History Scholars Criticize Social Studies Textbooks

Scholars recruited by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund are criticizing social studies textbooks under state consideration, saying the books offer distorted views on history and current events. 

The historians said at a Wednesday press conference that the textbooks, which the State Board of Education will consider approving in November, exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on America’s founding, portray Islam negatively, skim over gay and lesbian history and downplay violence in the spread of Christianity. The Texas Freedom Network is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as a watchdog of the religious right. The network says its education fund conducts research while supporting religious freedom.

“The board of education and these texts had the opportunity to empower high school students with knowledge — instead they chose to treat students as pawns in our cultural war,” said Emile Lester, an associate professor in political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “Too often, these texts exaggerate or even invent history."

The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund paid ten scholars, seven of whom are doctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin, more than $20,000 to review the content in 43 textbooks. In a report released Wednesday, the scholars said that Texas' curriculum standards made it difficult for publishing companies to write textbooks that comply while remaining historically accurate and free of political bias.

State Board of Education member David Bradley of Beaumont, a Republican who has been on the board for 18 years, said the Texas Freedom Network complains to the board nearly every year and its concerns will likely fall on deaf ears this year. 

 

"Being that the Texas Freedom Network actively recruits liberal opponents to run against the board, I don’t think they are going to make much headway with the board’s majority," Bradley said. "If Texas Freedom Network is unhappy with [the textbooks], then I am probably going to feel pretty good about them."

The State Board of Education has been a source of conflict for many years. At times, it has turned into a battleground over changes to curriculum standards and textbooks. In 2010, the state’s conservative-leaning board approved new social studies curriculum standards that were criticized for being political and at times inaccurate. At the time, proponents of the new standards said they were fixing a liberal bias in education.

The new Texas Freedom Network report found issues with textbooks by McGraw-Hill School Education, Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and others.

Brian Belardi, a spokesman for McGraw-Hill School Education, says the points in the report stem from McGraw-Hill aligning its products with Texas education standards.

“As Texas Freedom Network has expressed views on education that run contrary to these standards, it is understandable that these critiques extend to our programs,” Belardi said in an emailed statement. “We always welcome thoughtful feedback, and we will take the comments offered in this report under consideration.”

Pearson spokesman Brandon Pinette said Pearson will review the report and criticisms as well.

"Pearson works diligently to ensure its instructional materials are compliant with Texas standards,” Pinette said in an emailed statement. “We will review the TFN report and listen to all interested stakeholders as we enter the public hearing process."

The report is critical of two cartoons in a Pearson government textbook featuring space aliens vocalizing gratitude for affirmative action. According to the report, Pearson does not offer an opposing perspective and the textbook says that “it seems clear that the days of affirmative action programs are drawing to a close.”

 

“The text makes an inaccurate and unbalanced attempt to convince students that affirmative action programs are outdated on the basis of lopsided factual information,” the report said.

Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said the textbooks did a good job in certain areas despite what the network called “flawed standards.”

“The list of problems with the textbooks is surprisingly short given the standards they were required to work with,” Miller said. “The low bar set by the State Board of Education when they adopted the standards isn’t good enough for our kids. One textbook with an error in it is one too many for the schoolchildren of Texas.”

Miller said her organization is asking the publishers to correct the mistakes scholars said they found in the textbooks. She said two of the report's authors will speak at the State Board of Education's first public hearing on the textbooks next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, said he hasn't heard any complaints from his constituents or from experts he appointed to review the textbooks.

"I think we're going to spend a lot of time talking about the things we have no jurisdiction over," Ratliff said. "Hopefully, the circus outside the board room will be bigger than the circus inside the board room."

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