Curriculum

Florida’s Math Textbook Brouhaha: Your Questions Answered

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 20, 2022 | Updated: April 21, 2022 9 min read
Conceptual Illustration of a chalkboard with math equations, where many are blacked out and unreadable
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Update: After this story originally ran, the Florida education department issued several screenshots of “problematic examples” in the textbooks. “These examples do not represent an exhaustive list of input” received by the agency, it said. We have updated the story accordingly.

In an unusual move, the Florida education department has rejected several math textbooks and other instructional materials for purportedly including principles of social-emotional learning, aspects of the earlier Common Core State Standards, or the tenets of “critical race theory.” But state officials have yet to specify what precisely they found lacking in the books.

Here’s what we know so far about this decision and what it could mean for districts at large.

Why now? Is there historical context for this decision?

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state has become notably more heavy-handed on what students should learn.

In 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order to do away with the Common Core State Standards, the shared reading and math expectations used in dozens of states, and to replace them with new state-written expectations. That same year, he signed a bill requiring an overhaul of the state’s middle school civics course.

The civics-course revisions, unveiled in 2021, were significant and often prescriptive, requiring students to “explain the advantages of a federal system of government over other systems,” for example. Also that year, Florida joined 14 other states in passing a regulation restricting how race and racism are taught in schools.

The recent math situation could be a sign of things to come. In 2023, the state will conduct an adoption process for social studies, a field that has been thrown into disarray by the debates about critical race theory and whether issues around race should be taught in the classroom.

(Critical race theory is an academic concept that investigates how racism can be embedded in policy. It is not a curriculum, but politicians, parents, and pundits have said its tenets can be woven into lessons.)

Wait, wait: What is textbook adoption, anyway?

Not all states conduct a state-level adoption, but Florida is one of about two dozen that still do. (That’s according to the last analysis, which dates from 2013.)

The adoption process generally consists of reviewers looking at the usability of the materials and gauging their “alignment” with the state content standards—broader lists of expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.

To an extent, the process is always subjective; what one person considers “aligned,” another may not.

What states do with this information differs. A few decades ago, more states restricted districts’ purchases made with state funds to materials the state had stamped with its seal of approval. But in the past few years, states have gradually devolved more responsibility to local districts.

Louisiana, for example, now puts materials into three tiers and has created incentives for districts to select from the top tier. But it doesn’t require that they do so.

Current Florida law, in general, specifies that districts must use half of the state funds allocated to them for curriculum purchases for state-adopted materials. They can go off-list for the other half.

In practice, districts don’t always have the capacity to run their own analyses of alignments, so the state-level reviews are still quite influential.

What rationale has the Florida education department given for rejecting so many math books this year?

So far, not much of one.

When putting out its bid specifications last year, the state included “special considerations” for publishers. It specified that their materials must not include vestiges of the common core, social-emotional learning principles or culturally responsive teaching.

It says the rejected materials failed to meet those special considerations, going so far as to cast the rejected materials as “indoctrination.”

But the agency has steadfastly refused to provide examples of what it objected to. It’s not even clear whether the problem the state had with these materials had mainly to do with common core, SEL, or critical race theory. Education Week, alongside other news outlets, has pressed for more detail.

DeSantis later said in a press conference that the sample materials from the publishers are “proprietary.” Yet other states that conduct large-scale adoption processes have given out details of what they felt was lacking in publishers’ submissions—even when they haven’t made the actual materials public.

California, for example, puts out detailed documents that list down to the page number errors or pieces of lessons that reviewers felt did not align to its curriculum specifications. (See, for example, these reports from that state’s 2014 math adoption.)

Louisiana’s review process also releases review sheets that detail what reviewers felt were strong or lacking in each textbook.

The Florida education department did not respond to a query about why it has refused to release reviewers’ notes or scoring sheets. It is not even clear who the reviewers were—the state uses only three for each set of materials, according to the state’s adoption rules. (District officials and teachers only provide feedback on those materials that the state reviewers approve.)

At least two publishers whose elementary materials were rejected, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Savvas Learning Company, told Education Week that they hadn’t been given a full accounting of why their submissions had been rejected. A McGraw-Hill spokesperson also said the company was seeking “detailed feedback from the department.”

