Texas School Board Rejects Expert Review of School Texts

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November 18, 2015; Christian Science Monitor and Texas Tribune

According to the Christian Science Monitor, on Wednesday, November 18th, the Texas Board of Education rejected a proposal for “letting university experts fact-check textbooks approved for use in public-school classrooms statewide, instead reaffirming a vetting system that has helped spark years of ideological battles over how potentially thorny lessons in history and science are taught.”

The proposal was prompted by continuing problems in what has been a highly politicized process. Writing for the National Education Association, Tim Walker describes the influence wielded by the Texas Board of Education on U.S. textbooks:

National publishers usually cater to its demands because the school board is probably the most influential in the country. Texas buys 48 million textbooks every year. No other state, except California, wields that sort of market clout.

The state of Texas will only fully fund schoolbook purchases by local school districts if the texts are on the state’s approved list. The board “relies on citizen review panels—often teachers, parents, business leaders, or other experts— whose members are nominated by board members” to review proposed texts prior to Board consideration.

Last week, that body rejected a proposal to ensure that the authorized textbooks were factually accurate: “Other Texans can also check the books on their own and identify what they see as errors in public testimony during board meetings.”

Concerns about the weaknesses of this approach were heightened this fall. The Texas Tribune noted that “controversy over the materials flared up…after Pearland mother Roni Dean-Burren posted a screen shot…of an infographic in [a] McGraw-Hill World Geography textbook that read, ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.’ The backlash prompted an apology and correction from the publisher.”

Valerie Strauss described a list of issues raised in the Washington Post in 2014.

For example, ideas promoted in different books include the notion that American democracy was inspired by Moses and Solomon, that Jews views Jesus Christ as an important prophet, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that the U.S. economic systems run without significant government involvement. Some of the books also said that evolution should be taught to students as if it were not fact but simply a scientific theory, and that global warming is not a very serious problem confronting the world. Some critics pointed out simple factual errors, such as the number of Sikhs who live around the world.

Those opposed to adding a new level of expertise feared that the proposal “would send a signal that the current textbook adoption process isn’t sound and unnecessarily add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the process. They also took issue with a provision in the amendment that said the state’s education commissioner could appoint Texas-based academics to the panel, with at least one board member noting the ‘philosophical differences’ that often emerge between the board and professors who review proposed textbooks.”

Thomas Ratliff, who proposed the change, “quipped Wednesday that he knows ‘people are concerned about pointy-headed liberals in their ivory towers’ getting more involved in the textbook adoption process, but said that creating the option of having such a review panel would demonstrate that the board is concerned about such errors and is actively doing something to address them.”

In the end, Texas decided to not go with more expertise. For students outside of Texas, changes in the publishing industry seem to be limiting the state’s influence:

Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ School Division, says fears of a Texas-style national social studies curriculum are overblown because publishers are more accustomed nowadays to producing customized textbooks for different states.

For the millions of Texas children, however, let’s hope the board will rethink their decision.—Marty Levine