Clearing Up Some Things about the Texas Science Textbook Review

by Dan Quinn

During last week’s State Board of Education (SBOE) meetings, various board members suggested that the Texas Freedom Network had inappropriately or inaccurately reported what’s going on in the review of proposed new biology textbooks for Texas high schools. So let’s clear up a few things.

SBOE members suggested that TFN inappropriately released findings and objections by textbook reviewers.

Texans have a right to know what state-appointed reviewers are saying about textbooks proposed for their children. So TFN posted on our website the review panels’ August reports that were provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) after our request under the Texas Public Information Act. As the TEA legal counsel noted at Friday’s SBOE meeting, those reports are public documents. Publishers are currently negotiating with reviewers over objections to their textbooks that are listed in the panel review reports.

SBOE Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, protested that the reviewer reports TFN cited were only “preliminary.”

Casually dismissing these review reports as “preliminary” is greatly misleading. Publishers must decide what changes to make — if any — based on reviewers’ findings and objections recorded in these “preliminary” reports. Reviewers then evaluate those publisher responses, revise their reports accordingly, and send finalized reports to the state’s education commissioner. So these so-called “preliminary” reports play a central role in shaping the content in students’ textbooks.

SBOE members suggested that many objections raised by anti-evolution activists on the review teams never went to publishers.

TFN has called attention to reviewer comments in the in-person panel reports, and publishers got those reports. We also highlighted comments in documents completed by individual reviewers working on their own in earlier phases of the review process. According to the TEA’s training presentation, TEA aggregated the “findings” in those earlier individual review documents and shared that information with publishers.

SBOE members suggested that it is unusual (even unprecedented) for anyone outside of the Texas Education Agency to analyze what the reviewers are saying about the textbooks.

If it is true that no one outside TEA staff and publishers has ever looked at what textbook reviewers were saying about instructional materials that are up for adoption, we’re glad that era is over. These reviews are a key part of the process of determining which textbooks the education commissioner will recommend to the SBOE for adoption. Moreover, publishers must address the findings and objections of those reviewers, particularly whether textbooks cover the required curriculum standards and are free of factual errors. That means the reviewers wield substantial influence over textbook content.

In addition, it’s worth noting that TFN and other organizations regularly review the work of the writing teams that craft the initial drafts of required curriculum standards for science, social studies and other subjects. It should be no surprise that TFN (or anyone else) would want to look at the work of textbook review teams as well. After all, the reports from those review teams have substantial influence over textbook content. And those textbooks could be in classrooms for nearly a decade.

SBOE member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, complained about the names of reviewers and their work being made public. He even suggested that reviewers, including teachers, who were critical of evolution “were now fearful of losing their jobs.” Chairwoman Cargill said she hadn’t thought anyone would “evaluate the evaluators.” 

The public has a right to know who has been appointed to serve as official reviewers of textbooks that will go into our children’s public school classrooms. After all, these reviewers have been tasked with evaluating whether the proposed biology textbooks conform to the required science curriculum standards and are free of factual errors. Publishers must respond to reviewers’ objections to textbook content. And the reviewers have the power to recommend to the education commissioner and the SBOE, based on their findings, whether to adopt or reject a textbook.

TFN has reported about the anti-evolution activists who were appointed to the high school biology review teams. Many of them, as we reported, are not biologists or even scientists. Instead, they include engineers, a dietician/nutritionist, and business and finance people. Yet, these unqualified individuals are tasked with reviewing biology textbooks that could be in classrooms for a decade — important information for the public to know. (They are so unqualified, by the way, that a science scholar at the University of Texas at Austin who also served on a biology review panel has said that he was forced “to painstakingly educate other panel members on past and current literature” regarding information in the textbooks.)

Texans also have a right to know that nine of the 28 reviewers appointed to evaluate the biology textbooks were nominated — as we have reported — by just one board member, Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, after she was defeated for re-election in the 2012 Republican Primary. Lowe was one of the SBOE’s leading anti-evolution members, and she rejects climate change science. No other SBOE member had more than one nominee appointed as a biology textbook reviewer.

Mercer, we should note, is one of a number of SBOE members who have charged that the development of the CSCOPE curriculum tool was not sufficiently transparent. CSCOPE critics have demanded to know who wrote that program’s lessons, and they have insisted that meetings of CSCOPE’s developers from the state’s Education Service Centers be conducted in public. It seems hypocritical, to say the least, for the same critics now to complain about the public knowing who is serving on teams reviewing proposed new science textbooks for public schools and what their qualifications are.

Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence that reviewers critical of evolution are at risk of losing their jobs. In fact, a number of anti-evolution activists on the review teams are retired. Another works for a prominent evangelical ministry that rejects evolution. In addition, none of the anti-evolution activists we have identified on the review teams are classroom teachers in the state’s public schools. The claim that reviewers are “fearful of losing theirs jobs” is a scare tactic meant to silence critics of a compromised review process.

SBOE Chairwoman Cargill suggested that the individuals on the review teams for biology were well-qualified for those posts.

Among those appointed as reviewers for high school biology textbooks were a dietician/nutritionist, a mechanical engineer, a civil engineer, a systems engineer, an equine vet, a chemical engineer and a systems (network) engineer. None is any more qualified to review a biology textbook than a biologist would be to review a textbook about civil engineering or finance.

SBOE members suggested on Friday that because 280 of 429 textbooks submitted for adoption have already been rated as covering all of the state’s required curriculum standards (TEKS), they don’t see why groups (like TFN) have warned that there are problems with the review process.

Those numbers include all of the products submitted for adoption by publishers this year, including for K-12 science, K-8 math and technology applications. But of 18 products submitted by publishers for high school biology, the “preliminary” August reports from the review panels rated 13 as not covering all of the required curriculum standards. (Four of the 18 products are digital versions of submitted print textbooks with essentially the same content. Those 18 products come from 14 different publishers.) The review panels marked down nine of the 13 for their coverage of TEKS standards related in some way to evolution. Another three products that got ratings of 100% on TEKS coverage were nevertheless criticized by a reviewer for not including “creation science based on biblical principles.” In short, even if many other science, math and technology applications products got through the review process with little problem, that wasn’t true for the majority of high school biology products. That’s because the review teams were stacked with unqualified activists who reject the established, mainstream science on evolution.

SBOE members insisted that no one is trying to insert creationism into biology textbooks.

That’s not true. In fact, at least one of the textbook reviewers has called for including “creation science based on biblical principles” in biology textbooks. She was one of three anti-evolution activists assigned to a panel of four reviewers meeting last month in Austin. Regardless, publishers know that the courts would bar teaching about creationism in textbooks and science classrooms. That’s why anti-evolution activists have focused mostly on pressuring publishers to insert into their textbooks arguments attacking evolution — even though scientists long ago debunked those arguments.

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