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Amid growing critical race theory legislation, education experts say textbook content could be next

Education experts say the restrictions on teaching critical race theory may spill over to textbooks as book review commissions worry about violating bans.
Male and female university students reading books in library
Critical race theory bans on classroom instruction have been introduced in several states, but education experts say restrictions could also affect textbook content.Maskot / Getty Images

Kathyrn Garra was horrified to see dozens of angry parents show up to a school board meeting in Naples, Florida, last month to try to stop the Collier County School Board from approving new textbooks.

The parents argued that the books should be ousted because the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, had shared blog posts about racial justice and expressed a commitment to Black Lives Matter on its website, actions they said amounted to endorsing the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

“Critical race theory is not being taught in our schools, it’s just not," said Garra, 48, the mother of an incoming high school junior. "But here you have people complaining about something they know nothing about and now going after textbooks.”

Critical race theory, or the academic study of racism's impact, has become a flashpoint in U.S. schools and a point of attack for conservative activists. At least nine states have enacted bans on teaching topics related to racial equity and systematic injustice through legislation or other measures that bar critical race theory.

Even though textbook content isn’t explicitly mentioned in legislation in most states, education experts say the restrictions may spill over to textbooks as book review commissions dilute content they interpret as falling under bans.

Textbook adoption panels, for instance, may now avoid choosing anything that might go against what the state wants teachers to teach or that could expose the district to litigation, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit Rand Corporation where she co-directs the American Educator Panels.

With largely vague guidelines regarding what is off limits, most will likely err on the side of caution, she added. That means textbook commissions reviewing books might select those that don't include lessons on racism and sexism in history and social studies curricula, she said.

“If I was in a state that had passed this legislation, I might not even read the legislation, but I might approach topics that I think are related to this legislation with caution. I might be like, 'I better not address that.'"

That was Garra's concern when parents and community members began arguing against the textbooks in Collier County, claiming that they violated the Florida Department of Education’s current ban on critical race theory.

“Textbooks already leave out a lot," she said. I didn't learn about Black Wall Street until I was 48 years old. So many people don't know about the Trail of Tears, and this history offends people so much that they want to rob their children of a valuable learning experience.”

School history textbooks, particularly in more conservative leaning states, have long been criticized for sanitizing and even omitting the complete experiences of people of color.

In 2015, a Texas mother called out the state education board as well as the publisher McGraw Hill for a school textbook that described African slaves taken to the United States as “immigrants” and "workers.”

Excerpts of a 2015 Louisiana public school textbook that described the Civil War through the struggles of a wealthy white woman who lived on a plantation with more than 150 enslaved people went viral on social media, with hundreds of comments calling out the whitewashing of history. While the state itself designated the textbook as "not representing quality," giving it the low rating, local districts were still allowed to bypass this evaluation and use the textbook if they chose to do so.

A 2020 New York Times investigation found that social studies textbooks with the same name had “hundreds of differences” depending on if they were used in California or Texas.

The textbook selection process is conducted at the state or district level and typically follows a six to eight year adoption cycle. States with larger textbook markets such as Texas, Florida and California tend to dictate what publishers put out and those versions are then offered to other states to choose from.

Review panels or committees, which are primarily politically appointed, are tasked with reviewing, editing, and choosing books submitted by various publishers to fit state standards set by legislators on individual subject areas. The individuals who typically comprise these panels are a mix of educators, administrators and lay people, but the process is often partisan.

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, said most children in conservative states likely already learn a more sanitized history, but current measures restricting certain topics may stunt the growth of racial and historic awareness that might have been happening, especially on a local level.

Based on data from Share My Lesson, the free online lesson plan site for educators set up by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, interest in resource collections that discuss race, racism and teaching American slavery has doubled since the murder of George Floyd last year, the union said in a statement to NBC News.

“Where bans are probably more likely to have some potential implications would be at the local district level because local districts are typically where most of the action on textbook adoptions happens, Polikoff said. “So you could see parents getting more involved in the adoption process, or raising more questions about the materials or publishers that their students are being assigned.”

In Williamson County, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, parents and community members have ardently opposed several books used in a school’s English language arts curriculum that they say fall under the state’s new law banning critical race theory, according to The Tennessean.

Among the books they want to ban is "Ruby Bridges Goes to School," which is written by Bridges, one of the first Black students to integrate New Orleans' all-white public school system. The book was singled out, in part, because it didn't offer "redemption" at its end, the newspaper reported.

While there are textbook selection members who may steer clear of topics like race because they are worried about violating the legislation, there are also others who would have diluted content anyway, but new laws now give them the cover to do it, Polikoff said.

Stefanie Wager, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said most teachers don’t solely rely on textbooks for instruction and generally use supplementary materials to teach. But bans could lead to more monitoring of those outside materials too, she said.

“The social studies field has really pushed in the last five to seven years a more inquiry-based approach. You'll see teachers using a lot of primary sources and introducing different perspectives. But I can see teachers backing away from that pedagogy approach or sticking to what textbooks say,” she said.

Wager added that she is also concerned that states may re-evaluate their curriculum standards, which directly impact the textbook selection process, because of the bans.

“If the standards have things in them that they don't like, I can see states revising the standards to take out anything that they deem is critical race theory even though that is a higher education kind of term, but the way that it's being talked about is as this catchall for anything that has to do with race, or culture,” she said.

“Things like civic action might be tweaked because some people may interpret that it teaches kids to march in the street like what we saw last summer. But that's really not the intent of that, it's just saying that in a democracy it's important to take action if you see an issue in your community,” she said. “But I can see some states reacting to sanitize the standards so that perhaps they don't include as much language around civic action.”

The Collier County School Board eventually approved the textbooks that had sparked debate after the publisher, in a response to the board, said blog posts don’t represent the entire company and that Black Lives Matter is not a political statement. The school board had also demanded Houghton Mifflin Harcourt remove its Black Lives Matter post, but the company did not comply.

Jim O’Neill, general manager of core solutions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said in a statement that the company “stands by its statement in support of Black lives” and is “committed to being anti-racist and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion — these are not political issues, but human rights issues that align with our core value."

The school board affirmed its stance in a statement saying that the board and the school superintendent "do not support the teaching of Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) in its classrooms, and CRT is not and will not be part of the District curriculum and teaching and learning framework.”