Florida’s department of education announced its rejection of more than 30 textbooks for social studies instruction, and requests for edits of more than 40, earlier this month—a move some experts say highlights a new, confusing landscape for K-12 publishers.
The state, one of the largest markets for textbook publishers, goes through a lengthy process of reviewing bids and then approving textbooks that align with state standards. Districts must then use half of the state funds allocated to them for curriculum purchases for state-adopted materials, but they can go off-list for the rest of the funds.
While publishers have always had to navigate different state standards in producing textbooks, Florida offers a case study in a new challenge to the process: laws that restrict instruction on topics of race and gender. Eighteen states, including Florida, have imposed bans and restrictions on teaching the academic concept known as critical race theory, and instruction on racism and sexism.
For publishers, Florida’s law meant that for the 2022-23 adoption cycle for social studies, the state gave specificationsto exclude “unsolicited” topics and theories. Specifically, “Critical Race Theory, Social Justice, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social and Emotional Learning, and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited.”
In the list of rejected titles, the state made a notation for whether the texts included “special topics” without further detail.
The edited textbooks approved in Florida won’t necessarily be made available in other states. For example, national publisher, McGraw Hill, says in a statement to Education Week that “any changes that we would make to our [Florida] submissions would not affect materials available in other states.”
The state approved 19 materials from the publisher, and rejected seven, though only four were listed as including “special topics.”
“We are going through the routine appeal process with the DOE, and evaluating our next steps,” a spokesperson for McGraw Hill said of the rejected titles.
But the approval process this year for social studies books in Florida and a similar process for math textbooks done last year in the state highlight the broad reach and scope of legislation restricting instruction.
“These laws are amazingly ambiguous and they are still quite new,” said Eric Hirsch, executive director of EdReports, an independent nonprofit that reviews curricula from publishers.
“If you’re a publisher, you have these ambiguous signals about what it may mean to comply or not comply with the law.”
How Florida’s rules for publishers changed
Last year, Florida sent out specifications to social studies publishers which included a nod to legislation known as House Bill 7 which bans instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” students to believe concepts such as:
What exactly such instruction would entail, is not so clearly defined, Hirsch said. He added that similar wording in related legislation across other states is left vague and ambiguous enough to leave publishers and educators with questions about what crosses the line.
Hirsch added that Florida’s specifications to publishers don’t clarify how to meet requirements without breaking the law.
For instance, the state requires that instructional materials include multicultural representation. It required this in thelast social studies adoption cycle in the 2016-17 school year though it has since edited the definition of multicultural representation.
But in the current adoption cycle that still requires multicultural representation, the state also bans culturally responsive teaching. It does not define the term. It only says it is an aspect of critical race theory and that it differs from the statutory requirement that “in the selection of instructional materials, ... the propriety of the material shall include the consideration of the broad racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity of the students of this state.”
Scholars behind the pedagogical approach broadly define culturally responsive teaching as “using students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.”
“So in some ways, you are talking about making sure your materials are engaging, and representative of all, yet they can’t do these things over here,” Hirsch said.
There is also a lack of clarity in what the state defines as indoctrination of students, said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. In fact, indoctrination goes against the code of ethics for social studies instructors.
“How do we expect achievement in history, civics, and social studies education to increase if we’re not creating an open, inclusive environment for learning, or instead creating an exclusive, restrictive environment,” Paska said. “I don’t see how exclusion translates to achievement.”
The state’s publisher specifications also ban discussion of social justice, which it defines as closely aligned to critical race theory.
“Racial and social justice issues and protests, like with the murder of George Floyd and others, and what that says, these are current topics,” Paska said. “These are not just relevant and applicable, they’re relevant and applicable to kids’ daily lives, and are the issues that they will have to grapple with as adults.”
Teachers too are seeking out textbooks and other instructional materials that can engage their students and apply to their experiences.
In an EdReportsreport published last year with 2021 data from the RAND Corporation’s American Instructional Resources Survey, about 82 percent of English/language arts, mathematics, and science teachers, asked to indicate how they choose instructional materials, said it was extremely important that materials “will be engaging or compelling to my students.”
