Floridians are suddenly curious about math textbooks. Here’s why.

Analysis | The state vets textbooks every year, but this year’s review is anything but routine.
Textbooks have become a big topic in Florida in recent days after state officials announced April 15 that they rejected more than 50 titles, including many that contained "prohibited topics." In this photo, a student searches for textbooks at Nature Coast Technical High.
Textbooks have become a big topic in Florida in recent days after state officials announced April 15 that they rejected more than 50 titles, including many that contained "prohibited topics." In this photo, a student searches for textbooks at Nature Coast Technical High. [ Times (2011) ]
Published April 23, 2022

The email announcing the Florida Department of Education’s final list of approved math textbooks landed just after 2 p.m. on Good Friday, heading into the Easter holiday weekend.

One South Florida school board member asked why the department would make such a big deal about having vetted materials against state standards and then informing districts. As one Central Florida curriculum director pointed out, textbook reviews happen every year on rotating subjects. This year it was math. Social studies is next year.

School boards across the state already were in the middle of adopting new math books and, according to observers, this routine process hadn’t drawn any attention. An Orange County parent activist noted that no one spoke up in March when that School Board approved its math books — many of which are not on the state list of adopted materials — but some people addressed the board on the same day about sex education concerns.

The interest level rose largely because of how the department framed the message. “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students,” read the headline on its news release, which included no examples of the offending material.

The department asserted that the booksincluded material either from the old Common Core state standards, which had been replaced, or “impermissible” content. It referred to “prohibited topics” like social-emotional learning or critical race theory, which the state has aimed to excise from the public schools.

According to a list released later, 16 books were rejected for failings regarding standards and 26 because of unwanted topics.

Publishers, learning for the first time their materials had been turned down, jumped to defend their works. A spokesperson for Savvas Learning said the company developed books specifically to meet Florida’s standards.

An executive for Big Ideas Learning sent a letter to the Pasco County school district, which was considering some of its rejected titles, asserting that the books contained no Common Core or critical race theory. The company stated it found three minor references to social-emotional learning, and said those would be removed.

“We hope that this letter will suffice to ensure confidence in your selection of (Big Ideas Learning) while we go through the appeals process,” executive vice president Robert Onsi wrote.

The state points out that publishers may appeal the decision, and may include revisions of their materials. And, while some have referred to the books as “banned,” they’re not prohibited, as DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw tweeted.

In fact, several school district officials noted, Florida law makes clear that districts need not follow the state’s adopted materials list for up to half their book and materials purchases.

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But such a big buy might run districts up against that 50 percent rule, so most have taken steps to select titles that align with the state list. The Pinellas County school district, for example, expects to spend about $10 million on new math books, and its state instructional materials allocation is about $6 million.

That’s why the state’s announcement has worried district officials. They started the selection process months ago, using a state list of books up for review that had been updated in September. Now they’re finalizing selections and preparing for training, just as the state declared several titles unacceptable for reasons that remained unclear.

The Department of Education on Thursday released four screenshots of questions it said parents had criticized for their mention of racial bias or social-emotional learning objectives. More than one curriculum expert said the sample, which was not explained or clearly attached to any of the rejected books, did little to clarify the state’s rationale.

Related: Florida Department of Education offers examples of math book concerns

If the allegations had centered on the idea that some titles contain old standards with a new label, some educators said they would have had no problems believing it. That’s what happened the last time Florida switched math books, they said. It led then to materials that didn’t align with grade-level expectations, causing confusion for students and teachers alike.

Several educators did not doubt that some of the books contain elements of social-emotional learning. It’s a strategy that aims to help students manage their emotions and develop empathy, among other traits. In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, the state promoted it as a way to keep students safe.

What’s more, the educators said, the new state standards include a section on mathematical thinking and reasoning that encourages qualities like a positive mindset and perseverance — regardless of the state memo calling social-emotional learning an “unsolicited strategy.”

Most of the attention focused on the claim that many books attempted to indoctrinate through critical race theory, a term that some have used broadly to encompass lessons and discussions about race.

Lacking clear examples from the state, they speculated. Did Florida education officials object to statistical questions about racial inequities, as was suggested by the examples they released Thursday? Or was it some other infraction, like a word problem that referred to Juan instead of John?

A few critics joked that perhaps the state wanted to ban the use of math symbols like brackets because they refer to inclusion. At least one person noticed that the only publisher approved for K-5 books has a diversity statement on its website that includes a full-throated support of Black Lives Matter — something that has prompted complaints about many companies that districts do business with.

Pushaw said the fact that the department approved the publisher’s books anyway demonstrates the state’s commitment to excellence in the classroom.

“The objective is to ensure that all adopted classroom materials and texts align to Florida standards,” she stated via email. “A diversity statement on the publisher’s website is not intended to be used as instructional material.”

At least one DeSantis fan suggested that Florida should recognize the governor’s method by now: He generates attention by making bold statements, withholds information while his opponents get worked up, and then drops the details when he knows everyone is watching.

Everyone is watching now.