A closer look at Florida’s rejected math textbooks

It’s been two weeks since Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that nearly half the state’s proposed new math books weren’t fit for Florida classrooms. He offered few details about his claims of “indoctrination” then, and the Department of Education hasn’t provided specifics since, beyond posting four passages without explanation.

That’s left school district officials pondering their next move. Several are poised to select textbooks for the coming year without knowing why so many were rejected — or why the state turned around and approved a half dozen of the books after all.

The Pasco County School Board is scheduled to choose several of its 2022-23 math textbooks on Tuesday, with at least one on the list that hasn’t been recommended.

Publishers wouldn’t offer any insights either, as they filed appeals and negotiated with the state to get their textbooks approved.

“We are actively working with the Florida (Department of Education) to resolve any issues,” Richard Weir, a spokesperson for longtime Florida book provider Savvas Learning Co., said via email. He added that the company anticipates its books “will ultimately be accepted and delivered to our Florida customers.”

In theory, that could happen for all the rejected books, state officials said. Department of Education spokesperson Jared Ochs said most of the concerns could be easily fixed.

What was inside the books that might have offended the state reviewers?

The Tampa Bay Times examined several titles on the initial rejected list, using copies that were provided to school districts during the adoption process. Here’s what we found:

Florida’s B.E.S.T. Standards for MATH Grade 4

A sample question from the Big Ideas fourth-grade math textbook [ Big Ideas ]

Publisher: Big Ideas Learning, Erie, Pa.

Pages: 716

Description: This book is one of six in the company’s K-5 math series that initially appeared on the state’s rejected list. It received high ratings for math content on the state’s 5-point ranking system but was tagged for including “special topics.” Company executives told school districts via email that they did not include references to Common Core, the state’s previous standards, or “critical race theory.” They said three small mentions of social-emotional learning in reference materials would be excised. Within days, the state reversed course and approved the entire series.

Observations: A review of this book found close adherence to the prescribed math standards for the grade level, starting with numeric expression and moving through to understanding and using data. Each chapter included lessons that focused on different ways to approach the material, including through written words, numbers and problems. They also included challenges such as explaining work to a partner, as well as mentions of the specific learning targets and standards being covered.

To make the questions engaging, the book used Florida-centric examples such as attendance at the Plant City Strawberry Festival. Examples of politically charged topics did not appear to be in the pages. It featured a cartoon dog and cat that would occasionally offer math tips and encouragement such as “Stay positive.” That’s in line with standards requiring materials for students to stay engaged and persevere in their tasks.

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The book includes drawings of people of different races and ethnicities, in keeping with the state specification to provide multicultural representation.

enVision Florida B.E.S.T. Mathematics Grade 2

This page from a second-grade math book created for Florida by Savvas Learning Co. pictures a child touting the value of having a “growth mindset.” The concept of a growth mindset has been embraced for years by many schools, but it’s linked to social-emotional learning, which is frowned on by Florida officials and was listed as a reason many math textbooks were rejected this year. [ Savvas Learning Co. ]

Publisher: Savvas Learning Co., Paramus, N.J.

Pages: 696

Description: For second-grade students, this textbook teaches addition and subtraction using explanations, games and word problems. Early chapters focus on numbers lower than 20, gradually working up to numbers in the hundreds as the school year progresses. Students are encouraged to count and chart numbers using ordinary objects and living things — household items, toys, foods, pets, wildlife, buildings and more. Later chapters deal with more advanced concepts like measuring length, examining shapes and interpreting basic data.

Observations: A page-by-page review found no obvious references to critical race theory or its underlying theme that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions.

Similarly, there were no references by name to social-emotional learning, a widely used practice that aims to help students manage emotions, set goals, show empathy, build relationships and make decisions. Supporters of the strategy say it’s integral to education while critics argue it distracts from content and has no place in the classroom.

The book, however, included 26 instances of students being urged to adopt a “growth mindset,” a popular concept in education, embraced by many Tampa Bay schools, that has been linked to social-emotional learning. It’s also encouraged in the state’s math standards. On those pages, cartoon figures of school children appear with messages expressed in speech bubbles (shown above). They offer encouragement in various ways, urging students to take on challenges, welcome feedback and give themselves time to work problems.

In this second-grade math book by Savvas Learning Company, students are asked to solve a basic math problem involving a West African instrument called a shekere. The book contains several references to objects from cultures outside the U.S. Are these examples of “culturally responsive teaching,” a concept the state said should be kept out of math textbooks? Officials are not answering questions about what caused this and other books to be rejected. [ Savvas Learning Co. ]

The book also included mentions of items from various cultures — two piñatas from Mexico, for example, drums and another musical instrument from West Africa (shown above), a Nigerian flag patch on a student’s jacket. While Florida encouraged publishers to embrace “multicultural advocacy” in their books, it also warned in advance not to include “culturally responsive teaching,” a strategy that encourages educators to make cultural references a routine part of learning.

enVision Florida B.E.S.T. Mathematics, Grade 7

A model lesson found in the seventh-grade math textbook published by Savvas Learning Company for Florida schools. [ Savvas Learning Co. ]

Publisher: Savvas Learning Co., Paramus, N.J.

Pages: 469

Description: This book is part of Savvas Learning’s middle grades math series. It focuses on five key areas: fractions, equivalent expressions, proportional relationships, analysis of two and three-dimensional figures, and probability. The Department of Education rated this book as unacceptable for not meeting the required academic standards. At the same time, the department approved all other middle grades books from Savvas, including the seventh-grade accelerated version, which it said met 100 percent of the standards. It did not make mention of any unapproved topics in the title.

