Florida scoured math textbooks for ‘prohibited topics.’ Next up: social studies.

South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Sarah Mervosh | March 16, 2023

The nitty-gritty process of reviewing and approving school textbooks has typically been an administrative affair, drawing the attention of education experts, publishing executives and state bureaucrats.

But in Florida, textbooks have become hot politics, part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign against what he describes as “woke indoctrination” in public schools, particularly when it comes to race and gender. Last year, his administration made a splash when it rejected dozens of math textbooks, citing “prohibited topics.”

Now, the state is reviewing curriculum in what is perhaps the most contentious subject in education: social studies.

In the past few months, as part of the review process, a small army of state experts, teachers, parents and political activists have combed thousands of pages of text — not only evaluating academic content, but also flagging anything that could hint, for instance, at critical race theory.

A prominent conservative education group, whose members volunteered to review textbooks, objected to a slew of them, accusing publishers of “promoting their bias.” At least two publishers declined to participate altogether.

And in a sign of how fraught the political landscape has become, one publisher created multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or eliminating references to race — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida.

“Normally, a state adoption is a pretty boring process that a few of us care about, but there are a lot of people watching this because the stakes are so high,” said Jeff Livingston, a former publishing executive who is now an education consultant.

It is unclear which social studies textbooks will be approved in Florida, or how the chosen materials might address issues of race in history. The state is expected to announce its textbook decisions in the coming weeks.

The Florida Department of Education, which mandates the teaching of Black history, emphasized that the requirements were recently expanded, including to ensure students understood “the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on individual freedoms.”

But DeSantis, a top Republican 2024 presidential prospect, also signed a law last year known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits instruction that would compel students to feel responsibility, guilt or anguish for what other members of their race did in the past, among other limits.

The state’s guidelines for evaluating textbooks targets “critical race theory,” a graduate-level academic theory that rarely appears in younger grades but has become a catchall to some conservatives; and “social emotional learning,” an approach that tries to help students develop positive mind-sets and that is viewed by the DeSantis administration as extraneous to core academics.

Florida — along with California and Texas — is a major market for school textbook publishing, a $4.8 billion industry.

It is among more than a dozen states that approve textbooks, rather than leaving decisions only to local school districts. Every few years, Florida reviews textbooks for a particular subject and puts out a list that districts can choose from. (Districts also have some discretion to choose their own materials.)

Because state approval can be lucrative, publishers have often quietly catered to the biggest markets, adjusting content for their local needs and political leanings.

Publishers and Politics

The Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group, has urged the state to reject 28 of the 38 textbooks that its volunteers reviewed, including more than a dozen by McGraw Hill, a major national publisher.

The alliance, whose co-founders served on DeSantis’ education advisory team during his transition to governor, has helped lead a sweeping effort to remove school library books deemed as inappropriate, including many with LGBTQ characters. It trained dozens of volunteers to review social studies textbooks.

In a summary of its findings submitted to the state last month, the group complained that a McGraw Hill fifth-grade textbook, for example, mentioned slavery 189 times within a few chapters alone.

Another objection: An eighth-grade book gave outsize attention to the “negative side” of the treatment of Native Americans, while failing to give a fuller account of their own acts of violence, such as the Jamestown Massacre of 1622, in which Powhatan warriors killed more than 300 English colonists.

In a statement, McGraw Hill said it was awaiting word about approvals. “We look forward to supporting Florida educators and students as we have for many decades,” the company said.

The Florida Citizens Alliance is pushing the state to add curriculum from Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in Michigan that is active in conservative politics.

Hillsdale has drawn admiration from the DeSantis administration, but its K-12 history and civics materials, which emphasize primary sources, are meant to guide teachers — not be a textbook for students. The curriculum was not included in Florida’s official review, and the state did not comment on the group’s recommendations.

Of the nearly 20 publishers who applied in Florida, one major player was not on the list: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or HMH.

HMH, which won approval for social studies textbooks during Florida’s last review six years ago, was among the publishers whose math textbooks were initially rejected last year for “prohibited topics” and other unsolicited strategies, such as critical race theory or social emotional learning. (The textbooks were later approved after what HMH described as minor revisions.)

The company said in a statement that it did not compete in Florida this year because of “business priorities” and that the math textbook rejections and Florida’s legislation around race were not factors in its decision.

“For competitive reasons, we do not share our strategic decision-making process,” the company said.

The company, though, is pursuing social studies bids in other states, including South Carolina, North Carolina and New Mexico.

Another previously approved publisher, Discovery Education, also chose not to participate this year. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

One Publisher’s Edits: Rosa Parks

In an attempt to cater to Florida, at least one publisher made significant changes to its materials, walking back or omitting references to race, even in its telling of the Rosa Parks story.

The publisher, Studies Weekly, mostly serves younger students, with a focus on science and social studies, and its curriculum — short lessons in weekly pamphlets — is used in 45,000 schools across the country, according to its website. Its social studies materials are used in Florida elementary schools today.

The New York Times compared three versions of the company’s Rosa Parks story, meant for first-graders: a current lesson used now in Florida, an initial version created for the state textbook review and a second updated version.

Some of the material was provided by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a progressive parent group that has fought book ban efforts in the state, and confirmed by The Times.

In the current lesson on Rosa Parks, segregation is clearly explained: “The law said African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus if a white person wanted to sit down.”

But in the initial version created for the textbook review, race is mentioned indirectly.

“She was told to move to a different seat because of the color of her skin,” the lesson said.

In the updated version, race is not mentioned at all.

“She was told to move to a different seat,” the lesson said, without an explanation of segregation.

It’s unclear which of the new versions was officially submitted for review. The second version — which doesn’t mention race — was available on the publisher’s website until last week.

Studies Weekly made similar changes to a fourth-grade lesson about segregation laws that arose after the Civil War.

In the initial version for the textbook review, the text routinely refers to African Americans, explaining how they were affected by the laws. The second version eliminates nearly all direct mentions of race, saying that it was illegal for “men of certain groups” to be unemployed and that “certain groups of people” were prevented from serving on a jury.

With these changes, it is unclear if Studies Weekly is an outlier, or if other publishers may also have curbed their materials.

The Florida Department of Education suggested that Studies Weekly had overreached. Any publisher that “avoids the topic of race when teaching the Civil Rights movement, slavery, segregation, etc. would not be adhering to Florida law,” the department said in a statement.

But Studies Weekly said it was trying to follow Florida’s standards, including the Stop WOKE Act.

“All publishers are expected to design a curriculum that aligns with” those requirements, John McCurdy, the company’s CEO, said in an email.

The company’s curriculum is no longer under consideration by the state.

After questions from The Times, the company removed its second, scrubbed-down version of the curriculum from its website last week and said that it had withdrawn from the state’s review.

The Florida Department of Education said it had already rejected the publisher, citing a bureaucratic snafu in the company’s submission.

The company may still try to win over individual Florida districts. It has now gone back to its first version of the new curriculum — the one that says Rosa Parks was told to move her seat “because of the color of her skin.”

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