Textbook selection in a political bind

Textbook image courtesy of Pixabay.
Textbook image courtesy of Pixabay.

Recent high-profile cases of ideological fights concerning the material contained in textbooks at public schools highlight the role political preferences play in selecting texts, members of the education community say.

In Gilbert, the local school board voted late last month to edit material in a biology textbook after conservative members of the board determined it did not comply with state law on how abortion should be presented in schools. A controversy also occurred in Jefferson County, Colo. in September between conservative school board members and its teachers and students over the board’s proposal to amend the curriculum of an Advanced Placement U.S. History course.

These instances of ideological struggles in public school districts are hardly unique when it comes to selecting textbooks and curriculum, said Jory Brass, an assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. The political preferences of those involved in the selection, as well as the school board approving it, always play a role, he said.

“In my view, it’s impossible to take politics out of education,” Brass said. “The question is what kind of politics should govern public education and how should the public be involved in decisions concerning public education.”

These political preferences just don’t often turn into ideological fights and manifest as national media stories, said Gustavo Fischman, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

He said the selection of textbooks is always a political decision because whatever is chosen has ideological implications.

For Tucson Unified School District, the second largest school district in Arizona, written policy tries to keep ideological preferences at a minimum.

The TUSD governing board policy for selections and adoption of textbook and supplementary materials instructs those selecting the text to “place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice in the recommendation of resources.”

The TUSD Superintendent establishes textbook selection procedures that “shall provide for the appropriate involvement of staff members, students, and community members,” according to the policy. The recommendations for textbooks are then sent to the TUSD Governing Board for approval of purchase.

Adelita Grijalva, president of the TUSD Governing Board, said political preferences should never play any role in what textbooks are chosen. She said while the decision made in Gilbert is “tragic,” it didn’t surprise her due to the conservative leanings of the school board there.

“[Gilbert school board members] want to rewrite history and edit out parts they don’t like,” Grijalva said.

TUSD is no stranger to political controversy regarding curriculum.

In 2010, the Arizona legislature voted to ban TUSD’s Mexican-American studies program because legislators felt the program promoted racism and advocated for the overthrow of the government. The controversy made national headlines and led to protests.

The TUSD Governing Board has since voted to reinstate the program in compliance with a federal mandate to provide the material to students.

The Gilbert and Mexican-American studies program controversies have garnered national attention on Arizona’s education system, but Brass said the situation in the state is not unique and follows national trends on school governance policies.

Arizona, however, has several factors that make it easy for outside interests to help shape educational and curricular policies, Brass said. Both the decisions in Gilbert and Tucson had to do with laws passed by the state government.

“For the most part, these political processes bypass local school boards and local control,” Brass said.

Charter schools have a different set a rules when it comes to selecting textbooks and setting curriculum. These schools receive public funds but are able to operate independently.

Julia Toews, head of school at BASIS Tucson North, a charter school in Northeast Tucson, said teachers are responsible for choosing which textbooks they want to use for their classes. Some teachers even choose not to use a textbook and rely on their own knowledge to teach the material.

Toews said that on a deeper level politics plays a role in everything. In a subject like history, for example, students aren’t being taught to believe in the material, just what other people have believed, she said.

“I think you need to be sensitive to all the families you’re serving,” Toews said, “but … if you teach it correctly, you should never have a problem.”

Fischman also said textbook publishers have a role in perceived biases in the material taught to students. He said the publishers mostly cater to the curricular preferences of the larger states, like Texas and California, when they are producing the text.

Smaller school districts also suffer from limited options when selecting their books, he said.

“It’s a two-way route: what the school board decides and what the textbook companies offer,” Fischman said. “If there is no pushback from the educational community to make those textbooks better, they will not provide that.”

There isn’t a perfect model for textbook selection that keeps ideology out of the process, Fischman said. Even in Kansas where school boards are unelected positions, he said, members assert their political preferences when setting curriculum and selecting textbooks.

Fischman said he believes the most effective way to go about selecting textbooks is to involve teachers in the process as much as possible, but there is no real solution to keeping politics out of choosing what students are taught.

“Education is always a terrain of political fights,” he said.

Ethan McSweeney is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at emcsweeney@email.arizona.edu

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