Florida Department of Education offers examples of math book concerns

Six days after rejecting dozens of math textbooks because of concerns about “impermissible” content, the Florida Department of Education on Thursday quietly posted a few examples of what it found objectionable.

One item about algebraic expressions called polynomials reads, “What? Me? Racist? More than 2 million people have tested their racial prejudice using an online version of the Implicit Association Test.” It goes on to provide mathematical models that measure bias.

Lea Mitchell, director of leading and learning for Pasco County schools, said she could see how that type of question might lead to a heated conversation in her community.

However, she reacted differently to another example provided by the state. It stated that one goal of a lesson on number sequencing was to have “students build proficiency with social awareness as they practice with empathizing with classmates.” The goal came under the heading of social-emotional learning.

“That one, to me, would be fine, really and truly,“ Mitchell said. She suggested that helping students advocate for themselves and feel confident about their work and other objectives is necessary and positive.

Social-emotional learning refers to strategies for teaching students how to manage their emotions, develop empathy, solve problems and make decisions. It was one of two “prohibited topics” cited by the state on April 15 as part of its rationale for recommending that school districts not use dozens of math textbooks.

The other unwanted topic was “critical race theory,” an academic term Gov. Ron DeSantis and others have adapted for their own use as they discuss social and historical issues surrounding race, which they have said are accusatory and divisive.

In a disclaimer on its instructional materials page, the Department of Education stated that members of the public complained about the questions during a two-week commenting period in January about proposed math books.

“These examples do not represent an exhaustive list of input received by the Department,” the statement reads. “The 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.”

The state needs to provide more examples and explain them, said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education who studies state standards and textbooks.

“It’s not clear what the problem is that got (the books) canceled,” he said. “This does not answer any of the questions I had before. If anything, it raises additional questions.”

The posted questions are not clearly linked to any of the books that are on the state’s list of rejected titles. Nor is it clear what grades the books were written for.

By providing a small number of items, which are probably the most egregious ones available, Polikoff said, the department avoids answering the bigger criticism.

The department has come under fire from skeptics who questioned whether any of the 54 rejected books contained the offending material that Gov. Ron DeSantis and others claimed appeared in them. In releasing the items on Thursday, the department aimed to counter the critics who accused Republican leaders of manufacturing a controversy to advance a political agenda.

As part of their initial announcement, DeSantis and his team had argued that textbook publishers were working in concert to indoctrinate children. The allegations baffled many educators, not to mention the publishers who were caught off guard by the action.

The department sent two one-line emails to the publishers on April 15. The first alerted them that the list of approved math books had been posted online, and the second advised them that they could appeal the decisions if they wish. Some of the publishers, including Savvas and Big Ideas Learning, have said they intend to seek additional reviews from the state.

Several Florida school districts, meanwhile, are reconsidering the titles they have already adopted or plan to approve, based on the state’s announcement. They are not required to buy books from the state approved list, but they may use only half of their state funding for instructional materials for items not on state lists.

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