Texas Textbook Tussle Could Have National Impact

Guests

Nathan Bernier, reporter, KUT
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, communications associate, Hatcher Group

The Texas Board of Education approved social studies curriculum guidelines that incorporate socially conservative ideas into American history. The new guidelines could ultimately reshape history and economics textbooks for Texas and, potentially, much of the nation.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Last Friday, the Texas Board of Education voted to approve new social studies curriculum guidelines, and, in the process, may have rewritten the history textbooks for much of the nation.

Depending on who you listen to, they will soon reflect decidedly conservative views on American history or correct for the liberal biases of the past. But just who writes textbooks? Who ultimately decides what children learn?

If you teach history, who writes the textbooks you use? How important are they? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the anatomy of the CIA's worst day in more than 25 years, Bob Baer on the attack at Khost. But first, textbooks in Texas and nationwide. We begin in Texas with Nathan Bernier, excuse me Bernier. He joins us from member station KUT in Austin, where he's covered the curriculum controversy, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

NATHAN BERNIER: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And so what did the Board of Education actually decide to do?

BERNIER: Well, what happened this month was yet another in a string of procedural votes to advance the curriculum guidelines forward. So the final adoption is not scheduled to occur until May, and that is when, you know, every 10 years, the state Board of Education is charged with revising or bringing up to date or changing in whatever way these elected officials see fit the curriculum standards, and these are standards that are used to teach the, you know, almost five million public school students in Texas.

Of course, social studies encompasses a broad range of topics, but the thing that has attracted the most attention is, you know, what do we teach children about U.S. history.

CONAN: And we should be clear: These are not, per se, textbook guidelines.

BERNIER: Well, it's kind of a strange process. Essentially, the state Board of Education adopts a curriculum standard, and it's not a curriculum, but it's the guidelines around which the curriculum is developed. Then once they adopt that - and they're going to do their final vote in May - then they give that to the textbook publishers, and the textbook publishers develop, you know, proposals for textbooks, and then they'll come back. The textbook publishers will return with their proposals, and the state Board of Education will say yeah, we like that one but not that one.

And you know, there's a lot of money involved here. The state Board of Education is responsible for managing an endowment worth more than $20 billion. It's called the Permanent School Fund, and money from that endowment is used to buy textbooks, and because Texas is the only state in the country that has uniform adoption standards from K through 12 in other words, it's the only state in the country where a central body decides what textbooks school districts can get for free there's high stakes here. It's not a district-by-district kind of thing.

CONAN: So it covers the entire state of Texas, and indeed, other states may adopt the same or very similar standards.

BERNIER: They may do as they see fit, really, and one of the I guess one of the reasons why this has attracted a lot of national attention, Neal, is because there's some there's this meme, if you might call it, that whatever happens in Texas, so goes the nation.

And it's I think that, you know, that's a matter of some dispute. It was certainly the case 15 years ago, but when you talk to textbook publishers today, at least the industry folks will tell you that textbook publishing is so modular, and technology has evolved in such a way that really that's not what's happening anymore.

That said, there are still school districts in many states that do textbook adoptions on a, you know, school-district-by-school-district basis, and it's, you know, it's one can easily imagine a scenario whereby a school district says okay, we want a history book, and they go to the publisher and request one, and they wind up with, you know, whatever they happened to manufacture the most of that year, which could very likely be what they made for Texas.

CONAN: And some of these guidelines, how specific are they? I mean, what are some of the contentious issues here?

BERNIER: Well, there's a number of contentious issues. I think what really the heart of this dispute is: What is the narrative of American history? Who's involved? Who are the key players?

And the state Board of Education is, in Texas, is currently its 15 members. They're all elected. They're from different districts across the country, and seven of those 15 members are what you would call social conservatives.

They represent a group that often votes together on controversial issues, and so they have this group has collectively, you might say, their own version of U.S. history that is very much Christian-centered. Many of these people see America as a nation that was born from Christian Biblical principles that the founding documents find their origins in Biblical Scripture.

And then so there's that group on the state board, and running counter to those people are a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats. And those people have a number of different views but generally oppose this teaching of Christian, or of America's history as being, you know, so heavily influenced by Christianity.

And I think one thing that's really important to highlight about this, Neal, as, you know, the coverage just sort of reaches this fervor, is that while the state Board of Education is scheduled to adopt new curriculum guidelines in May for social studies standards, the actual textbooks themselves won't be adopted for another year or two.

So and in between that time, we just had a few primaries here, and those primaries have already changed the makeup of the state Board of Education. In other words, there are people who won their primaries, will run unopposed in November.

