‘Social studies teachers are fighting for our democracy right now,’ educator says about House Bill 3979

Dr. Karon LeCompte, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, describes how social changes have altered the education world. Photo courtesy of Karon LeCompte

By Lauren Combs | Reporter

Dr. Karon LeCompte, associate professor of curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in social studies education, said social studies curriculum in the last 20 years was impacted by social and political movements from post-9/11 patriotism to recent “ingrained divisiveness.”

Specifically, LeCompte said a negative change comes from the passing of House Bill 3979 by the Texas Public Education Committee.

The bill states that teachers do not have to talk about current events or controversial topics in the classroom. Additionally, teachers cannot assign or grade work that is associated with, communicates with or tries to persuade members of the legislative or executive branches at the local, state or federal level.

“This is changing the way that teachers teach,” LeCompte said. “What teachers are going to have to do is still integrate social studies, particularly history, with English language arts … but you can’t write a letter to your legislature or your city councilperson now.”

According to House Research Organization bill analysis, House members who agree with the bill said, “The bill would ensure that educators did not push a political ideology or require student involvement with organizations that promote public policy advocacy.”

However, Grapeland junior Sara Easley, a teacher’s associate at Castleman Creek Elementary School, said the bill is a step backward from sharing every side of history.

“I think controversy leads to learning,” Easley said. “Kids are going to ask questions. Kids are naturally curious — like they know so much more than people give them credit for — and so if they ask a question and the teacher can’t answer the question because it’s controversial, like how do they redirect?”

To encourage conversations, LeCompte said she started a summer civics program with Dr. Brooke Blevins for middle schoolers called iEngage, which focuses on an action-civics cycle to address community issues in Waco.

“Students will study unemployment or drug abuse in our community or poverty in our community and a number of different issues,” LeCompte said. “And then they will seek to find the root cause of that issue and then provide viable solutions to that issue.”

About 100 students participate in the camp every year. iEngage has expanded to pilot a 12-week course at Midway Middle School to improve interactive social studies curriculum in the classroom.

“Civics education is garnering more attention because people are beginning to recognize that we need these kinds of discussions in the classroom,” LeCompte said. “We need informed citizens in schools so that when they are in college, when they do become adults, they know how to understand an issue from multiple perspectives.”

Waco doctoral candidate Nate Scholten is running the iEngage pilot program as a study for his curriculum and instruction dissertation.

“When we ask them, ‘What does it mean to be a good citizen,’ they still give answers like picking up trash or being nice to your neighbor or obeying laws or voting,” Scholten said. “All those things are great. We need people to be nice to each other. We need people to pick up trash. We need people to vote. But we would love for them to say it means being engaged in your community, volunteering. It means examining your community and being aware of problems in your community and trying to fix them.”

Scholten said he also hopes the program will encourage teachers to talk about current controversies even though they aren’t required to. However, he said he is still concerned about the bill’s banning of civic engagement.

“You look at a science class with experiments and stuff,” Scholten said. “Like they’re not just learning how chemicals interact with each other from a theoretical standpoint. Like they’re literally doing labs. They’re practicing it. They’re engaging in these experiments.”

With the bill enacted, Scholten said he does not know how it could change the future of iEngage expanding past Midway Middle School because the program encourages civic participation.

“Social studies teachers are fighting for our democracy right now,” LeCompte said. “We’re fighting for the right for students to be informed, participative citizens when they are adults. We’re hoping that legislation, such as House Bill 3979, is amended.”