Social Studies

Florida Is Placing Limits on Social Studies Textbooks. Here’s What Has to Go

By Ileana Najarro — July 14, 2022 5 min read
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Do culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning have a place in social studies instruction? No, according to Florida’s message to textbook publishers.

Florida undergoes a state-level adoption process of textbooks—meaning reviewers check to see the quality of instructional materials and how well they meet state standards for various subjects. Earlier this year the state drew national attention when it rejected several math textbooks for purportedly including principles of social-emotional learning, aspects of the Common Core State Standards, or aspects of critical race theory.

The review for social studies materials begins in September, and the specifications for publishers are similar to those sent out for math.

The review comes at a moment when Florida is investing in its civics education program through revised civics standards that emphasize patriotism and American exceptionalism and related professional development courses. A state law limiting how topics such as race can be discussed in the classroom has also already taken effect.

The social studies textbook specifications—especially what they ask publishers to avoid—have some national education groups worried about how these steps fit into the larger national trend of placing limits on social studies instruction.

In the specifications, the state reminds publishers to avoid theories that “may lead to student indoctrination.” It says they may not include critical race theory, culturally responsive teaching, “social justice,” or social-emotional learning.

The broader concern that teachers may be indoctrinating students is unfounded, says Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“Educators are trained, licensed professionals whose job is to help students achieve standards to be prepared for graduation, to be prepared for a life beyond school. That is what they do every day,” Paska said. “Restrictions and limitations to that serve the opposite effect. They don’t help educators to fulfill their professional level of possibilities. And they don’t help students achieve excellence and the ability to graduate with the skills and knowledge that have already been determined elsewhere that are needed.”

Publishers can challenge the Florida textbook adoption list or the adoption process, according to the state. A company has 21 days to request a hearing, and the state has in the past allowed publishers to amend their materials.

Districts must use half of the state funds allocated to them for curriculum purchases for state-adopted materials, but they can go off-list for the other half.

What do these terms mean? Florida’s definitions differ from others’

Critical race theory is an academic concept that investigates how racism can be embedded in policy and systems, including the law. The state defines it as espousing that “members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex, or national origin,” and “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” among other things.

Culturally responsive teaching, broadly speaking, means using students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction. But the state claims this type of teaching differs from the requirement that “in the selection of instructional materials ... the propriety of the material shall include the consideration of the broad racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity of the students of this state.”

The guidelines go on to define social justice as “aligned” to critical race theory with components such as “seeking to eliminate undeserved disadvantages for selected groups.”

Social-emotional learning includes competencies such as self awareness, social awareness, and self management relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Florida calls SEL “extraneous, unsolicited strategies” for social studies, and the state defines it as teaching about identity and identification concepts, managing emotion, developing relationships, and social awareness.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, which works with researchers, policymakers and districts to support SEL in schools, sees this take as contradictory to quality social studies education.

“When you think about social studies instruction, in order to really understand it, it requires social and emotional learning to engage with the content in deeper and more meaningful ways,” Schlinger said. “By even communicating that this social-emotional learning shouldn’t be part of academic instruction, you’re taking out an element that we know makes instruction more effective and we know that from research.”

A student in civics class, for example, might use them as part of learning how to be civically engaged. Schlinger gave the example of a student who, after noticing how inaccessible so many places are for his sister who uses a wheelchair, rallies others in his community to campaign for things like adding ramps. The student develops social awareness in identifying the needs of his sister and others; self awareness in realizing why this matters to him; builds relationship skills in working with others; and practices self-management and responsible decision-making throughout the process.

The specifications even contradict themselves, Schlinger said. For instance, publishers are expected to include key learning features such as “strategies known to be successful for teaching the learning outcomes targeted in the curriculum requirements.”

Listed among them is teaching critical thinking, which the state defines in part as approaches to “explain and provide practice in recognizing factors or biases that may influence choice and interpretations such as culture, experience, preferences, desires, interests and passions, as well as systematic thinking.”

To Schlinger, “that is social awareness, that is perspective taking, that is understanding how viewpoints are shaped by individual cultural identities, experiences. What they’re saying they want is social-emotional learning—and they’re saying, please take this out of instruction.”

“When I think at the heart of this, we’re talking about politicization of education,” she added. “Kids lose when we do that.”

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