Ever wonder why Texas textbook adoption makes the national news and late night comedy shows? Why do people in New York have such strong opinions about what books Texas kids are studying? Turns out that the Texas textbook market, which serves the five million students in our state’s public schools, is large enough to influence the material that publishers produce for students in smaller states, as well. And once you understand the process the State Board of Education follows in textbook adoption, it is easier to see why what happens in Texas has an impact on classrooms across the nation.
Every eight years, the Texas State Board of Education begins a new cycle of textbook adoption, with new subject areas taking a turn each year. The process begins with a Proclamation, which is a call for bids in the defined subject areas and a description of requirements that follow the state curriculum known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. Publishers submit their intent to bid and have approximately a year to produce materials that meet the standards. Samples of these materials are submitted to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and to the 20 regional Education Service Centers that provide services to the school districts around the state. To get an idea of the depth of this process, visit the TEA’s website (tea.state.tx.us) and download the list of newly approved science resources, a hefty 126-page document.
Who reviews these materials? Nominations are made by educational organizations, educators, academic experts and parents who apply for the positions. The Commissioner of Education, appointed by the governor, then hand-picks the state review panel. Ideally, the 15 members of this volunteer review board are above political, economic and other personal agendas, but in the past, critics have pointed out that a few activists have had too much power in swaying the decisions of the board. After much tumult in the adoption process of science textbooks, it was apparent that new rules needed to be put in place. In January 2014, the Texas Board of Education unanimously approved tighter rules and guidelines for the review panel, with hopes of subduing the battles based on personal opinion.
One of the new rules states that when selecting members of the review panel, priority should be given to teachers or professors with expertise and experience in the subject being reviewed. In addition, the board is now able to bring in experts to fact check any objections raised to determine if they are based on verifiable information or on ideology or special interest (such as having large stakes in an industry that may be impacted by the lessons included in the textbook). For example, if the board were evaluating a health textbook’s lesson on smoking, the new rules would question how much weight to give a major investor in the cigarette industry as opposed to the Disease Management Coordinator of a large hospital system or an experienced and highly recommended high-school health teacher.
In January 2014, an Austin American Statesman article reported on these new rules. “It won’t eliminate politics, but it will make it where it’s a more informed process,”said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member who pushed for the changes, which he said “force us to find qualified people, leave them alone, and let them do their jobs.”
Despite these rulings, some believe that there are still not enough highly-qualified educators and experts in the field appointed to the board that recently reviewed the Social Studies textbooks. Of the 140 members of the review panels, only three are current professors in Texas colleges and universities. The review panels met in July, and the State Board of Education will vote to adopt the textbooks in November.
With the Science textbooks adopted in 2013 and Social Studies to be voted upon in a few months, the next few years may not be as controversial. Math 9-12 and Fine Arts are up next, and then Languages other than English. The adoption process for Career and Technical Education textbooks begins in 2016. The process for English Language Arts and Reading K–5 and Pre-K Systems occurs in 2017, then English Language Arts and Reading 6–12 in 2018. Reviews of Health Education and Physical Education textbooks will also occur in 2018.
Every year, there are new issues to follow, and while each year’s process of choosing instructional material brings important decisions, it is unlikely that the choice of introductory German or Spanish will make national news. But with a better understanding of this multi-year process, parents, educators and all stakeholders in Texas can be aware or even involved in the process.
Jennifer VanBuren is an educator and Georgetown mother of three.