The most you know, the greatest example of this is Don McLeroy, who was the former chairman of the state Board of Education. He's still on the state board, and he's kind of like the poster boy for these social conservatives because he's not afraid to go out there and say yes, I'm a Christian fundamentalist, and I believe that we need to start teaching our children about the Biblical origins of America. He was defeated in his primary by a moderate Republican by the name of Tom Ratliff, who's the former son of a lieutenant governor here, Bob Ratliff. So already, the numbers of the bloc, the social conservative bloc on the state Board of Education, have been depleted by one, which is significant.

There is another Democrat who, for some reason, would swing with the social conservatives and occasionally vote with them to help them get their eight votes, and he is not running for re-election, and he's in San Antonio. It's presumed that there would be another Democrat elected in that district who may be less amenable to social conservative interests.

So while the state board is adopting these standards and while the social conservatives may be able to put through some controversial amendments to the guidelines, the you know, textbook publishers are going to look at the makeup of the state board. They want to propose textbooks that are going to be adopted and purchased, and so they're going to take into account the sort of political makeup of the state Board of Education when they do that in a year or two.

CONAN: So in other words, even if the school board voted to they want a textbook that reflects that the U.S. was established as a Christian nation, that may or may not be what happens in a couple of years.

BERNIER: Exactly. And there are some other, you know, some other controversial topics, as well. For example, how many Hispanics do should be included.

You know, one of the members who was appointed to the advisory panel, David Barton, who was named by Time magazine a few years ago as one of the most influential fundamental Christians in America, had suggested, along with another fundamental Christian who was on this advisory panel, that Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, both of whom are important civil rights figures, be eliminated from the standards.

That created such an amazingly loud uproar that, you know, even the most socially conservative members of the state Board of Education said, look, there's no way we're going to remove these people from the standards. But it also incited this movement, you might say, among people of, you know, Hispanic-American descent that - look, the standards as they are don't reflect this history. It's a very whitewashed history, they would say, of Texas and American culture and, you know, of the historical events that led to the creation of this state and this country, and so there, you know, there's some give and take there.

The final product, we're not really going to know what happens until May. And if I could just say one more...

CONAN: Quickly, if you will.

BERNIER: One more caveat here is that things can be completely changed at the last minute with this body. It's very unusual what happens. I mean, we saw with the science standards, you know, there was this document that had been worked on for months. Members of the TEA had been involved, the Texas Education Agency. People with Ph.D.s had been involved in developing these standards. And then at the last second, there was this mysterious document that was shoved underneath the hotel doors of some of the board members, and this document, at the very last minute wound up large portions of it wound up making its way into the guidelines.

So really, it's too soon to say what's going to happen when you know, until we have a final vote in May.

CONAN: We're speaking with Nathan Bernier, a reporter at member station KUT in Austin, Texas, about the decisions by the Texas Board of Education, which may or may not end up in their textbooks in a couple of years' time. But we want to find out: Who writes the textbooks that the history teachers use around the country? How important are they? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Lynn(ph) is with us from Concord in Michigan.

LYNN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

LYNN: 1993 to '96, I was a social studies department chair for an entire district, and that year, we had to purchase textbooks. There were three companies that were publishing textbooks for social studies, and they're all in Texas. And I was thoroughly disgusted with the ultraconservative bent of each one of those.

CONAN: Ultraconservative how?

LYNN: Well, they gave the ultraconservative point of view of American history.

CONAN: A quick for-instance.

LYNN: For example, the nation was founded on Christianity, which it was not. It was originally a trading venture. And there were several other that - she said just to mention one, so I'll mention that.

CONAN: Okay, all right.

LYNN: It was a religious point of view.

CONAN: And were you eventually forced to decide among those three books?

LYNN: Yes, we had to because it was my turn to purchase social studies books for the entire school district. And the following year, it was mathematics and so on.

CONAN: I see. Yeah, sure, subject by subject, year by year.

LYNN: Yes. So I had no choice. All three were written in Texas according to the Texas school board.

CONAN: All right, Lynn. Lynn, thanks very much for the call, appreciate the description of the influence.

LYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Nathan Bernier, thank you so much for your time today, and we'll be checking back in as this process meanders along.

BERNIER: Oh, it was my pleasure, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Nathan Bernier, a reporter at member station KUT in Austin, Texas. He covers the, among other things, the education controversy there.

We're talking about the curriculum controversy. Up next: Who writes your history books? Who decides what your kids learn in school? If you teach history, who writes the textbooks you use? How important are they? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The latest controversy over curricula and textbooks is generated in Texas, but we've seen this issue before, in California, Kansas and other states.

