By Barbara Cargill, Texas State Board of Education Member
You may have heard the recent story in the news about the attentive Pearland High School freshman, Coby Burren, who discovered an error in his World Geography textbook. In a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” a caption on a map stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The student told his mom, and she posted it on Facebook. As you can imagine, there has been a lot of outrage and concern.
The good news is that publisher McGraw-Hill pledged immediately to “update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor.” The bad news is that such an error was missed by the publishers’ review process and by the state textbook review process. Both involved experts with impressive credentials in history, and in Texas the review also included hundreds of citizen volunteers who reviewed the books independently. The state review is an open process; anyone can review submitted textbooks. Thanks to diligent reviewers, hundreds of other errors were found, reported, and corrected. So how could this egregious error have been missed?
Senate Bill 6, passed in 2011, allows publishers to submit digital or printed versions of their textbooks to participate in the state review process. Digital textbooks are not like the printed textbooks that may still come home in your kids’ backpacks! The student has links to open, videos to watch, academic games to play, activities and lesson resources to study, and assessments to take. Needless to say, reviewing a digital textbook is very different than the old pre-Senate Bill 6 days of reviewing only printed copies, which is difficult enough with many books being hundreds of pages long. Even more difficult to review are online textbooks that involve a lot of clicking and searching, leading to more content, much of which is interactive.
The McGraw-Hill World Geography book was a digital submission. For a reviewer, navigating to the erroneous map caption would have required clicking on the chapter, clicking on 1 of 4 lesson resources, and then further clicking on 1 of 16 ancestries listed on the map. Only then did the incorrect content appear in a pop-up screen. I am not trying to excuse the error, but this explanation at least gives a picture of the challenges involved in reviewing digital textbooks.
That is why we need sharp-eyed, conscientious people like Coby Burren and his mom to report errors they find. It is unfortunate that the textbook included the offensive wording to begin with, but the publisher has done the right thing by correcting it. You can rest assured that the SBOE-approved history textbooks are excellent resources for our students and teachers. In this new age of technology where we see school districts greatly increasing their use of digital instructional materials, we need and appreciate your help to ensure complete accuracy in our students’ textbooks.