP (which, increasingly, has become its mainstream after driving out its center and moderates) has spent years spinning an intricate conspiracy theory that public schools are thinly veiled Stalinist re-education camps. You see an elementary campus; they see a Khmer Rouge re-education camp. Think I'm kidding or overstating? Check out this Fox News story from 2001. Or the American Thinker piece from earlier this year, which claimed that "The socialists and Marxists still have your children." Or how about when Bishop Joseph McFaddentold CBS News that "Hitler and Mussolini" would love the Pennsylvania Public School System. Because, you know, totalitarianism.

Oh, and any time the Texas GOP talks about fixed beliefs, that seems to inevitably lead to Creationism in science classes. Then that leads to Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, advising teachers to sneak bits of the Book of Proverbs into their teaching plans. After all, as she wrote, "As for other religions – the wisdom won’t do them any harm."

The idea that education should not teach kids how to think is baffling. What the GOP platform dresses up in dog whistle code words is simply an opposition to evaluating the world. Everything should be broken down into simplistic yes/no, fill-in-the-bubble thinking. That is in no small part why the testing industry rubs its hands in glee whenever this kind of statement appears. If you actually teach real critical thinking – of the kind that the Founding Fathers and their fellow sons of the Enlightenment would support – than you understand the world better. But that's a lot harder to analyze using standardized tests, isn't it?

And so what if a child's "fixed beliefs" are challenged? If those beliefs can't withstand a challenge or two, they are blind dogma, and deserve to be challenged. Hey, if it's good enough for Martin Luther, it's good enough for a Texas classroom. As Pitts wrote in the Miami Herald, "Presumably, if a child is of the 'fixed belief' that Jesus was the first president of the United States or that 2+2 = apple trees or that Florida is an island in an ocean on the moon, educators ought not correct the little genius lest she (gasp!) change her fixed belief, thereby undermining mom and dad."

It's hard not to ignore the dramatic irony of Politifact – the self-appointed arbiter of truth through critical thinking – getting caught in this discussion. However, it does continue its other role as a purveyor of useful straw men. One campaign manager told me that getting a mostly false rating from Politifact was the best thing that could have happened to him, because he got to spend weeks (1) rebutting them via press releases and (2) raising funds because he'd proved them wrong.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ latest book, "As Texas Goes," takes the state to task for, well, being Texas. And her Aug. 1, 2012, column did pretty much the same.

Casting the nomination of Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate as a harbinger of doom, Collins wrote that Texas "does tend to treasure the extreme" in politics, saying, "The current Republican state platform calls for an end to the teaching of ‘critical thinking’ in public schools."

Collins is actually a bit late to this party: Major liberalwebsites launched assaults on this part of the 2012 platform (adopted June 8) as early as June 26, and Comedy Central’s "Colbert Report" satirized it July 17.

Mainstream media weighed in, too. A July 9 Washington Postblog entry was headlined "Texas GOP rejects ‘critical thinking’ skills. Really." Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote July 21: "The Texas GOP has set itself explicitly against teaching children to be critical thinkers."

Austin American-Statesman opinion columnist Ken Herman reported July 21 that the party’s deputy executive director, Chris Elam, told him the platform subcommittee did not intend to indicate that the party opposed critical thinking skills.

We began our research by trying to contact Collins but did not hear from her. Her column gives no information about her claim beyond that single sentence.

We pulled the complete wording of the "Knowledge-Based Education" plank from the 2012 platform:
 

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.


Next, we contacted Elam, who told us by email that party chairman Steve Munisteri had given a good explanation in a July 24 interview with Austin’s KVUE-TV.

Munisteri told KVUE, "The platform plank is against a specific type of teaching called 'outcome-based education.'

"The reason why critical thinking is mentioned is some places try to disguise the program of outcome-based education and just re-label it as 'critical thinking.' "

That’s supported by the wording in the platform.

Following the lead of a July 6, 2012, Chronicle of Higher Educationblog post on the Texas platform fracas, we looked back to the 2010 platform. Its "Knowledge-Based Education" plank said, "The primary purpose of public schools is to teach critical thinking skills, reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, science, and character … We oppose Outcome-Based Education (OBE) and similar programs."

Both platforms support critical thinking when it comes to "controversial theories" such as evolution, which "should be taught as challengeable scientific theories ... Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind."

Next, we set out to see if we could determine whether opposing outcome-based education is also, de facto, opposing critical thinking in the larger sense.

The debate over outcome-based education caught fire in the 1990s as outcome-based curricula were installed in U.S. school districts. In the Lexis newspaper archive and on the web, we saw a dozen news stories and opinion pieces from as many states -- Texas included -- describing public concern about the new approach.

Opponents said the outcome-based approach was antithetical to critical thinking. They claimed it "dumbed down" curricula and influenced students to adopt liberal attitudes because the "outcome" of their studies was predetermined by academia.

Supporters claimed it encouraged -- in fact, taught -- critical thinking. Rather than testing students on facts learned by rote memorization, they said, it required children to demonstrate that they had learned to analyze the material.

So what the heck is it? The news stories we read indicate outcome-based education takes different forms nearly everywhere it’s applied. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram gave a description in an Oct. 30, 1996, news story about opposition to OBE-like elements in the state’s planned education overhaul:
 

Under outcome-based education, academic and personal goals are set for students before they can graduate. The program stresses that children are not allowed to fail, so they might be given the same test or report over and over until they do the work satisfactorily. It also may eliminate traditional grades, competitive student assessments and distinct subjects and grade levels.

 

Methods of implementing outcome-based education include awarding group grades instead of individual grades and eliminating honors programs.

 

 

The "founding father" of OBE, education reformer William Spady, gave an example in an interview for the December 1992/January 1993 issue of Educational Leadership magazine, published by ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

Asked whether an outcome might be "The student will be able to list the five causes of the Civil War," Spady replied: "No, sorry; that is not an exit outcome. But, ‘Identify and explain the fundamental causes and consequences of the Civil War’ would be an enabling outcome worth pursuing en route to some larger exit outcome."

Today, a divide remains between the "OBE teaches kids to think" side and the "OBE suppresses thinking" side.

We didn’t find allusions to "critical thinking skills" being used as a code phrase for OBE, but did note that a Feb. 15, 1994, news story in the Dallas Morning News said some educators were avoiding the name "outcomes-based education":
 

 

Because of the controversy, many educators are going to great lengths to avoid being associated with outcomes-based education.

 

"We've always had outcomes," said state school board member Diane Patrick. But "we'd be foolish to call it outcomes-based education right now. That would be very unwise."


Our ruling

As Collins says, the Texas GOP platform does state that the party opposes "critical thinking." But Collins leaves out some important context. The platform makes it clear that its opposition is centered on one type of education model: outcome-based education.

That’s just the kind of situation addressed in PolitiFact’s definition of Half True: "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."

By those lights, Collins’ statement is Half True.

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