- - Sunday, May 18, 2014

The school year is slowly winding down, but the controversy over public school educational materials is just heating up, potentially to an unprecedented level. While headlines grab our attention every few weeks with stories of biased textbooks and handouts, an opportunity is coming to examine the content of textbooks before they reach the desks of millions of students.

This month, the Texas State Board of Education will share the titles of approximately 50 new social studies textbooks and 100 pieces of additional educational material under consideration for adoption in 2015. In six months, the board’s will finalize approvals. This will determine the purchase of textbooks for the 5 million Texas public school students and influence the textbook decisions in school districts around the country. The Texas textbook market is large enough that publishing companies will change nationally marketed books to conform to the board’s decisions, and estimates suggest that at least a majority of U.S. school districts base textbook decisions on Texas.

Recently, Texas changed its internal textbook-review system, largely in response to a brouhaha last summer when two citizens — a nutritionist and a chemical engineer — questioned one science textbook’s lessons on evolution. In an attempt to pre-empt such controversies in the future, the Texas State Board of Education requested applications from doctorate holders and educators to spend one week in Austin this summer training as reviewers and then vetting all of the proposed textbooks.

The reviewers are forbidden from speaking about the task. The public does not know the criteria for review, including the detail in which the texts will be examined, whether the texts will be examined for accuracy, and whether biased information will be identified.

The one-week limitation alone raises significant questions about the intensity and seriousness of these reviews. In my experience, scholars can spend up to 60 hours reviewing a textbook, researching questionable facts and writing analysis. Many social studies textbooks run well over 500 pages long, and the more comprehensive books can exceed 1,000 pages. Moreover, no single historian is sufficiently knowledgeable to scrutinize the breadth of a world history curriculum.

Some textbooks are great. In such books, the facts are almost all accurate, The material is presented objectively, questions and exercises promote responsible critical thinking, and the content is fitting for the target student. They are also generally commendable contributions to our educational systems.

Other textbooks, however, are replete with errors and sometimes biases. For one recent review of an American government textbook, we compiled a 57-page report identifying and explaining 192 individual points of factual inaccuracies, inconsistencies and provable biases. Common Core undoubtedly contributes to the problem of inaccurate textbooks by bringing a slew of new material to the market, but this problem, in fact, has a long history in America’s schools.

The inclusion of inaccurate and biased information in textbooks dates at least to the 1800s and a prohibitionist named Mary Hanchett Hunt. As an influential part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Hunt successfully altered American education to indoctrinate students with an irrational fear of alcohol. Her textbooks corrupted the education of almost every American child at the time with propaganda and falsehoods that went so far as to claim scientific proof that just one drop of alcohol could cause insanity and that alcohol can turn blood into water.

This false education played a major role in public support for Prohibition, one of America’s worst policy failures. School boards of Hunt’s day complied with her demands that such lies be taught as “scientific facts” because it was the easiest path. It took an independent group of scientists and physicians, known as the Committee of 50, to finally refute and discredit her textbooks with real scientific evidence. Only thorough, in-depth analysis finally stopped the dishonest and politically motivated education.

This month, the public saw a middle-school assignment presenting Holocaust-denial propaganda as legitimate, and two months ago, we saw a textbook explaining the Second Amendment as “the right to certain weapons, providing that they register them.” However, it is vital that we inform ourselves with more than headlines. Parents, taxpayers and citizens must have access to detailed information about the accuracy, objectivity and content responsibility of these books. Now in Texas, and in the many school districts nationwide affected by the Texas State Board of Education’s decisions, parents and citizens do have the opportunity to find out what these textbooks are teaching before they come home in their children’s backpacks.

Ellen R. Wald, a former history professor, is executive director of Verity Educate.