The New York Times reported that some samples from one publisher included the tenets of social-emotional learning—but it’s not clear if those were included in what that publisher submitted for the Florida bid. Curriculum companies often tailor their core series to meet states’ particular specifications.

Florida allows publishers to appeal and make changes to their materials, so this initial rejection is probably not the end of the story, either.

UPDATE: In response to mass inquiries about the textbook rejections, Florida officials released four examples from the materials it deemed problematic. One of them explicitly refers to social-emotional learning, which the agency said it did not want to see in materials. One of them says only that students should “build proficiency with social awareness as they practice empathizing with classmates,” a prompt that apparently also violated the state’s prohibitions on SEL content.

The other two screenshots deal with a mathematics example that draws on data from the Implicit Association Test —a social-science tool that purportedly measures subjects’ implicit bias. Students are apparently to use math knowledge to add polynomial equations and analyze the underlying mathematical models in this test—though the lesson goal is not entirely clear because the lesson prompt is truncated in the picture. In introducing this activity, the textbook says: “What? Me? Racist? More than 2 million people have tested their racial prejudice using an online version of the Implicit Association Test.”

The department has not specifically said what is objectionable in this lesson. While it mentions racism, what’s posted does not appear to do any of the things in the state’s new law about critical race theory, such as promote the ideas that “an individual should feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex,” that people are inherently racist or sexist because of their race or sex, or that “racial colorblindness” is a bad thing.

But were these rejected materials otherwise good?

Many of the rejected books, especially those at the elementary level, got above a 4 on a 5-point scale for alignment, so they were otherwise decent, according to summary documents released by the agency.

Some secondary books that did not have “prohibited content” got lower alignment scores and were apparently rejected for that reason.

Does Florida’s decision mean districts won’t be able to purchase the other math materials?

Probably not. Districts likely will still have some flexibility to select other materials.

Though districts must use half of the state funds allocated to them for curriculum purchases for state-adopted materials, they can spend the other half on non-state-approved materials after conducting their own district-level review process. Those materials must still align to the state’s content standards and other rules, however.

This appears to mean districts could still choose math materials that include some SEL components. It’s harder to say about race-related issues, given that critical race theory has evolved into a subjective term and the state education department hasn’t been clear about what, specifically, it considers CRT.

But there are still some unclear points here. Quite a few districts had already purchased materials before the review was complete—procurement timelines aren’t on the same schedule as these reviews—and now it’s not clear what will happen. That’s the case in Pinellas and Orange counties, the Associated Press reported, and in Collier County, Fla., which adopted some materials now excluded from the state list, at its March 29 board meeting.

Collier County “is waiting for additional information from the [Florida education department] regarding instructional materials that have been added to the state’s adoption list, as a result of publisher appeals and revisions,” it said in a statement.

While districts have more flexibilities than they did a few decades ago, Florida has also given parents and laypeople more tools to challenge parts of any curriculum. A 2017 law, for example, allows them to contest materials that aren’t “accurate, objective, or balanced” via quasi-judicial hearings.

How could critical race theory be integrated into a math course, anyway?

The CRT debate has mostly impacted social studies classes—U.S. History, civics, current events—as well as literature classes.

So how did math get thrown into this? It’s not entirely clear.

For a long time, the math field has been cleaved into different pedagogical camps—educators who favor a traditional, procedural-and-algorithmic approach, and those who favor more application, problem-solving, and exploratory teaching. Increasingly, both sides have claimed the mantle of social justice—that their approach is what will help close large opportunity gaps in math scores between low-income and wealthier students, and Black students and white students.

(This is a subtext in what’s currently a searing debate over a revision to California’s math framework.)

There has also been some interest in K-12 in ethnomathematics—the idea that the discipline has some non-Western roots. (Algebra is derived from the work of classical Islamic scholars, for example, though that is not widely known nor taught to K-12 students.)

As part of this approach, some scholars have noted how math or math applications have historically been used to deny opportunities to people (via the three-fifths clause of the United States Constitution, for example, IQ tests, and gerrymandering.)

Separate from that debate, math can be a powerful tool for making sense of civic questions and understanding the world, as Education Week has reported.

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