So who decides on the text in textbooks, and how does the business of selling books to schools work? If you teach history, who writes the textbooks you use? How important are they? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo covered curriculum and standards for Education Week for the past 12 years and joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. KATHLEEN KENNEDY MANZO (Communications Associate, Hatcher Group): I'm glad to be here, thank you.

CONAN: So who ultimately decides what's going to be in these course books?

Ms. MANZO: Well, a variety of people. Textbooks have been considered historically as the de facto curriculum and official knowledge, and there's been a constant battle over who gets to define that.

Today, it has evolved into a system of committees, especially in the adoption states that decide which textbooks can be used in their schools.

CONAN: Adoption states? So there are states that are more important than others, including Texas?

Ms. MANZO: There are about 21 or 22 states that have an adoption process, meaning that the state has some way of vetting textbooks, and then districts can only use state money to buy those textbooks. If they want to use other textbooks, they have to use their own money.

CONAN: And they would rather use the state's money than their own.

Ms. MANZO: Right, especially these days.

CONAN: If at all possible, yes, absolutely. So the most important markets, we've already read, were Texas and California.

Ms. MANZO: Right. They're the largest adoption states because of the sheer volume and the amount of money. New York and Florida are also considered big adoption states.

So historically, what has been selected in those states influences what's available to the rest of the country. That's changed a bit recently, but traditionally, that's been the case.

CONAN: But you'd think with digital processing, it would be possible for a textbook publisher to tailor a textbook for anybody.

Ms. MANZO: There's a big push for customization according to what the particular client wants. However, it's a very lengthy development process. So it would be hard to really cater to everybody.

CONAN: And who writes these books?

Ms. MANZO: You know, I think it depends on the publisher, large or small, and also on the subject, but oftentimes it's a committee of content people: editors, sometimes there's an author or list of authors that might provide some editorial guidance. They don't generally write the whole textbook.

CONAN: So but there's generally not a whole list of names.

Ms. MANZO: No.

CONAN: So these can be anonymous. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Maggie's(ph) calling us from San Antonio.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi there. I'm calling, I'm one of those people that used to write those textbooks. In the late '90s, early 2000s, I worked for McGraw-Hill in Chicago on their 12th-grade literature textbook, teacher's edition. And one of the things that we had to do was directly cater to the Texas market.

And we were given a list of something called TEAKS, which were basically Texas values.

Ms. MANZO: The state standards.

MAGGIE: I now live in San Antonio, so...

CONAN: Ah, you shall reap what you have sown.

MAGGIE: Exactly. But we had to write the teacher's edition, like instructions to teachers on how to handle literature and convey these values to the class when working with literature, and also we had to flag such things as disobedience, disrespect for authority and then some you would expect like smoking, gambling, et cetera, in the literature itself.

CONAN: So I'm just picking I know nothing about this but picking an example out of a hat, you might have some instructions regarding Huckleberry Finn, for example.

MAGGIE: Absolutely, and sometimes, you know, we editors would talk about this. We felt like we were being asked to expurgate texts that are, you know, classic literature with complex moral questions and themes. But yes, we were absolutely charged with finding a certain number of TEAKS per page, in other words, places where the - use both the literature and the classroom activities and teachers' instruction met these Texas guidelines.

CONAN: And even though you were in Chicago, writing for a big national publisher, McGraw-Hill, the books you were engaged in were designed to the Texas standards?

MAGGIE: Yes, they were Texas was our biggest adoption market. So it was very much we were very conscious of the business side of things, even as editors, and many of us I now have a doctorate in literature many of us were former teachers or people with Ph.D.s, you know, who tended to have a more liberal slant toward the literature, toward the values. However, we were also understanding that textbook writing was a business, and we were there to help cater to that Texas market to get those big adoptions.

CONAN: But that same book written to the Texas standards would be what was offered to, well, Michigan and Illinois and New York.

MAGGIE: Yes, I believe so. I do think, though, and this is 10 years ago and a couple kids ago, so my memory isn't what it used to be, but I do believe that we had a couple of versions of textbooks. And some of them, we had changed the teachers' rap. Like, you know, the literature would be the same, but the teachers' rap, the instructions to teachers might be slightly different.

And I know that we did things such as change words that we used in the teachers' rap. We were given a list of words to incorporate, and it was Texas words, like hoagie I guess was one, which I have yet to hear here. But rather than, you know, I guess the more-East-Coast liberal grinder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAGGIE: So it was everything from big-scale moral stuff to small-scale, you know...

