The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis accused textbooks of ‘indoctrination.’ Here’s what he meant.

Reviewers flagged references to vaccines, global warming and race

A pair of cartoon characters were faulted for showcasing “social-emotional learning.” (Bigideamath.com)
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Last month, Florida’s Education Department accused publishers of trying to “indoctrinate” the state’s students through proposed math textbooks, alleging that they were sneaking in material, forbidden by the state, about social-emotional learning, Common Core standards or “critical race theory.” School boards are restricted in using state money to purchase these books.

“Some publishers attempted to slap a coat of paint on an old house built on the foundation of Common Core, and indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism, especially, bizarrely, for elementary school students,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in an April statement. The Education Department said it rejected 41 percent of books — “the most in Florida’s history.” At least 24 of the titles scored high marks from official state reviewers for conforming to Florida standards but were turned down anyway.

After nearly three weeks of being pressed to explain their decisions, Florida’s education officials shared 5,895 pages of documents showing what the state’s textbook reviewers saw in the volumes that led to their rejection. The evaluations give insight into what kind of material caused a book to be flagged — and potentially rejected — but the records are not complete.

The reviewers overwhelmingly noted that the books had avoided forbidden topics such as critical race theory, a once-obscure academic term — describing an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — that conservatives have used to describe teaching on race and diversity, and social-emotional learning, which conservatives say is a vehicle for teaching critical race theory. The reviews mostly addressed how well the books taught Florida’s academic standards.

“It is a math textbook,” one reviewer wrote. “I found no evidence of any instruction or indoctrination of social issues.”

But a few reviews stood out. They highlighted issues that seemed to conflict less with the law than with personal beliefs, accusing the textbooks of bias for talking about climate change and vaccines.

In ‘social-emotional learning,’ right sees more critical race theory

Chris Allen, the vice chair for the Indian River chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, is an engineer and the mother of a public school student. And although she has never found anything objectionable in her child’s learning materials, she answered a call from the state Education Department for help with the review process. She found reams of examples of what she considered to be critical race theory — which is forbidden in textbooks.

She flagged a statement that said that the United States has not eradicated poverty or racism.

“Emphasis that racism is embedded in American society,” Allen wrote, “contains Critical Race Theory which is prohibited.”

She also highlighted a word problem that talked about the gender pay gap, identifying how much less money women make over the course of a lifetime, saying that she didn’t like the message it sent to young women. She said the presentation focused too much on the problem and not enough on the progress that has been made toward parity.

“As a teenager I felt, ‘I’m never going to be as good as a man,’ ” Allen said. “These types of ideas should not be instilled in high school students.”

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

School officials wanted to know whether the books followed a law, passed in 2021, that forbids instructional material from containing “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons,” or references to the 1619 Project, the New York Times work that focused on the role of slavery in the nation’s founding. And they wanted to know whether the material contained “culturally responsive teaching as it relates to [critical race theory]” and “social justice as it relates to [critical race theory].” Finally, they asked: Does it solicit “social-emotional learning”? The inclusion of any of those topics would be grounds for elimination.

Reviewers, of which there were at least 83, were given a lengthy rubric and asked to rate the books 1 through 5 in many categories. Some of those who found fault with the texts complained that the books espoused facts they did not accept or featured perspectives they disagreed with. Allen cited a problem with “Thinking Mathematically” on the book’s first page.

“The author is biased when it comes to global warming and climate crisis,” she wrote. “He talks about a climate crisis as if it’s a proven fact.”

Other criticisms had to do with race: It “talks about white population decreasing. Context is not relevant or meaningful to students.” She also labeled text featuring data on implicit-bias tests and prejudice as critical race theory and highlighted an antisemitic joke that appears in the book: “Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? Because they’re worth it.”

And she complained that discussion of vaccines did not mention “natural immunity” and that the Federalist Papers were not included in a unit that used the electoral college for a math lesson.

Other reviewers found no issues.

The other reviewer who flagged critical race theory was Jordan Adams, a civic education expert at Hillsdale College, according to WFTS, the ABC affiliate in Tampa Bay that first made the connection.

Of the book “Stats: Modeling the World,” Adams highlighted content about racial profiling, discrimination in magnet school admissions, and the racial demographics of the New York Police Department not matching the community’s. All of these, he said, “may violate the rule’s prohibitions about racism being embedded in society and legal systems and/or that race is the most important factor in considering an aspect of society.” Adams and Hillsdale did not respond to a request for comment sent to the college.

By contrast, reviewers found many examples of social-emotional learning. The term refers broadly to educational methods focused on a student’s well-being — lessons such as how to interact with classmates and manage emotions. Conservatives now say that is a vehicle for critical race theory.

Three reviewers identified social-emotional learning in math material for lower grades published by Big Ideas Learning. They identified a cartoon called “Math Musicals,” in which dogs and cats sing about counting, addition and other math subjects. But one video for kindergarten focuses just on the friendship between a dog named Newton and a cat named Descartes.

Florida releases 4 prohibited math textbook examples. Here they are.

“A wink, a nod, a sideways glance, a little elbow to the ribs,” the song begins. “We speak a secret language and no one else knows what it is. You know me better than I even know myself.”

“Social emotional learning addressed in Math musicals but seem to be appropriately directed,” one reviewer said about the first-grade edition. The book was rejected for containing prohibited “special topics.”

Concerning a different first-grade math book, a reviewer remarked: “Some lessons include growth mindset concepts, which are a component of SEL learning.” The state rejected that book for containing “special topics.”

One reviewer noted that another book featured a question “that asks students to think about social and emotional learning competencies, including relationship skills and social awareness.” That text was rejected.

But the majority of reviewers gave books perfect or near-perfect marks for complying with the state’s rules about the inclusion of critical race theory or social justice teachings. And one reviewer questioned the point of the entire exercise.

“This question is irrelevant to a math textbook,” the reviewer wrote.

Publishers must navigate not just the culture wars, but also instructions from the state that are rife with confusing terminology. In a letter to publishers issued in June 2021, Florida’s Education Department warned “publishers and school districts to not incorporate unsolicited strategies, such as social emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching.” But the state’s original instructions seemed to contradict that, requiring publishers to include “multicultural representation” and to integrate it into the lessons in a way that would “promote a positive self-image for members of all groups, and provide for the development of healthy attitudes and values.”

Common Core, one of the forbidden subjects, once had bipartisan backing. The framework was created by a group of governors from both parties to standardize basic math and literacy learning objectives across the country. Ultimately, 41 states adopted it, in part because of incentives from the Obama administration to do so. But even though adoption was never mandatory, Republicans began holding up Common Core as a symbol of federal overreach. Donald Trump attacked it during his 2016 campaign, calling it “a total disaster.” DeSantis, following his party, decided to do away with the program in 2020.

The authors of kindergarten and fourth-grade math books by Big Ideas, which were on the state’s initial “not recommended” list, said they used “Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching” to guide how they wrote the math textbook. It offers educators techniques on how to calm students’ anxiety about math so they can better absorb the lessons, a clear nod to social-emotional learning. And the book is sprinkled with encouragements to “persevere,” “stay positive” and “participate in effortful learning” — words that could be interpreted as social-emotional learning.

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