Florida approves social studies books after references to racism, social justice removed
The Florida Department of Education on Tuesday released the initial list of social studies textbooks it approved — and rejected — for the upcoming school year, including approving a book where the publisher removed references to racism, police brutality and the murder of George Floyd.
The list, which school districts use to buy textbooks for classrooms, drew criticism from some School Board members and public school reading advocates who argued the effort could have significant ramifications moving forward.
“Florida has five of the top 10 school districts in the country,” said Stephana Farrell, the director of research and insight at Florida Freedom to Read Project. What happens in Florida — and the adjustments large textbook companies make at the state’s request – could have impacts on what’s adopted in other states, too.
“This is the chilling effect at work,” she said.
The initial list includes 66 approved titles, or 65.4% of books submitted, that have “state standards-aligned social studies curriculum for every grade level,” according to a news release announcing the list. In total, publishers submitted 101 books for approval.
However, when the books were first submitted, just 19, or 18%, were initially approved “due to inaccurate material, errors and other information that was not aligned with Florida Law,” the department said.
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The books were later approved after the department worked with publishers who “updated their materials to comply” with Florida’s standards, the release said.
One of those changes can be seen in a grades 6-8 textbook, where the department said a section titled “New Calls for Social Justice” was a concern because it included “unsolicited topics.”
The topics described how in the 2000s, the increased use of mobile devices and social media spread images of police violence, “sometimes deadly,” against Black Americans. It discussed the Blacks Lives Matter movement and referenced the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
The approved version of the book removed the section entirely.
“Social studies has always been the subject area in which students learn present and historical facts, and express their ideas regarding these occurrences,” Miami-Dade County School Board member Steve Gallon III said of the textbook changes. “These things happened. They represent proven facts and served as catalysts for movements that changed this nation,” he said.
Students should be able to learn about them, he continued, and “any efforts that actually alter, eliminate or whitewash history runs counter to the fundamentals of education and principles of this country.”
Thirty-five percent of books submitted have not yet been approved, according to the department, which said it would continue to work with publishers in “an effort to include as many textbooks on the state adoption list as possible.” Miami-Dade County Public Schools has not yet finalized which textbooks it will adopt.
The announcement came the same day Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a handful of education bills into law in Miami, including one that prohibits teachers unions from deducting dues directly from employee paychecks, another that reduces school board term limits from 12 to eight years and another that makes school board elections partisan.
The governor also signed a law that limits students’ ability to connect to social media while on district devices and prohibits the use of TikTok.
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Changes over socialism definition, ‘Hebrew Bible’ reference
Of the 66 books the department included in the list released Tuesday, two-thirds had to be updated or changed before earning an approval from the department.
Among the changes highlighted by the department include what it deems as an “inaccurate description of socialism,” “politically charged language when referencing the Hebrew Bible,” and a section that explains how the increase use of mobile devices and social media have led to a “growing awareness of racism that permeated the broader society,” among others.
The department did not indicate which books were updated before adoption, or which books the so-called problematic examples were taken from. Instead, it included the concern and how the example scored.
In the unit focused on symbols that represent America and the state of Florida, the lesson plan lists a series of activities families can do at home to understand the “significance of symbolic songs, flags, people and other important artifacts.” The lesson suggests families talk to their child about the national anthem and suggests families can use the opportunity “to talk about why some citizens are choosing to “Take a Knee” to protest police brutality and racism.”
The department said the suggestion was not age appropriate for grades K-5. The updated and approved version excludes the possible discussion.
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In one example for grades 6-8, the department said questions for students included “politically charged language when referencing the Hebrew Bible.”
The question asked, “What social justice issues are included in the Hebrew Bible?” and includes guidelines for responding to poverty, famine, injustice and emphasizes caring for strangers, among others. In the approved version, the question asks, “What are some key principles included in the Hebrew Bible?” and includes the same guidelines for responding.
‘Part of our history’
For Farrell, of Florida Freedom to Read Project, the removal of any mentions of the social justice movement “is just absurd.”
“The text wasn’t applauding the movement or suggesting a necessary action. It was quite neutral,” she said. “Whether you support it or not, it’s part of our history and part of what our children are living through. They deserve to have their questions answered and have their lives reflected in their books and in the discussions they’re having in the classroom.”
Nevertheless, in a tweet Tuesday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary Bryan Griffin said the “political indoctrination of children through the K-12 public education system is a very real and prolific problem in this country.” But the examples, which he included in a series of tweets, were all “caught and all fixed” under DeSantis’ watch, he said.
The social studies book adoption is the last step in the state’s effort to move away from the Common Core standards and adopt new standards, the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or B.E.S.T standards approved in 2020, and follows a monthslong debate between the department and the College Board over its new AP African American Studies course.
The department rejected the course because of concerns it had with topics in lesson plans about Black Queer Studies, the Black Lives Matter movement and Black Feminist Literary Thought, among others. The College Board was sharply criticized for removing those topics from its final course, which it published in February. The department has yet to announce whether it will accept the course for next year.
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It also comes one year after the department made national headlines for rejecting dozen’s of math textbooks because they included what the department claimed were “indoctrinating concepts. (A Herald review found only three reviewers said four math books violated a state rule that prohibits the teaching of critical race theory.)
The state later adopted a number of the initially rejected textbooks and the new math curriculum went into effect this school year. English language arts was the first subject area to adopt a new curriculum and those materials were implemented in the 2021-22 school year.