About 42 percent of surveyed teachers said including “content and approaches that are culturally relevant” was extremely important.
“So publishers have this vague kind of signal up here [at the state level]. And then they have the people who actually buy the contracts saying, “We really need this, but you can’t violate the law,” said Hirsch of EdReports.
What ultimately happened to Florida social studies textbooks
In a May 9 press release, the Florida education department shared that initially only 19 of the 101 submitted textbooks were approved with the rest rejected “due to inaccurate material, errors and other information that was not aligned with Florida law.”
“Since then, the department has worked directly with publishers, who have updated their materials to comply with Florida’s rigorous standards,” it added.
The state posted five samples of edits made, in which they cited rationales such as “not age appropriate” when referring to a sentence about talking to students about why some people choose to kneel during the national anthem and “unsolicited topics” when referring to a paragraph on calls for social justice in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
But the agency offered few other concrete citations, nor publicly cited which textbooks contained the five sample edits.
In one case, the state rejected the only bid submitted for Florida’s African American History course. (No publishers submitted bids for this course during the 2016-17 adoption, according to the state.)
The publisher of The African-American Experience, 2022, ABC-CLIO, did not respond to requests for comment from Education Week. But the Tampa Bay Times reported that the book covers segregation, discrimination, police brutality, and institutional racism.
The book “was not adopted because the material included topics that are contrary to Florida law,” the Florida department of education said in an emailed response to Education Week.
Another publisher, Studies Weekly, had in some versions edited out mention of Rosa Parks’ race in explaining why she was asked to move to a different seat, according to a March article by The New York Times.
In a press release that same month responding to the article, the publisher said that “because the Florida department of education provided no guidance on interpreting Florida House Bill 7, Studies Weekly, like every publisher, has had to decipher how to comply with their legislation.” The press release went on to say that unapproved revisions were submitted to the state but Studies Weekly could not make changes in time.
“Prior to the publication of the adoption list, Studies Weekly was informed that their textbook would not be adopted due to the fact that they submitted incorrect files,” a Florida agency spokesperson said.
What happens now
News about edits made to Florida social studies textbooks has already drawn attention from at least one other state.
The office of California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom reported in a May 20 tweet that it filed records requests with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida department of education, and publishers “to find out whether any of the companies designing California’s textbooks are the same ones kowtowing to Florida’s extremist agenda.”
Parents have a right to know what’s happening to undermine kids' education.— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) May 20, 2023
Governor Newsom is demanding records from publishers and Florida to find out whether any of the companies designing California’s textbooks are the same ones kowtowing to Florida’s extremist agenda. pic.twitter.com/e5zOAyIvMK
In a response to Newsom’s tweet, Florida’s education department communications director, Alex Lanfranconi, tweeted a GIF from the 2004 movie “Mean Girls.” In an emailed comment to Education Week, Lanfranconi praised Florida’s success in education adding that “maybe elected officials in other states should be taking notes.”
https://t.co/5AffH90jaH pic.twitter.com/YWxnNv0zHA— Alex Lanfranconi (@AlexLanfran) May 22, 2023
In a May 9 press release announcing the approved and rejected lists of textbooks, Manny Diaz Jr., Florida education commissioner said, “to uphold our exceptional standards, we must ensure our students and teachers have the highest quality materials available—materials that focus on historical facts and are free from inaccuracies or ideological rhetoric.”
This level of involvement of governors in curriculum materials, with records requests across state lines, is new, Hirsch said.
“It speaks to the politicization of curriculum,” beyond the politics involved in state departments of education’s adoption processes.
It also speaks to the importance of transparency in the adoption processes for educators and the public at large for informed decisions when purchasing materials, he added.
Publishers are currently still able to appeal rejections of their textbooks in Florida and make revisions as needed. And school districts can already begin to purchase materials from the approved list.
The next time the state will adopt social studies textbooks will be in 2027-28.
The next subject up for an adoption cycle is science, for which specifications also prohibit the “unsolicited theories” listed for social studies.
Science textbook publishers are also asked to make sure their materials align with state statutes that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”