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What Students Learn About American History Varies By State


High school students in Texas and California may find two different versions of U.S. history when they open their textbooks. While both states often cover the same historical events, the content in their textbooks can diverge because of partisan politics.

From the Bill of Rights to the Harlem Renaissance, New York Times national correspondent Dana Goldstein sat down with Think’s Krys Boyd to discuss the differences she found when comparing textbooks from both states. 

Goldstein said Texas and California are some of the biggest purchasers on the textbook market. In 2016, California taxpayers paid $72.6 billion for public education and Texas taxpayers paid $45.9 billion, according to Forbes

"I wanted to look at those two states because they’re so large and because they do adopt their own textbooks at the state level," she said. "They have a lot of influence."

She reviewed 43 textbooks and read nearly 5,000 pages of American history for the investigation. Her research focused on social studies textbooks covered in 8th and 11th grades, which are part of the U.S. history sequence. 

Goldstein described the textbook production process included in The New York Times article detailing her investigation. First, authors, who are usually academics, write a national version of the textbook. Second, publishers customize books for states and large districts without the input of the original authors. Third, state or district reviewers go through each book and suggest further changes to publishers. Fourth, publishers make revisions and sell them to districts and states. 

The Differences Between Texas And California Textbooks

Goldstein said one of the differences she found was the annotated Bill of Rights in the McGraw Hill textbooks for 8th grade students in California and Texas. The California edition includes an explanation next to the Second Amendment to explain how later court rulings allowed for some gun regulations — but in Texas’ textbook, the same space is empty. 

“So you almost give that child in Texas who’s looking at this an originalist reading of this, which is the one conservatives appreciate more, because you’re not updating it with any sort of sense of what had happened since it was written in the 18th century,” Goldstein said. 

Texas edition textbooks also differed by sometimes using critical language when talking about the Harlem Renaissance and other non-white cultural movements, like the Chicano Mural Movements.

Goldstein said in 2010, the Texas Board of Education debated whether students should learn about majority non-white cultural movements. Some conservative members on the board did not want students to learn about these movements, so members of the board made a compromise. 

“The sort of compromise that the liberals and conservatives on the Texas board eventually came to was that it’s ok for students to encounter say the Harlem Renaissance, but they ought to hear ‘both the positives and negatives,’ she said. 

Goldstein said the decision led these textbooks to include critiques questioning the work of figures like Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston, who she calls “members of the American canon.”

She said although Texas struck the positive and negative requirement from textbooks published in 2018, many textbooks from 2016 will continue to live on for a decade or more. 

Goldstein also found several other differences between Texas and California textbooks on the issues of gender and sexuality, immigration and nativism, big business and white resistance to black progress. 

“One of the best ways to see how politics was influencing the writing of history and the teaching of history was to really look at these two states whose politics are, of course, so different — with the sort of progressive or left-wing of the Democratic party in power in California, and with social conservatives wielding so much influence in Texas,” she said. 

Listen to KERA Think's entire conversation with Dana Goldstein.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Digital Producer. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.