Analysis Finds Big Differences In School Textbooks In States With Differing Politics

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 7:10 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What students learn about U.S. history can differ drastically depending on the state where they live. A new analysis from The New York Times shows stark political differences in social studies textbooks in California and Texas even though they're the same books with the same titles from the same publishers.

Reporter Dana Goldstein spent five months diving into this. Welcome to the program.

DANA GOLDSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: You break down these differences in textbooks along broad political lines - a conservative emphasis in Texas, a liberal emphasis in California. But what does that look like on the page - right? - if you're some...

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...15-, 16-year-old kid cracking open a textbook?

GOLDSTEIN: Sure. Well, race was a theme that emerged in the coverage. And the way that the suburbanization of the United States in the 1950s is told is quite different between the two states. California requires children to learn about housing discrimination against African Americans and other groups. The story in Texas is very different. It doesn't ever say in these books that the suburban dream was not accessible to African Americans because of housing discrimination.

CORNISH: What does it say instead?

GOLDSTEIN: It says that some people left the city because of congestion or crime. And those types of words are racially coded often, but it does not explicitly talk about race.

CORNISH: How did this happen if the same publisher is putting out the same book to different states?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, the publishers customize editions of these textbooks for each state. So the covers of the book will credit the same historians as authors, but when you open up the pages, the content has been customized.

CORNISH: You write about advisory panels in each state that request modifications from publishers. How does this process work?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So the state boards of education will appoint folks to these panels. And in California, Democrats really control that process. And the opposite is true in Texas, where Republicans have dominated the process. So for example, a Texas panel asked one publisher, please be clearer about the influence of the Protestant Great Awakening on the Founding Fathers. They're always looking to highlight that influence of Christianity. By contrast, in California, they're saying, you know, when you mention Levi Strauss, can you mention that he was an immigrant and a Jewish immigrant? They're always looking to add diversity to the curriculum.

CORNISH: What do teachers think of this?

GOLDSTEIN: You know, I interviewed many teachers in both states. You know, they know that these textbooks are imperfect. They're always looking for quality primary source materials. You know, they'd rather have their students maybe read a speech by an American president or a letter from a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier than rely solely on the textbooks. And the feedback we're getting from this investigation that we did at the Times is more and more teachers saying, you know, I've been wanting to move away from relying on textbooks. And this reminds me of why that is important, because these textbooks are incomplete.

CORNISH: Why does it matter if a state wants to emphasize one portion of history versus another? Isn't that their prerogative?

GOLDSTEIN: It is their prerogative under the way we've set up our education system in this country, which is the federal government is very weak and the state governments are very powerful. I think it matters so much because we're headed into an election this year in 2020. And our country is so politically divided. And I think this is another way of understanding a source of those divides, which is that right back in our educations as children, we are encountering different stories about our nation's founding, our nation's legacy on really big issues like race, immigration, gender, the economy. So all of this is hugely important to shaping our citizenry.

CORNISH: Dana Goldstein is a reporter for The New York Times. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.