How Textbooks in Two States Offer Different Perspectives on the Same Events

Politics can shape what students in different states learn

A new report finds some surprising contrasts between different editions of the same textbooks used in different states.
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By Tobias Carroll / January 12, 2020 2:29 pm

You might think that students using the same textbook across the country would end up learning the same things. According to a new investigation from The New York Times, however, that’s not necessarily the case.

Dana Goldstein compared a total of 8 textbooks used for social studies in California and Texas. Goldstein writes that “they are customized for students in different states, and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides.” For anyone familiar with the controversies surrounding the Texas State Board of Education, this might not be news as such — but seeing this information presented in this format makes for a stark contrast.

As one might expect, some of the differences are stark: a McGraw Hill history textbook used in California uses a passage from Julia Alvarez’s novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents to discuss immigration; a McGraw Hill textbook used in Texas offers a quote from a US Border Patrol agent. A Texas textbook offers praise for the likes of industrialist Andrew Carnegie; a California textbook offers a view of the environmental legacy of 19th-century American industry.

Both states have very different guidelines for textbooks: California’s social studies framework is 842 pages long; Texas’s counterpart has all of 78 pages. This also has an effect on the textbooks used by students in each state.

The implications go beyond potential gaps in the education of students from one state or another. Goldstein notes that “classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.” Much of American politics is based around references to history — whether it’s looking to correct the flaws of the past or hearken back to shared ideals. What happens when those historical references become even more disparate than they are now? In the coming years, we may well find out.

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