CONAN: Yeah, I'm not sure there's a politics of submarine sandwiches, but different regionalisms.

MAGGIE: Exactly, but that was it was we were really aware of Texas in our Chicago office.

CONAN: Maggie, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

MAGGIE: Thank you, my pleasure.

Ms. MANZO: Thanks. Each of the big adoption states has very lengthy and onerous requirements for what needs to be in the textbooks. So California, Texas and New York would demand that the textbooks, for example, include most of the standards that teachers have to teach to, and then they also have list of things that, about gender balancing and racial balancing and covering certain topics.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kathleen(ph), Kathleen with us from Lexington, Massachusetts.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KATHLEEN: Well, I'm a former history teacher, and I think there's just a fundamental problem relying on textbooks in a history class. Even the best textbook, if you get somebody to agree on what the best textbook is, the problem is the kids believe that anything written is the truth, capital-T truth. And one of my first lessons was I would hold up the textbook, and I would tell the kids: God did not write this. This is not this is not this does not contain everything that is true.

And I would have the kids, you know, read a first section of it, and we would pick out things that were opinions so that they could see that this is, you know, this was written by a group of people who have a certain agenda, who have certain beliefs, and that we were going to use it as a tool, but it wasn't going to be the only one.

CONAN: And was the pattern in the schools in which you taught?

KATHLEEN: You know, to be honest, I'm not yes and no. The problem is there are good teachers will do that. A good history teacher uses a textbook as a tool and teaches the kids to be historians, and historians don't use textbooks. They use primary-source documents.

If you want to find out something about the American Revolution, you will get documents written by Paul Revere, John Adams. When you're reading about the Constitution, you're actually looking at the Constitution, not a little excerpt about what it says. But that requires people to go above and beyond, and not everyone does that.

CONAN: And if you got a textbook that, for example, said the United States was established as a Christian nation, would you deconstruct that?

KATHLEEN: Oh absolutely. Yeah, that was in a social studies class, we spent a lot of time deconstructing religion because, you know, there's no religion permeates every culture, and the kids I would do this spiel about how, (unintelligible), we would learn about Islam, and I would say we're not learning to be, you know, to be Muslims. We're learning about Islam. And every time I would start something, kids would just start parroting it back: We know, we know. We're just learning about the religion.

But it is difficult. You really have to go out. It's not those primary-source documents weren't delivered in a neat little package to me. I had to go out and find them and figure out a way to incorporate them into my classes. And again, not everyone will do that.

CONAN: Not everybody will do that. That's interesting. Go ahead, Kathleen.

Ms. MANZO: I was going to say that, you know, people have been trying to get their own truth into textbooks for generations, even centuries. And you know, opposing points of view have often, you know, created a lot of controversy over that.

I mean, in the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson lashed out at textbooks that, you know, treated Northerners as superior. Or Catholics in the 1800s were upset that textbooks reflected a Protestant view. In the 1920s, there were prohibitions in many states against anti-American viewpoints.

CONAN: Hardly a new controversy.

Ms. MANZO: So everybody's truth is different, and everybody's fighting to get it into the textbooks.

KATHLEEN: I just think a great activity I was thinking, if I was a history teacher today, I would go out, and I would find some old textbooks on eBay, and I would bring them in, again at the beginning of the year so they understand that this is not, you know, the truth. And I would, you know, use take a lesson from, you know, see what the textbook from the 1960s wrote about the Civil War or about the American Revolution or Prohibition, anything, and we would compare that to what their textbook today says. And you can be sure there would be differences, and they could see that history is not this - this is definitely what happened. It's more about, this is what we believe happened, this is our interpretation, and that changes over time.

CONAN: Kathleen, thanks very much for the call and for the history lesson. Here's an email from Martha(ph) in Harvard, Massachusetts: I worked at a social studies textbook publishing for more than 20 years as an editor for several major publishing companies. One of my books was challenged because in the section on the rise of agriculture, we did not tell students that Cain was the first farmer. In the last American history book that I worked on for Texas, I was allowed to use the term republic. But every time I use the word democracy or democratic - small D - the publisher changed the term to popular sovereignty. Of course, that was totally inaccurate because that term refers to a specific doctrine of the 1850s. I never found out why, but I suspect it had to do with unwillingness to mention democratic in any favorable context.

So apparently, it can extend to things other than the terminology for submarine sandwiches. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go to Phil(ph), Phil with us from Cincinnati.

