Texas educators and activists are pressing the State Board of Education (SBOE) to reassess textbook standards for inaccuracies and misinformation that present students with a whitewashed version of American history. While textbook standards in Texas have historically been influenced by conservatives, a growing collective of progressive educators and advocates are working to make sure education in the state more accurately reflects the contributions of marginalized people and the realities of racism in America.
El Paso teacher Georgina Pérez understands that what young learners absorb during key stages of development shapes their brain—and what they don’t learn also influences their worldview. When she started teaching she helped students to see themselves in their education, supporting and developing Texas’s first ethnic studies program, with courses in Mexican and African American history.
“This is about equity, representation, and inclusivity,” Pérez said. “If we don’t start in schools, it’s almost impossible to do it anywhere else. When you are left out of your own education, you’re not fully participating [in your education], your community, and in your own future.”
Pérez currently sits on the SBOE, which develops content standards for education in the state. The SBOE is comprised of 15 elected representatives who are brought together by a governor-appointed chair. It convenes working groups and committees made up of academics, teachers, and regular citizens to develop recommendations for revisions to curriculum in different areas. They hold public hearings on these recommendations and vote on them, which then becomes the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills: the basis for teaching, textbooks, and testing across the state.
Historically, the voices that have carried the most weight in the SBOE review processes have included the Daughters of the Confederacy, Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society. This has led to a textbook revision process that overwhelmingly reflects Christian and conservative narratives. In 2010, the SBOE’s chair at the time told The New York Times that “many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country,” flying in the face of the notion of separation of church, state, and education.
During the 2018 streamline process, the committee discussed no longer calling the Alamo defenders “heroic” because of the strong denotation of the word and the oversimplification of a complicated history. However, Gov. Greg Abbott called this “political correctness,” and told supporters to contact their SBOE representatives to voice their concerns.
Val Benavidez, who is president of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), has repeatedly urged the SBOE to revise history, health, and other textbooks to provide more accurate content. Their recommendations have included adding the contributions and experiences of people of color in history and the inclusion of man-made climate change. In November, Benavidez noted that progress was possible because of “strong, ongoing activism,” but also acknowledged that the SBOE still appeared to be “trapped in the culture war arguments of the past.”
Conservatives on the SBOE may soon find themselves fighting a changing tide in the textbook market. Dr. Albert Broussard, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, has spent decades writing history textbooks and determining which content gets edited. He noted that will now capitalize the B in Black in the next version of McGraw Hill history textbooks used in American middle and high schools. This may seem like a minor change, but Broussard’s decision reflects a growing acknowledgement of the need for more accurate and expansive discussions of race in the classroom.
Texas education activists Ankita Ajith, Nitant Patel, Claudia Di Bonaventura, and Markie Resendez have personal experience with how the lack of those discussions affects students. After the police killing of George Floyd, they realized that while growing up and attending school in Texas, they hadn’t learned about Juneteenth and other aspects of Black and Latinx history. Instead, their history classes had been sympathetic to the Confederacy.
“The textbooks don’t mention how radical the civil rights [movement] may have been,” Patel said. “It’s a sense of injustice to not stay true to those figures and all the work they’ve done.”
Fueled by frustration at this gap, they bypassed the bureaucratic processes with an online petition, demanding that the textbooks not only rectify and revise false history, but that they also become anti-racist as well. The petition received more than 13,000 signatures, and the initiative received surprisingly positive responses from various members of the SBOE on all political sides. Ajith, Patel, Di Bonaventura, and Resendez shared testimony with the SBOE to explain in detail what they believed needed to change. They’re now working with some SBOE members and other activists to hopefully turn those recommendations into process and then reality.
“[Students need to] understand why things might be going on currently and tie that back to the history of our country,” Di Bonaventura said.
Students, especially students of color, are increasingly aware of the disconnect between what their textbooks are claiming, and what they’re observing in the present day with anti-Black police brutality, the latest wave of anti-Asian racism, the effects of the pandemic on communities of color, and the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt by white supremacists. For those advocating for more inclusive and reflective education resources, textbooks influenced by Texas’ current requirements and restrictions do a disservice to students by eliding and erasing the context of how racism in America’s past provided fertile ground for racism in America’s present.
The issue of how information is presented in Texas textbooks also extends beyond education in the state. Reports have highlighted glaring differences and omissions between textbooks used in Texas and California, often from the same publisher. Those differences include references to enslaved Africans as just workers; framing the civil war as simply about states’ rights; naming the biblical Moses as an honorary founding father; and attempting to remove “non-essential figures” like Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton.
Texas and California are the two largest textbook markets in the country, and Texas buys books for at least 5 million students. At times, Texas has been reported to have purchased at least 48 million books per year. It is also one of the few states where the state purchases books in bulk, meaning its book contracts are incredibly lucrative to publishers. To reduce their cost and labor, many publishers edit and write textbooks based on the requirements for the largest buyers and use them across the country. This results in the books and content produced for Texas education propagating across the U.S.
Advocates don’t want to wait any longer for the SBOE to make changes to the state’s textbook requirements. Ajith, Patel, Di Bonaventura, and Resendez are now working to move the timeline for review of history books to 2021, as opposed to 2023 as originally scheduled by the state. They want the content to be updated as quickly as possible for younger learners, and advocates like TFN are also preparing for review of science and health textbooks this year. If the timeline is moved up, committees with the SBOE will be formed to input on content within the books and what changes need to be made. To ensure the books are truly anti-racist, advocates are encouraging local communities to stay involved with the reviews and book content to make sure students are given the information they need to understand the complexities of U.S. history and to build better futures.
“You can’t paint history the color of your preference,” Pérez said. “You teach history in all colors, even the ones you don’t like. If we don’t do that, people will continue to be oppressed.”
This article was made possible in part through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.