Is there bias in Florida's social studies textbooks?
As we've reported, a group calling itself Florida Textbook Action Team has lodged complaints against several social studies textbooks now in use in our public schools.
They say the books are filled with pro-Islam, anti-Judeo-Christian messages.
We talked at length with some local educators, all of whom had a hand in selecting some of the titles for our districts. Each said they had not heard such criticisms before, and each suggested that the complaints might need some more context. But with the state getting ready to review a new set of social studies textbooks, none was surprised that a battle had started to bubble up.
Here are some of the comments we got that didn't make it into our story. Read them, and then let us know what you think.
Eric Johnson, social studies department chairman at Fivay High School in Pasco, pulled a copy of American Vision (one of the questioned history books) off his bookshelf and flipped to page 27, where the group criticized the depiction of Islam's arrival in North Africa.
"It actually doesn't make any statement as to whether it bettered conditions there or made them worse," Johnson said of the book's short description of Islam winning converts. "It is a very accurate statement."
He offered a similar review of another questioned passage a few pages later, and said he found the books strong overall.
Dennis Holt, supervisor of secondary social studies for Hillsborough County schools, could not recall any bias complaints about the books used in his district. He said that when the district's teachers voted to adopt the texts, the results weren't even close.
Hillsborough educators were impressed with not only the content, he said, but also the attention paid to incorporating reading instruction into the subject area -- a critical component of Florida's curriculum focus on reading. He said most complaints about the books he hears deal with their condition, as the district uses textbooks for a longer period of time now than in the past.
Pasco County social studies supervisor Paula Lesko said the calls she gets are inquiries as to whether the schools adequately teach the Constitution or civics, and not about pro-Islam or anti-Judeo-Christian biases. Lesko stressed that the textbooks are simply a piece of instruction bolstered by other teaching tools. And she questioned whether criticizing sentences out of a textbook accomplishes much.
"I find it a bit problematic for anybody to look at a body of text and take one sentence out of context and assign meaning to the words," she said. "It's a whole body of text."
If there's something positive to be taken from the complaints, Lesko said, it's that people are taking an active interest in children's history lessons.
"I hope that those people who have a passion for the instructional materials in Florida schools will fill out the applications to be on the state (selection) committees," she said.
Holt, who teaches about textbook selection for education majors at the University of South Florida, said he would not be surprised to see the culture wars come to Florida during the upcoming social studies adoption. These battles, which lately have gotten hot in Texas, have not often made their way to Florida. But given this round of complaints, and the fact that the state can lead the way in curriculum because of its size, it could happen this year.
"I would be really worried," he said, "if no one cared at all."
Sheri Krass, whose group started the ball rolling, suggested some students - even if it’s a tiny, tiny fraction - are more susceptible to becoming terrorists because pro-Islamic and anti-Christian biases planted seeds that could be exploited later.
“Ninety nine percent of them are going to read (the problem passages) and it’s not going to sink in,” she said. “But then you have the small percentage that just may get into a position where they come across some of these indoctrinating type people.
“And because they’ve already learned these falsehoods, they’re going to be more receptive.”