Texas Textbook War: Decision Near in Climate Science Dispute

Education groups pressure publishers to rid textbooks of inaccuracies and distortions, but the Texas Board of Education could still require them.

Texas State Board of Education is seen here voting. Credit: screen shot from "The Revisionaries" documentary about the school textbook battle in Texas

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Update at 6:10 PM on Nov. 21, 2014: The Texas State Board of Education approved nearly 100 new social studies textbooks on Friday, none of which include climate denial.

A five-year battle over the teaching of climate change in Texas classrooms may come to an end Friday when the state Board of Education votes on which social studies textbooks to approve for its more than 1,200 school districts.

Until this week, many of the textbooks under consideration included inaccuracies on climate change—the science behind it and the policies needed to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the main culprit of global warming. Some of them question the scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening. Publishers agreed to fix most of the inaccuracies under pressure from education groups including the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network. But there are still some that distort the issue and many that don’t address it at all, experts said.

The 15-member Board of Education refused at a Tuesday hearing to give preliminary approval for the new textbooks until members thoroughly examined all the changes publishers made in recent weeks. The board’s 10 conservative Republican members could still force publishers to revert to inaccurate language when the board makes its decision Friday.

“The central problem in the textbook wars in Texas,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, “is that decisions about what students learn in their public schools often come down to a vote by politicians who are more interested in promoting their personal and political beliefs than in listening to teachers, scholars and other experts.”

The fight in Texas over how to teach climate change has national implications. The state is one of the country’s largest textbook markets, and many publishers time the release of new textbooks around the Texas schedule, Quinn said. In addition, there are no national standards for social studies, unlike English, science and math. This means that what gets incorporated in education materials in Texas often ends up in classrooms across the U.S.

The state Board of Education’s vote this week is the first time in 10 years that it has approved new social studies textbooks. And it probably won’t do so again for another decade, experts said. Last year the state decided to adopt science textbooks that link climate change to human activity and describe the environmental risks of fossil-fuel extraction techniques such as fracking.

“Understanding climate change is vital for 21st century citizenship,” said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at NCSE. “Publishers have a responsibility to prepare students for the world they’re getting ready to enter.”

Tea Party Guidelines

Texas adopted new social studies standards in 2010 amid controversy. The guidelines were approved by an education board dominated by Tea Party representatives. They questioned the separation of church and state, the secular nature of the American Revolution, and the benefits of Title IX (which required equal access to education for women) and affirmative action (which sought to offset discrimination in hiring by favoring certain minority groups). Learning about climate change wasn’t a requirement at all, leaving a void for educators and publishers to teach it as they saw fit.

Climate change isn’t the only issue about which education watchdog groups have raised concerns in the proposed textbooks. Some materials suggest that the Biblical figure Moses influenced the U.S. Constitution, for example. Some also inaccurately define world religions (except for Christianity) and assert that Muslims are more prone to violence. Several books also list slavery as the third-most important cause of the U.S. Civil War.

The textbooks that publishers sent for consideration earlier this year included cases of misinformation about global warming.

Pearson’s proposed fifth-grade social studies textbook originally denied the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change, saying instead, “Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change.”

Pearson, one of the world’s largest educational publishers, last week said it would change its text to read, “Burning fuels like gasoline releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere…As the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase, the Earth warms. Scientists warn that climate change, caused by this warming, will pose challenges to society.” Pearson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

An exercise in a McGraw-Hill sixth-grade textbook misleadingly gave equal weight to the world’s climate scientists and far-right, climate-denying think tanks such as the Heartland Institute. McGraw-Hill told the Texas Freedom Network Monday that it would remove the passage from its sixth-grade textbook. McGraw-Hill said it had no comment on its decision.

An analysis by the NCSE also found inaccurate information in textbooks by the Social Studies School Service, Studies Weekly Publications and WorldView Software. Studies Weekly Publications and WorldView Software agreed to change their materials.

Regardless of whether the Board of Education accepts the changes, there is no way to monitor how teachers themselves use the approved textbooks and address climate change.

“Teaching the social aspect of climate change is perhaps the most important way to get students involved,” said Rosenau, the NCSE policy director. “This is an issue they will be voting on and working to solve.” If the Texas Board of Education lets the changes stand, he said, “students all over the country will be getting a better foundation on climate change than ever before.”