Textbook publisher Cynthia Dunbar was defending her company’s Mexican-American Heritage book in front of the State Board of Education last week when she made an interesting argument. Historians raised issues with some of the book's content, but Dunbar said that didn’t matter because the school board didn't specify what type of content it wanted.
“A lot of the comment that’s gone forward from this process, actually, I think, stems from some confusion that the board did not adopt Mexican-American studies," Dunbar said. "You chose to adopt special topics in social studies.”
Many people found the book biased against Mexican people, as well as factually inaccurate. But the months long process reveals there’s nothing to stop a textbook with similar problems from being submitted in the future.
The State Board of Education puts out requests for textbooks and those textbooks have to include at least 50 percent of the state instructional standards for that subject, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills—or TEKS.
However, the state hasn't established specific standards for a Mexican-American studies course. The board thought about adopting some a few years ago, but decided not to. That means when they ask for textbooks for elective social studies classes, it falls under this broad topic called Special Topics in Social Studies. Without specific content standards, textbooks must meet TEKS that focus on specific skills: can students use problem solving, evaluate topics and analyze ethical issues, for example.
Cynthia Dunbar argued her textbook met those standards. SBOE member Ruben Cortez was confused by this position.
“If we put out a call for Mexican-American studies, even though they claim they met the TEKS, shouldn’t the content of what we as a board are going to be tasked with approving or rejecting, be on the content we asked for?” Cortez asked Monica Martinez, the Managing Director of Texas Education Agency's Curriculum Division.
“The problem is that you don’t have any content-based standards to provide that direction to any publisher about what it is you expect to see," Martinez responded. "The guidance that you give are in those standards.”
Without specific content standards for Mexican American studies, it’s hard to tell a publisher exactly what the board is looking for.
UT Austin professor Emilio Zamora was one of the biggest critics of the Mexican-American studies text. He says the publisher’s argument reveals a flaw in the textbook adoption process:
“The problem is that there’s such an overbearing concern for meeting those TEKS standards that a publisher could justifiably, in some cases, argue that they’re not bound to address any particular topic," Zamora said.
As long as they meet the TEKS, a publisher could argue the book should qualify.
Despite that argument, the board still rejected the Mexican-American textbook based on the hundreds of factual errors it contained. The board put out a request for new textbooks under Special Topics in Social Studies.
This time, they specified what types of special topics they were looking for, like Mexican-American studies and African-American studies. But without standards in either of those subjects, a publisher could submit another problematic textbook—and the board could be back in same exact situation next year.