Education officials in Florida have been criticized for putting “political theater” over teaching after they revealed four examples from among the 54 math textbooks they rejected last week.
The state said it had refused to use the books because of “prohibited topics” including alleged references to critical race theory. On Friday, however, after pressure to explain the decisions, the education department published several images of math problems from the textbook with the offending segments highlighted.
In one example, a colored graph features levels of “racial prejudice” by age. Another example, under the heading “adding and subjecting polynomials”, begins with the words: “What? Me? Racist?” and uses the statistical results of a common survey about unconscious bias as an example for a set of mathematics problems.
The other examples make references to “social and emotional learning” or “social awareness”, concepts that conservative education activists say are a gateway to leftwing ideology.
“Those examples were given with no context and were not even elementary-level material,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association that represents more than 150,000 educators, said. “So it seems like it’s more about smoke and mirrors of trying to accomplish a political agenda than really about what we are teaching our kids.”
Florida’s banning of the books is widely seen by critics as an extension of Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s “culture war” on the supposed indoctrination of children in schools.
He recently signed the state’s controversial “don’t say gay” law – officially the Parental Rights in Education bill – that prohibits discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary classrooms.
His education department came under fire last week for announcing it had banned the textbooks without giving supporting details, and it said it was releasing the images “based on the volume of requests the department has received for examples of problematic elements of the recently reviewed instructional materials”.
The department said the examples were not an exhaustive list, and provided the images with no descriptions or context.
“Social and emotional learning” has been attacked by conservatives. Quoted in the New York Times, Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, linked social-emotional learning to a wider discussion of race, gender and sexuality teaching in classrooms, and called it “a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism”.
Other content that Florida’s education leaders objected to are cartoon children appearing at the side of textbook pages encouraging students to “learn together”, to have “a growth mindset” by trying a new way to tackle a problem when they were stuck, or to adopt a “math mindset” to help understand their feelings.
“Math is about getting the right answer. It’s not about how you feel about the problem,” DeSantis said at a press conference earlier in the week.
In a statement, a spokesperson said: “The [Florida education] department is continuing to give publishers the opportunity to remediate all deficiencies identified during the review to ensure the broadest selection of high quality instructional materials are available to the school districts and Florida’s students.”
Teachers’ representatives, meanwhile, dismissed it as “political theater” by the governor, who is, they say, focused on the wrong priorities.
“What educators and parents are concerned about is if we don’t have teachers in our classrooms, or bus drivers to get kids to school on time, then our kids aren’t learning math or any other subject,” Spar said.
“We’re expecting over 9,000 teacher vacancies by the end of the year, according to the state board that he appoints, and we have a massive bus driver, paraprofessional, cafeteria worker, custodian shortage in addition. We’ve heard the governor say or do nothing about it.
“These kinds of antics and political theater going on over these textbooks is exactly what’s driving people out of the profession.”