By Julie Gallant
Ramona Unified School District is assembling a committee to review social science textbooks before teachers use them in the classroom.
School board members discussed forming a Curriculum Committee at their Oct. 10 meeting. The committee will consist of two Ramona trustees — Maya Phillips, who is up for re-election Tuesday, and Bob Stoody, whose term ends in November — in addition to a number of teachers, community members and staff, possibly two of each, officials said.
The school board initiated the committee after a review of instructional materials at the end of the last school year, said Superintendent Brian Thurman. The board was primarily concerned that some of the materials submitted by staff were biased and not politically neutral, Thurman said.
Board President Daryn Drum said this is the first time he has seen the board create a committee to review textbooks.
“Civics and history are hot topics politically and we as a board want to make sure that our district is delivering accurate and politically nonbiased curriculum,” Drum said. “The board takes this responsibility very seriously and this is one of our primary duties.”
The first textbook the committee will look at is “U.S. History,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and written for high school students. The book is one of about 14 textbooks proposed for possible piloting in conjunction with supplemental instructional supports, according to a staff report.
Piloting involves a review of textbooks by teachers and staff to narrow a selection down to a few options, comparing them to state standards and frameworks. After a few top contenders are selected, teachers volunteer to use the books in their classrooms and ultimately make recommendations to the school board on which books should be adopted.
Cori McDonald, president of the Ramona Teachers’ Association, has raised concerns about the committee and its review process.
McDonald said the committee is expected to include two high school social science teachers, but with three high school campuses in the district, that would leave one of the high schools out of the textbook decision-making process, she said.
She said another concern is that teachers went through the process of vetting books months ago. Then, when the top contenders were brought to the school board for possible pilot at the end of last school year, the textbook review process stopped.
It wasn’t until recently that teachers learned the school board wanted to get involved and start the process over with their input, McDonald said.
“It is disheartening that our teachers already went through this entire process with leadership from our district and presented their feedback,” McDonald said in an email. “This is additional work now as their input was not considered in the first round.”
Drum said district staff made textbook recommendations to the board in a previous meeting, but the trustees decided to become more engaged in the selection process.
“We ultimately adopt the final product and if we are going to give our stamp of approval, we want to be engaged in the process,” he said.
One goal of the committee is to review textbook materials to ensure they are accurate, objective and current, said committee member Phillips. Textbooks should also be unbiased and present both sides of issues, she said.
“As a member of the board, I have a responsibility to abide by the California Education Code 60045 that states all instructional materials adopted by the board shall be, to the satisfaction of the governing board, accurate, objective and current,” Phillips wrote in an email that she said represented her personal views rather than the school board’s.
Phillips said she “took a deep dive” into history and social sciences textbooks proposed for adoption in the spring and found them to be “unsatisfactory.” She said some of the textbooks did not include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as required by California Education Code 60043.
“I discovered bias, subjective opinions, omissions, factual errors, half-truths, withholding information, among other things,” Phillips wrote. “Some chapters were OK, but some chapters were just horrendous.”
Phillips also said she wanted to ensure the books comply with the district’s Controversial Issues board policy, which states, “instruction shall be presented in a balanced manner ... addressing all sides of the issues without bias or prejudice and without promoting any particular point of view.”
A preliminary review of the books presented by staff, which cover world history, American government, economics, European history, and U.S. history, showed some of the books weren’t balanced and/or they appeared to have a political bias, according to Stoody, who is on the committee.
Stoody said a book titled “U.S. History Interactive: Reconstruction to the Present,” published by Savvas, was not balanced in its description of major political parties during the past century. He also said the book was not accurate in some of its depictions of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“How long does it take for current events to be history in study form?” he said. “Sometimes you should wait a bit for history to settle down, so you get a lot of opinions out of it and start to test it.”
“It wasn’t just one sentence, it was a variety of things that didn’t quite mesh with the things we needed for the children of Ramona,” he said.
McDonald said she was concerned that Stoody’s term on the school district board expires after the Nov. 8 election and Phillips is a trustee running for re-election.She said she wondered if the committee would be ready to make a recommendation to the school board in December. If not, she said teachers and staff might be expected to start the textbook review process over after there is a change in the school board leadershipin December.
“We would have hoped to include at least one board member who will be returning and continuing for the remainder of the school year to help with the consistency of this decision since this has already been quite a lengthy process,” she said.
The committee is prepared to measure the content of the books against rubrics to ensure they adhere to state standards, Stoody said. Then it will make recommendations to the full school board based on its evaluations, he said.
McDonald said she and the other teachers hope the school board and community representatives on the committee understand the state standards and frameworks that textbooks are supposed to be aligned with and that teachers must adhere to.
“By law, we are required to cover content within our content standards and we need to make sure our students in Ramona are meeting those standards in order to keep our accreditation,” she said.
Drum said the committee meetings will not be open to the public, but the trustees will accept community input at the board meeting when the adoption process is on the agenda.
Drum said a deadline has not yet been set for the committee to make its recommendations.
“We are dedicated to making a good decision and that cannot be driven by an external timeline,” he said.
Phillips said school district staff aim to facilitate teacher participation by arranging after-class meetings so, if possible, the committee’s work doesn’t interfere with classroom instruction.
Gallant writes for the U-T Community Press.