Texas textbook vote highlights disputes over US history – and how to teach it

The process of vetting state textbooks came under renewed fire after a Houston mother pointed out that her son's ninth-grade textbook referred to African slaves as 'workers.' 

Eric Gay/AP
Texas Board of Education vice chairman Thomas Ratliff (l.) visits with board member Geraldine Miller (r.) during a meeting on Wednesday in Austin, Texas. Mr. Ratliff's proposal to allow university professors to fact-check textbooks approved for statewide use failed on a 8-7 vote.

Texas education officials nixed a proposal to let university experts check state textbooks for factual errors – reviving a long-simmering dispute over ideological bias in how history and science are taught in public schools.

Some Texas conservatives applauded the state Board of Education’s 8 to 7 decision Wednesday to stand by its current process, which relies on citizen panels to vet textbooks. Others, however, say the vote’s results are another example of how the nation’s increasingly polarized ideologies are affecting school curricula.

“This debate is almost entirely driven by ideology, as history is inherently political,” writes Brad Cartwright, director of the University of Texas at El Paso Center for History Teaching & Learning, in an e-mail. “Thus, people with differing political perspectives will nearly always disagree about the way history is presented.”

“Students should be made aware of the interpretative nature of historical study so they can understand the ways the past is used in the present,” he adds.

With more than 5 million students enrolled in its public schools, Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market, buying about 48 million books every year, according to the National Educational Association. When national publishers modify material to meet Texas standards, it affects textbooks used in other states.

“Texas is an enormous market. If I’m buying a book in Florida, it may be what people in Texas chose,” says Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

With so much at stake, the state’s textbooks – particularly in history and science – have sparked heated dispute. In 2014, debate erupted over perceived biases in the content of 104 new textbooks, “with some liberals crying foul over pro-Christian lessons and conservatives complaining of anti-American and pro-Muslim biases,” the Monitor’s Husna Haq reported.

Among the complaints from both parties were passages that depicted minimum wage as a controversial legacy of the New Deal, marginalized or lionized Reagan, downplayed the achievements of Hispanics, presented pro-Israeli arguments on Middle East conflicts, incorrectly depicted jihad, and overemphasized the influence of the Ten Commandments and other Christian tenets on the American Revolution.

The issue was revived in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote, as critics challenged the state board’s process for vetting textbooks – an approach that relies on review panels of parents, teachers, and other members of the public who are nominated by the board.

The process came under fire in October after a Houston-area mother complained that her son’s ninth-grade world geography book referred to African slaves as “workers.”

In response, Republican board member Thomas Ratliff proposed a measure that would bring in university experts to fact-check textbooks. The measure failed, with the board voting instead to require review panels to consist of "at least a majority" of people with "sufficient content expertise and experience” as determined by the state’s education commissioner, The New York Times reports.

For some, the decision reaffirmed the strength of the current system. 

Those stirring up controversy “oppose the majority of Texans who believe in teaching [students] the values that make our country great," says Roy White, a retired Air Force pilot and head of the conservative group Truth in Texas Textbooks.

But others worry that emphasis on ideology in textbook content discourages critical thinking in students.

“The board appoints [to the review panels] people that agree with their particular perspective. That’s been their tradition,” says Ms. Griffin of the NCSS. “Our students deserve better than being force-fed a perspective.”

Instead, she notes, “they have to learn how think,” which requires ways of teaching history that encourage more than rote memorization. The concept of historical thinking, for instance, invites students to seek primary historical documents for themselves, and analyze multiple accounts of the past to interpret historical events.

“The question is not, ‘What is the story of the past?’ That misses the point,” says Fritz Fischer, a professor of history and history education at the University of Northern Colorado. “History is about asking interesting questions about the past. Historical thinking teaches students how to use evidence to come to reality-based answers.”

By contrast, giving K-12 students access only to texts viewed as ideologically correct can be seen as taking advantage of students at an impressionable time in their lives, critics say. 

“If you wanted a student to have a particular ideology, that’s the place to set it,” says Anthony Brown, associate professor at the Department of Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin.

To ensure an accurate and balanced approach, school boards and the review panels that vet textbooks must consist not only of a cross-section of educators in the subject matter, curriculum experts, and the public, but also individuals whose ideas cover a spectrum of political thought, critics say.

“Texas has excellent educators and administrators who are trained to creatively and effectively teach the state’s students; yet, their efforts are continually hindered by elected officials who lack the necessary training and knowledge to best serve our students,” writes Dr. Cartwright at El Paso.

“To move past these disputes, we need the experts to be at the center of the conversation,” he continues. “History teachers should be given the freedom to teach the interpretative and complex nature of the past in all of its contentious glory.”

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