After hours of testimony, the state Board of Education Thursday rejected two history textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but approved 10 others based on new history social sciences guidelines.
Following nearly eight hours of emotional pleas from Hindus and Indian American, as well as advocates for the LGBTQ community requesting fair historical representations in K-8 textbooks, the state Board of Education endorsed the recommendations of an advisory panel.
When Board President Mike Kirst declared the public hearing closed after about 500 people spoke, he said: “That was the longest in the history of the state Board of Education.”
But that wasn’t the only historical moment. The board also said it was making history by approving new textbooks they expect to be models for other states across the nation — for their new content related to diverse populations as well as for robust lessons in civic engagement.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is get more people engaged in civic participation — and we certainly had a lot today,” Kirst said, calling the meeting “in some ways a model” of the types of opportunities that they are encouraging for people’s voices to be heard.
The vote marked the first time textbooks were adopted in the state under the FAIR Education Act, passed in 2011, which required California’s history-social sciences texts to provide fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful representations of people with disabilities and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In addition, texts are also required to portray people from different backgrounds and religions fairly and accurately based on “social content” regulations.
The state board agreed with recommendations of its Instructional Quality Commission to reject the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt texts because the volume of corrections needed would amount to “rewrites,” which are not allowed in the state’s process. The board also agreed with the commission’s recommendations to approve K-8 texts by National Geographic, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and other publishers, saying they adhered to the new History-Social Sciences Framework adopted by the board last year.
Several speakers from the LGBTQ community, along with hundreds of speakers from the Hindu and Indian American communities expressed objections to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt texts for “adverse reflections.” But a spokesman for the publisher urged the board to recommend the middle school text, saying most corrections were minor. He did not address the K-6 text.
Ted Levine, CEO of Kids Discover, which partnered with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on the texts, asked the board to adopt the K-6 text, saying his company had worked tirelessly on the materials.
“The public commentary that has been voiced over the last several months forces a company like mine to look at itself in the mirror, to pay close and special attention to the sentences we have written, the images we have chosen, and the art we have created to promote inclusion and support communities across California,” he said. “I stand before you to say that you have been heard, and that adjustments have been made to the program, within the parameters and procedures that the state affords us, that ensures that our program is in full compliance with the California Education Code and state framework.”
Carolyn Laub of the FAIR Act Implementation Coalition that reviewed the books praised the process.
“We are now poised to make history” by approving the first textbooks highlighting LGBT contributions in the nation,” she said, adding that her group supported the commission’s recommendation to reject the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt texts. “Your historic decision today will ensure that only adopted materials ensure a full and accurate account of LGBT people in history.”
No one spoke against the LGBT references, but several people submitted written comments opposing the inclusion of the sexual orientation of historical figures.
Districts are free to choose their own materials, but they must also ensure they teach history and social science according to the new guidelines. Some speakers said they would next approach their local school district boards to ensure that materials meet the needs of their children.
Several speakers expressed reservations about National Geographic and McGraw-Hill texts, but said that if recent corrections submitted were included in the final versions of the texts, they would support them. Many of these suggested edits were accepted by the publishers, who will have 60 days to make their revisions before finalizing the texts, said Stephanie Gregson, executive director Instructional Quality Commission, adding that the corrected versions should be done by January or February.
Although many members of the Hindu community have participated in the instructional review process for months, some Indian Americans and academics from a group called South Asian Histories For All, or SAHFA spoke against some of the changes made to reflect Hindus in a more positive light, saying the caste system is “alive and well” and that many members of lower castes are still persecuted.
But other Hindu speakers disputed that and criticized the SAHFA group for not getting involved in the process sooner. Some lawyers in the SAHFA group threatened litigation if the board didn’t postpone its vote, saying the state was not adhering as closely to its framework as it should.
Before adopting the texts, board members acknowledged that differences of opinion about history remain, but said it’s up to teachers to allow students to debate their types of issues.
“This adoption is different because it’s a personal history — it’s her story, his story, our story,” said board member Patricia Rucker. “This does not resolve the conflicts that many people feel are inherent in our history or history-social science. The purpose of our adoption is not to solve all family problems.”
She and other board members thanked the members of the public and advocacy groups for their input, which they said improved the final texts.
“I feel the California Department of Education and thousands of members of the public have really made a profound and positive difference in the materials,” said board member Nicki Sandoval, who was liaison to the review process, along with Rucker. “Stakeholders, thank you for using your strong and loud voices, which informed the process, and your agile minds” to ensure “we’re fulfilling our responsibility to provide materials that are inclusive, accurate and respectful” and that will “help to build key understandings for young people” and ultimately to improve school climate and “foster a stronger sense of social responsibility.”
Board member Ilene Straus said this was only the first step in improving classroom history social science instruction.
“We have a commitment that teachers will get the training they need to understand these issues and that districts will,” she said. “So, this process is not over at all.”