PHIL (Caller): Thank you, Neal. I just wanted to bring to light a point that for many centuries, legislatures have been, I guess, legislating what we historians would call revisionism. And one great example of that is after the Civil War there's something called the Lost Cause mythology in the South. And that's where in the post-emancipation world, there was no honor gained by the South fighting for slavery. So what you see is this notion that - and obviously this is an argument in itself, but that states' rights was the cause of the Civil War. And they would literally go through Southern textbooks and rip apart anybody who would claim that slavery had anything to do with that.

And there's a large legacy of that today. But I think your past caller made a great point and I would really summarize it by saying that history is really argument, and this is what historians dwell on. And I was curious if maybe your panelist could comment a little bit on that - on what happened after the Civil War and that controversy.

CONAN: Are you familiar with that, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo?

Ms. MANZO: Maybe not that specifically, but I know that in textbooks, even up until the, you know, middle of the last century, the Civil War was referred to as the War of Northern Aggression in many states. And many of those Southern states took a state textbook adoption approach so that they could have control over what was in the textbooks. So historically, there has been a lot of policy and regulation to make sure that a certain point of view was represented, certain cultural tradition was represented.

CONAN: Phil, thanks very much for the call.

PHIL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Were talking about the most recent controversy over curricula and school textbooks - it happens to be emerging from Texas. Our guest, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, who covered curriculum and standards for Education Week for 12 years - and until very recently. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Joe(ph), Joe calling us from Norfolk.

JOE (Caller): Well, thanks for taking my call. Thank you very much. I think when we have these things pop up, it shows that there is a problem when you politicize education or you politicize anything else in the public realm, whether it be religion, science. You know, anything can be looked at from any point of view. And so when you have public education, I think those who are elected, who are appointed to decide what our children are going to learn have that right until they are replaced by others. And that's the problem with public education. That's why I actually prefer a private education for my children.

CONAN: You prefer private education, and indeed a lot of parents have decided to opt for homeschooling in lieu of even private schools.

JOE: Yes, and this is the problem. You know, I'm not a Christian. I'm a Jew, actually. And I didn't choose private education for my children because of any religious reasons, but I preferred a certain way of looking at different things. And I think when you have public education, you can have one way this five years, another way the next five years, it goes back and forth. And when I went to school, I was - I went to public schools and I was taught that Reconstruction was one of the worst periods in American history. And it was only much later that I learned that it was the end of Reconstruction that was one of the worst periods in American history.

CONAN: Well, it all depends on interpretation, doesn't it?

JOE: Absolutely, yeah.

CONAN: Absolutely. Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: And I suspect, Kathleen, that in this day of the Internet, students being a cantankerous bunch to begin with, they're going to start Googling things pretty quickly.

Ms. MANZO: Yeah. I think that the whole game has changed with the availability, ubiquitous availability of the Internet in schools. Teachers, I think, generally see that textbook is, perhaps, a guideline or an outline, and they pull in a lot of their own resources which they can find fairly easily. And if they don't, I know that students will challenge them because students are forever on a hunt for more information. And if there's something they're interested, they're going to find a different point of view just to, you know, kind of...

CONAN: Just to be contrary.

Ms. MANZO: ...bring a little angst to the classroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: John(ph) is with us from Boone in North Carolina.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I'm a future history teacher. I'm about to graduate in May and...

CONAN: Congratulations.

JOHN: Yes sir? And I just wanted to comment on just the - I guess, there's a lot of untruth in history in high school. I remember in high school, we only learned about maybe two or three Native American groups and not really much about - I guess you could say the genocide of Native Americans in history. And when I got to college, I took a Native Americans history course and learned that there's thousands of Native Americans with such a deep, complex cultures. And it was really interesting to find that in history in high school they really don't go into too much detail and all you really know is Cherokee Indians and maybe the Sioux Indians but not really much about their complexities and their cultures.

CONAN: Well, as you may find when you're teaching history if you're going from, you know, the year zero to the Obama administration, you have to skip over some facts.

JOHN: Absolutely.

Ms. MANZO: I would say though that because of some of these rules and some of these committees and the expressions of interest groups that there is more much diversity in textbooks than, you know, our grandparents or great-grandparents may have experienced. You know, in the last century, early part of the last century, you know, the history textbooks were all about what a great country this was and how we had amiable relationships with the Native Americans and, you know, it was very positive. But today, there's a little bit more of other side represented.

CONAN: John, good luck to you.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, we thank you for your time today.

Ms. MANZO: Thank you very much.

CONAN: She spent 12 years covering curriculum and standards at the newspaper Education Week, now a communications associate with the Hatcher Group. And she was kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A. Coming up, one of the deadliest days in CIA history. Robert Baer deconstructs the suicide attack in Khost and what it tells us about the CIA. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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