Observations: This book remains focused on meeting the expectations set by the state, frequently including the specific standard each lesson is intended to address. The problems adhere closely to the type of issues that might confront adolescents, such as cell phone use, pet food weight and event ticket costs. Chapters suggest projects, some of which might not seem related to the topic. In the section on understanding probability, for example, one of the ideas is to invent and write about a character for an adventure.

Like other Savvas titles, the seventh-grade edition includes several references to having a “growth mindset,” which some people have linked to the social-emotional learning concept that the department told publishers not to include. It also had several reminders to learn together, with advice such as “respect and understand other perspectives and points of view.” The book included two pages reviewing the state thinking and reasoning standards that encourage such an approach.

The seventh-grade math textbook that Savvas Learning Company presented for adoption in Florida emphasizes the importance of working individually and in a group. [ Savvas Learning Co. ]

Stats In Your World 3e

A math problem from the chapter about two-way tables in the textbook Stats In Your World. [ Pearson ]

Publisher: Pearson North America, New York City

Pages: 562

Description: This textbook is for the elective statistics class that Florida teens may take if they’re on a business career path. The publisher writes that it’s a book about “how to think clearly with data.” The first several chapters focus on data analysis, and the chapters then turn to data collection, probability and inference concepts. The state rated this book high for its math content, but found it included some of the “impermissible” topics.

Observations: The book opens with the premise that statistics are both meaningful and accessible. To make the point, it focuses on subjects that teens might relate to, such as Facebook using personal information to tailor ads to users and the reaction times of drivers who text versus those who are drunk. The goal is to teach students how to create such experiments, gather and analyze the data.

The 12-page index of subjects spans a wide variety of material, including twin births and Skittles. A few of the examples discuss hot button political issues, such as the concept of racial profiling (shown above) and the accuracy of polling data in the 2016 presidential election, with the photo of Hillary Clinton above the one of Donald Trump. It is possible these might be among the items the state flagged.

Thinking Quantitatively: Communicating with Numbers

The circled wording, found in a math textbook by Savvas Learning Co., makes an assertion about climate change. Was it a factor in the state rejecting the book from its recommended list this year? State officials aren’t specifying why they initially rejected this and 27 other books for containing “prohibited topics.” The book is titled “Thinking Quantitatively: Communicating with Numbers.” [ Savvas Learning Co. ]

Publisher: Pearson North America, New York City

Pages: 510

Description: Geared to high school students, this book begins with the basics of setting up spreadsheets and works up to more complicated concepts like frequencies and probabilities. Using a variety of charts and graphs, students are prompted to consider how real life topics can be dissected and analyzed using data. Among the issues addressed in these illustrations are traffic accidents, U.S. population trends, earthquake magnitudes, and the correlation between obesity and Walmart Supercenters.

Observations: As with some of the other rejected books, there were no obvious references to critical race theory or social-emotional learning. But the wording of the state’s original news release suggested that books may have been flagged for other reasons, too. So it’s worth examining some passages that touched on controversial issues and could be seen as taking aim at positions held by many of the state’s conservative leaders.

In Chapter 8, the topic of crime statistics remarks on “the unavoidable police state we were headed toward” as law enforcement responded to rising crime rates between 1960 and 1991.

Chapter 11, titled “Risk and Decision Making,” guides students through charts that track sea level rise and the Earth’s surface temperature. It also takes a swipe at climate change deniers: “To deny that such pollution will have any impact on the environment seems as naïve as believing that cigarette smoke will not harm your lungs.”

The same chapter ventures into America’s debate over guns, saying “The chance of dying from a gunshot is 30 times higher in the United States than in England.”

The passage then notes that guns and racial issues dominated the debate leading up to the 2016 presidential election. “Should we vote for stricter gun control measures?” it asks. “Just how dangerous is our society? Does racial profiling impact police tactics such as stop and frisk? Answering such questions requires understanding risk and assessing various interventions.”

Thinking mathematically

Pearson’s Thinking Mathematically was on the Florida Department of Education list as not recommended for use in schools in 2022-23. [ Pearson ]

Publisher: Pearson North America, New York City

Pages: 945

Description: This book is written for a Florida course called Mathematics for College Liberal Arts, which caters to students who are not on track for a career in sciences, math or engineering. The author writes in the preface that its primary goal is to show students how math can be applied to their lives in meaningful and interesting ways. It covers a variety of approaches, including problem solving and logic, in addition to offering overviews of subjects such as algebra and geometry. The state rated it high for meeting standards, but said it included unacceptable topics.

Observations: Because the book focuses on daily non-scientific uses of math, it relies on material considered to be relatable for students. It has chapters on topics used daily such as measurement and finance, for instance. The chapter on graph theory opens with an explanation of how students might apply it to life, such as creating an efficient travel plan for making sales calls.

It’s the area of applications where references to potentially controversial topics appear. For example, it presents math problems discussing the legal age for having sex, alcohol use by high school seniors and Americans’ belief in God.

This is one of the math problems in the textbook Thinking Mathematically, which the Florida Department of Education did not include on its list of adopted materials. [ Pearson ]

These questions generally are used to advance students’ understanding of math, in this case from the logic chapter. The book has a chapter on elections, which begins by stating that citizens of a free society have a right and responsibility to vote. The material focuses on the math of preference tables, and different ways to calculate election outcomes. It also includes some brief history.

The governor has said he believes schools should teach students how to solve problems, not add extraneous ideas to the effort. However, the specifications sent to publishers said the books should include interdisciplinary connections and connections to students’ lives to make the content meaningful.

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