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Florida’s focus on math textbooks may be nothing compared to what’s next

Upcoming reviews of social studies and science books have the potential to get heated.
Science textbooks will be up for adoption in Florida in two years, in time to be an issue in the 2024 election. And the process has already started to select new social studies texts in 2023. Experts say both subject areas could be far more contentious than this year's debate over math textbooks.
Science textbooks will be up for adoption in Florida in two years, in time to be an issue in the 2024 election. And the process has already started to select new social studies texts in 2023. Experts say both subject areas could be far more contentious than this year's debate over math textbooks. [ AP (2012) ]
Published May 20|Updated May 20

Florida’s recent battle over math textbooks got retired Pasco County history teacher Beverly Ledbetter thinking.

If state officials rejected dozens of books over word problems because they touched on social issues, Ledbetter wondered, what might happen when social studies materials come up for review a few months down the road.

“There’s a lot of concern out there,” Ledbetter said, relating that she’s heard from parents wanting to know how items such as civil rights might be approached. “It’s really going to be interesting with Moms for Liberty and other groups looking at the new social studies books.”

She said she and some retired colleagues are looking for ways to get involved with the review process, too.

“We just want to make sure things are fair and balanced,” said Ledbetter, now a faculty member at Saint Leo University and secretary of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida.

She is far from alone in seeing Florida’s math book dispute as the start of a new chapter in the state’s curriculum debate, focusing on textbooks.

The upcoming adoption of social studies textbooks is going to be a “big one,” said Sarasota School Board member Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which focuses on parental rights. She said she’s already called it to the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration, which again has told publishers to keep items like “critical race theory” and “social justice” out of the equation.

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle, meanwhile, set his vision further down the line to looming 2024 science textbook adoptions. A veteran of the state’s 2007-08 science standards revision committee, Cottle said it seems sensible to start recruiting now for a cadre of reviewers with a dedication to accuracy in science, knowing contentious issues such as climate change could come under fire.

Related: North Florida fights evolution standard

“With math, it’s relatively hard to politicize,” said Morgan Polikoff, a University of Southern California education associate professor who specializes in K-12 policy issues. “With science and social studies it will be a nightmare for sure, because there actually are real differences of opinion.”

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. [ Thomas B. Fordham Institute ]

Chester E. Finn Jr., counselor to the education secretary in the Reagan administration, noted that Florida has taken textbook reviews to a different space than other states where fights over content have occurred.

Fewer states adopt textbooks at the state level than those that leave the decisions to local schools and districts. A handful of prohibit state-level prescription of specific books.

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“It’s no longer just fussy members of the state board of education and their advisers,” said Finn, who co-wrote ”The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption” in 2004. “It’s now opened the door to everyone with enthusiasm or a hang-up to come and be part of the review process.”

Some of Florida’s math reviewers did not meet the minimum state criteria for expert reviewers, in some instances getting approved within a day of applying for the position. Lawmakers also took steps this spring to give all Floridians more entry points for challenging the materials included in school classrooms and libraries.

People intent on promoting their causes are finding a way insert themselves into the textbook review, he said. And there’s possibly no end in sight if it continues this way.

“Right now, we’re obsessed with sex and race,” Finn said. “It could extend to so many other things. I don’t think it’s a healthy thing.”

Susan Neuman, an assistant education secretary in the George W. Bush administration, agreed that placing a political lens on individual questions within a textbook, while not completely new, appears to be gaining momentum with Florida at the extreme.

“If we go that route we’re going to censor everything, aren’t we? We’re going to see everything as a political event,” said Neuman, who teaches about literacy and curriculum at New York University. “We’ll drive ourselves crazy and we’ll forget about the major point: Are these textbooks designed to help children learn?”

Neuman and Finn praised Florida’s academic standards as setting a solid groundwork for learning important material. They suggested that state leaders should continue the practice of refining those standards, putting out a test to see if the students are making progress, and holding the schools accountable for the results.

That’s an idea that echoes the state’s position from 2014, when conservative lawmakers pushed to give school districts more room to pick their own materials and not be bound to what some viewed as an archaic state selection process. Currently, Florida law permits school districts to use up to half of their instructional materials budget on items that aren’t on a state-approved list.

Related: Bill aims to end state control of textbook selection

“The state in general should leave this to local control,” Finn said, observing that Florida’s heavy-handed approach to materials differs vastly from its open, flexible policies on school choice. “It’s like these two things belong on different planets.”

Paul Cottle
Paul Cottle [ Courtesy of Bill Lax ]

If Florida continues down its current path, FSU professor Cottle said, it needs to be transparent about how decisions are made. He referred to the questions raised about the math books after the state declared several had unacceptable references to things such as “critical race theory.” The Department of Education offered four examples without citations, and then began moving titles from the rejected to the approved list without explanation.

Related: Florida rejected dozens of math textbooks. But only 3 reviewers found CRT violations.

“The math textbook process has been mysterious,” Cottle said, comparing it unfavorably to the heated but public arguments Floridians had over evolution in the science standards more than a decade ago. “It’s OK to have these conversations, but if you have them, it should be in public.”

He disagreed with the notion that people who aren’t considered expert be left out of the reviews. There can’t be a perception that ideas are being ignored, he said, or that someone is trying to “ram ungodly things down children’s throats.”

Knowing there will be people who will push back against “anything that would disturb the argument that the earth is 10,000 years old,” Cottle said, the process must include reviewers who “want to defend the standards.”

Bridget Ziegler is a member of the Sarasota County School Board and a co-founder of Moms for Liberty.
Bridget Ziegler is a member of the Sarasota County School Board and a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. [ Facebook ]

Ziegler, the Moms for Liberty co-founder, did not disagree that the standards must be the focus. Floridians with a conservative viewpoint want excellence in the school materials, she said.

But the vetting of textbooks should keep in mind that when controversial topics come up, they’re not always directly connected to the subject matter, Ziegler said. Diverse views should be included from all sides, she said, but also in a balanced way that does not support a specific narrative.

“I would hope we all can agree we want to ensure all of the instructional material and content has merit and allows our students to learn and think critically and excel,” she said. “An onus needs to be put on publishers to understand they may not be supported or approved if there is content that is alluding to a political agenda that is not relevant to the subject.”

Pasco educator Ledbetter also worries about having textbooks lead students to a foregone conclusion, though from a different angle than Ziegler’s. History is filled with hard truths, she said, and those shouldn’t be removed in order to promote a sanitized version.

“Curriculum shift is going to be a target,” Ledbetter said. “We want to see what exactly they’re teaching.”

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