WILLIAMSBURG — The cover of the social studies textbook features a photo of a Black Lives Matter protest outside the U.S. Capitol. Signs in the crowd read “Silence is violence”, “No justice, no peace” and “Stop killing black people”.
In Williamsburg and James City County, it was enough to transform the 18th edition of “Government in America” in the latest battleground in the ongoing argument over what is taught in school.
Critics complained that the manual promoted divisive concepts and critical race theory. All of the reviews persuaded the Williamsburg-James City School Board to reject the book for the Advanced Placement United States Government and Political Course, as well as texts for other social studies courses before backtracking a week later. late. This remains a hot topic.
The back and forth began in April, when the board voted against ordering textbooks for the upcoming school year. This meant that many social studies classes would continue to use texts adopted more than 10 years ago.
Weeks later, a second vote overturned the decision, ensuring the new textbooks were in the hands of teachers and students for the next school year.
Between the committee’s assessments and community input, W-JCC spokeswoman Kara Wall said there’s a “level of subjectivity” in determining whether a text is divisive.
Lead author George Edwards, a professor of political science at Texas A&M and a distinguished scholar at Oxford University, told The Virginian-Pilot he had never heard these kinds of concerns raised about his manual for decades. He called it one of the most widely used textbooks in AP classes across the country. the College Council has the previous edition of the book on its list of sample textbooks.
As for the BLM protest on the cover, Edwards described it as “colorful politics in action” and he felt this latest edition, published in 2021, was unfairly judged for it.
“It’s not divisive,” he said. “It does not promote critical race theory… All you have to do is read it.”
Textbooks have become another flashpoint in the culture wars. Many conservatives have argued that schools are exposing students to books and classes with a more liberal view. Similar criticisms have made the news, among other places, in Texas, Florida and North Carolina.
In Williamsburg, several speakers lambasted the school board textbook — mostly focusing on the protest photo on the cover. The division provided public access to digital copies of the texts, and of the 26 reviews submitted for seven titles considered for AP’s American Government and Politics and AP’s American History, only four were positive. None of the positive responses were for “Government in America: People, Politics and Policy 2020 Presidential Election Edition.”
No names were provided with the responses. One person said, “I wouldn’t even consider a textbook that features a BLM program on its cover.” Some expressed concerns beyond coverage.
One described the content as “too many misguided comments rather than facts”. Others have criticized the text as liberal, biased and not factual.
One textbook received a higher community ranking than “Government in America,” but the written comments provided remained overwhelmingly negative for all texts.
School board member Julie Hummel said at the May 3 meeting that she decided to revisit the textbooks for review after being surprised by criticism of “government in America.”
“I would have preferred it had an eagle on it or a Capitol building or something completely innocuous,” Hummel said during the meeting. “But when you look at the contents of the other three books, in fact, the one that was selected by the textbook committee was the most balanced in the opinion of the textbook committee.”
For other board members, the issue was the evaluation process. Board member Sarah Ortego noted at the April 19 and May 3 board meetings that her concern was that the community review process was not long enough.
“I believe it would be in the best interests of all stakeholders, including the division itself, to include the documents before us in a revised review process,” Ortego said April 19.
Ultimately, Ortego said that was the reason she couldn’t support adopting the textbooks. Board Chairman Greg Dowell and members Sandra Young and Hummel joined her in the April 19 vote. Hummel changed his vote on May 3, which ultimately allowed the Social Studies Curriculum textbooks to gain approval.
Textbook Adoption Committees began their reviews in February, and then in early March, digital access to the texts was provided to the community for review. There was also a public textbook adoption fair on March 10th.
Robin Ford, director of elementary program and instruction for W-JCC Schools, told the board during an April 12 presentation that COVID mitigation measures at the time meant community members only had online access until the fair.
Ultimately, the Textbook Adoption Committee ranked “Government in America” number one because its chapter reviews, additional reading, cartoon analysis, and digital access “set it apart from the rest.” Wall said in an email.
The committees involved in this review cycle were made up of a curriculum coordinator, teachers, specialists, parents, administrators and a member of the school board, and they all received forms to classify texts according to several different factors, such as the scope of the content, its digital access and the representation of various cultures.
“I am grateful for the committee’s diligent work in reviewing new scientific and social studies material during this review cycle,” Superintendent Olwen Herron said in a statement. “Likewise, I appreciate our community’s engagement in the process.”
“Government in America” has been around for about 40 years, continually being updated as Edwards and the other authors obtain new data on voting, court rulings, public policy, and more so to provide “full US government treatment,” he said. Wall confirmed that the US AP government and politicians were using a previous edition of this manual.
“We try to update everything relevant in the book,” Edwards said.
According to the description in the manual on Pearson, a publishing website, the book covers everything from constitutional foundations to how media and politics are connected. It also covers the 2020 presidential election and the COVID pandemic, looking at headlines and recent events. In a letter Edwards wrote on the site last year, he said the purpose of the handbook was to explain how “politics matters”.
What the manual lacks, Edwards assured, is critical race theory. He touches on topics that might have been considered controversial at the time they occurred, such as the civil rights movement, but he said some events simply needed to be covered as part of American history.
According to the College Board’s website, schools are required to provide a “recent edition of a college-level textbook on United States government and politics” as well as ensure the “nonpartisan nature” in order to maintain a political balance.
As for the cover of the latest edition, “we weren’t trying to make a statement,” Edwards said.
Previous editions mostly had a picture of a bald eagle on the front, but he thinks some people might be “reading too much into” this latest edition.
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The W-JCC Division assessment process has been in place for years, but several concerns were raised when the board deliberated on the social studies textbooks. When the board first heard recommendations from the textbook committees, participants suggested having more of a textbook adoption fair, allowing more time for community review of digital materials, and limit the number of courses to be reviewed in a review cycle.
Wall said in an email that these recommendations will be used to “strengthen our processes.”
Kelsey Kendall, [email protected]