Textbook controversy was a mistake, not whitewashing

Photo by Wenjing Zhang

First and foremost, my hat is off to the student and his mother who found and brought to light the mistake in the World Geography book. I wish there were more parents this engaged in their child’s education. Many of the challenges faced by our schools are the result of parents who don’t care this much. Thank you, mom, for being an advocate for your child.

Secondly, I appreciate the publisher’s response to this mistake and believe this can turn into a “teachable moment” in those classrooms where these books will either be replaced or amended. Kids can learn about the power of words, and they can also learn about how to respond and take ownership when you make a mistake.

As far as the specific issue with this book, I feel the need to once again address the whole issue, not just the one mistake.

The caption in the book said, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations." The word “slave” was in the same sentence with this mistake. I’m not saying the word “worker” is appropriate here, but to characterize this as a “whitewashing” or an attempt to “erase history” is simply an exaggeration that only worsens the rhetoric and acrimony, rather than having an honest dialog about a solution.

This same book has 16 other references to slavery in it. These other references haven’t been part of this discussion — only the one mistake. This narrow approach seems guilty of the very thing this publisher is being accused of: a deliberate attempt to not tell the whole story.

The year we adopted this book was a unique year, to say the least. It was the first time we adopted materials (both electronic and print) without having access to printed samples. The Legislature changed that requirement a few years ago. This adoption saw a record number of books submitted for review, so our volunteer reviewers (made up of experts, educators, parents and even third-party groups like the Texas Freedom Network) were overwhelmed with content to review. They all missed it, not just the 15 State Board of Education members. This is not an excuse for a mistake slipping through, but it is a reminder that whenever humans are involved, human error is not far behind.

The 15 members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) are elected (not hand-picked) from all over the state and we have a variety of backgrounds and experience that we each bring to the table. Are any of us history or geography experts? No. Do we read every page of every book submitted for review and adoption? No. Is our process in constant need of review and improvement? Absolutely. One mistake is too many, and we want to do whatever we can to avoid this kind of mistake in the future. But when they happen, and they will, the important thing is to fix it, learn from it, own it and move forward.

I would ask that we keep something else in mind through all of this. Publishers are not required to go through the SBOE for approval before they sell books to the 1,200+ school districts across Texas. If we, at the state level, make our process too burdensome or costly, publishers will simply go directly to the school districts, and we have lost one of the review mechanisms for instructional materials.

Let’s work together more and point fingers less. It’s what we ask of our children in our schools, and it’s what we are called to do to be good examples to them.

Thomas Ratliff

Outgoing State Board of Education vice chair