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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as History Repeats Itself in Texas For Textbook-Review Process

History Repeats Itself in Texas For Textbook-Review Process

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Publishers have carefully packaged their flagship textbooks and brand-new products for the painstaking review. Interest groups, educators, and members of the public have started weighing in with criticisms and concerns over content and presentation. And education officials have prepared for hours of eye-aching reading and marathon debates.

With the Texas state school board gearing up to decide which textbooks will be used to teach history and social studies to the state's 4 million public schoolchildren, the recurring battle over what students learn in the subjects has begun anew. A recent public hearing, as well as competing campaigns to influence text content and selection, reflect some of the tension between conservatives and liberals. But state board members say ideology is not welcome in this debate.

"I believe a lot of the contest between different groups is due to rhetoric," board member Cynthia A. Thornton, a retired government and economics teacher, said. "I don't want to get into a bunch of assumptions and watch them form battle lines. ... If you can't give me a page number, and you can't give me a line [in a textbook where there is a specific concern], then you're wasting my time."

Texas' first full textbook adoption in those subjects in a decade is getting a great deal of attention from outside the state as well. As one of the largest textbook markets in the country, Texas is likely to influence choices of instructional materials in history and government, geography, economics, sociology, and psychology throughout the country for the coming decade.

"In school publishing, Texas commands unique attention," said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council in New York City, which evaluates history and social studies texts. "The stakes are very high."

Publishers angling for more than $230 million in the 2003-04 school year alone have tailored their texts to the content needs of the lucrative Texas market. And those texts often become the national prototype.

History of Controversy

Controversy and textbooks have gone hand in hand in the Lone Star State for decades, as groups at different points on the political spectrum have campaigned against what they've seen as bias or censorship. In history and social studies, the debate has been especially sharp.

In 1995, the Texas legislature attempted to limit ideological influence in textbook selection when it curbed the state board's authority over determining content in the books. As a result, the board can restrict only texts that are insufficiently aligned to state standards or that have factual errors.

But in a lively public hearing last month, interest groups and others argued that the board has a responsibility to consider as factual errors omissions—in which partial information on a topic could lead to inaccurate interpretation—or facts that are presented with an inherent bias.

A coalition of conservative groups complained, for example, that many of the U.S. history texts submitted for consideration failed to explain fully the unique features of the American republic and the nation's founding principles. Other critics pointed out what they saw as an overemphasis on the women's rights movement. One presenter argued that a reference to a black woman who worked as a maid during the Depression overstated the discrimination she may have faced because of her race.

Of the nearly 50 speakers at the July 17 hearing, several lamented the lack of racial and ethnic diversity presented in the books, especially the absence of the Hispanic perspective or Latino heroes.

Meanwhile, the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that touts itself as a mainstream voice to counter the religious right, has launched a campaign to neutralize what in its view are politically motivated efforts to purge controversial information from textbooks. The Austin-based coalition of religious and community groups cites what it sees as a tradition of schoolbook censorship by conservative forces in the state.

'Getting the Facts Straight'

Despite imperfections in the books submitted for the state's approval, several experts and reviewers have found elements of the texts worthy of praise.

"They may read like phone books," Mr. Sewall said, "but do a pretty good job of getting the facts straight."

He is more critical, however, of the interpretations of history presented in the texts and the lack of compelling narratives or sufficient historical context. But he says publishers are not necessarily to blame for those flaws, which result from packing a volume with essential facts and meeting the states' vast number of curricular requirements.

The Texas board is scheduled to select textbooks in November.

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 11

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