Texas State Board of Education's Rejection
of a Math Textbook is Illegal

Steven Schafersman
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 February 11

Read the news articles and editorials here

Mathematics Textbook Rejected

On Friday, 2007 November 17, the SBOE rejected a math textbook in violation of the statutes that govern textbook selection, and the publishers have rightfully appealed the decision to the Commissioner of Education. If that appeal is not upheld and the textbook rightfully adopted, the decision will be appealed to the Texas Attorney General, and then ultimately undergo litigation in a court of law, because the unlawful rejection will cost the publisher, McGraw Hill, tens of millions of dollars in lost sales.

By Texas law, textbooks can only be rejected by the SBOE if (1) the textbook contains factual errors that the publisher refuses to correct, (2) the book does not teach all the subject's curriculum standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), and the publisher refuses to make changes, or (3) the book's binding is not sturdy and the publisher will not fix this. None of these apply in this case. The book contained some errors but the publisher promised to fix them, and the book fully met the math TEKS.

Some SBOE members say they rejected the book because it taught "fuzzy math"--in the real world known as reform, conceptual, standards-based, or whole math--that allows students to use calculators earlier than the members wanted, but the Board does not have the authority to reject a book for that reason. Reform or conceptual math textbooks are written--as are all math textbooks offered for adoption in Texas--to cover all the Texas math curriculum standards--the Math TEKS. To do otherwise is plainly irrational, since that would guarantee that the book would not be acceptable in Texas. The math standards are published, easily available, and not difficult to cover. If by chance or oversight a textbook failed to cover one or more math standards, the publisher would of course agree to fix that problem immediately, as has been done hundreds of times in the past.

Other SBOE members simply refused to give a reason for their rejection, but this stance blatantly violates the law, since the statute explicitly names the only permitted reasons for rejection, and at least one of them must be specified for a rejection to be legal. In reality, the math textbook rejection was a power play designed to assert a precedent for the Board's self-claimed power to reject books for no reason at all, so that they will have this power to reject biology books when they come up for adoption in future years. The radical religious right members of the SBOE have not been able to get mainstream biology texts that contain evolution information thrown out or censored by legitimate means, so they are resorting to naked political force and are daring anyone to sue them. I hope McGraw Hill does precisely that.

Several large school districts in Texas use the Everyday Mathematics textbook and math program. The reform math program was recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and has proven successful in achieving high scores in national studies. Many of the state's math teachers are trained to use this math instructional program. There is no legitimate reason to reject this math book except to set an illegitimate precedent. There are reasons, of course, for a school district to not want to use this book or the others in its series. For example, there is evidence that reform math doesn't work as well as traditional computational math. A school district may want to use math texts that teach math using the traditional computational methods. This is perfectly consistent with a school district's authority and, in fact, most school districts in Texas apparently make this choice. But the point is that the choice belongs to the school district, not the State Board of Education. Math instructional programs should be chosen and taught by the trained and qualified math teachers in Texas, not by the untrained and unqualified members of the State Board of Education.

Postmodernist Constructivism

Reform or conceptual math can be characterized as the constructivist (i.e., postmodernist; constructivism is one aspect of postmodernism) program in mathematics education contrasted with traditional or computational mathematics, occupying the same place as whole language reading instruction (or, as opponents term it, the "look-say" method) contrasted with phonics instruction. These controversies are known as the Math Wars and Reading Wars respectively, and both are still raging in Texas (Texans love wars). Conservatives and the radical religious right always sides with traditional math and phonics regardless of what math and reading experts say.

There are, in fact, legitimate professional and educated critics and advocates on both sides of both of these wars. Both sides can show studies that show that their instructional methods work best. But these facts are not the point. The point is that a very few individuals (7 or 8) in very powerful positions (members of the Texas SBOE) are using their official powers to illegally impose their collective will on everyone else (students, teachers, education supervisors, and curriculum experts) in the state to accept only one of two possible choices in the Math Wars. State educational laws do not permit the SBOE to determine educational methodology or specific curricula of instruction, and that's what the SB is doing. And they intend to do this again in the future: to impose their minority will on others in the Biology Textbook Wars when they illegally reject biology textbooks that refuse to compromise or weaken their language about evolution.

Although not nearly as well known, the same traditional v. postmodern constructivist battle also goes on with science instruction: the Science Wars. Here, while traditional science instruction methods rely on reading, note-taking, memorization, and laboratory exercises that have expected outcomes. The alternative postmodern or constructivist instructional method is called "inquiry-based" science, in which students don't memorize important information, but practice or perform a simulacrum of science. Laboratory exercises are open-ended and can have many different but always acceptable outcomes. A common practice is to have students work with real-world data and "analyze" the data as scientists would, but the methods are usually superficial and the results almost invariably useless except to give students some sort of an appreciation for how science is done. Emphasis is placed on having students perform in class like scientists supposedly perform, with class exercises that engage and inspire the student but without the requirement of actually learning specific information.

Sometimes students are allowed to choose their own science topics, construct their experiments or observational methods, and generate their own data, with little concern for rigor or conformity to genuine scientific methods. This is termed "student-directed inquiry," and is distinguished from "instructor-directed inquiry," which is when the teacher assigns students to complete specific research topics or exercises. Finally, assessment of what was learned is given very low priority in inquiry-based science. Typically, there are no exams, but grades are assigned on the basis of completion of student projects. The mantra of constructivist science instruction is "process over substance," i.e. exposing students to the process of science and having them engage in it is more important in the long run than obliging them to learn specific scientific facts or information (which they often forget later and may cause them to develop an antipathy to science). Most working scientists--when they learn about inquiry-based science instruction--find this method to be somewhat controversial and counter-productive, but inquiry-based science instructional methods are quite popular in primary, secondary, and higher education today.

There is probably justification for some constructivist methods in science, such as allowing students to feel good about engaging in scientific inquiry, but such methods should not be used at the expense of learning necessary information. There has to be a balance, and the role of objective reality in scientific discovery must be emphasized. Good science students can certainly participate in instructor-directed and even student-directed inquiry, but this includes only a minority. I have seen science courses that are overwhelmingly constructivist and postmodernist, and it is not a pretty sight; the students enjoy the course but end up knowing little or nothing. Only science curriculum specialists (such as myself) are really aware of this controversy. The public and even many science teachers know little about the Science Wars, which exactly parallel the Math Wars and Reading Wars. Postmodernism and constructivism have made inroads in teaching every academic discipline, but the public has only heard of the Math Wars and Reading Wars.

In fairness, I should point out that almost all  scientists, including myself, who are aware of the philosophical issues (most aren't) are opponents of postmodernism and constructivism. Specifically, I am not fond of reform or conceptual mathematics instruction. But this is entirely beside the point. Textbooks have been written and should be available to school districts and teachers who wish to use whatever instructional method they want, depending on their training and interest. In some cases, school districts have been more successful teaching students math using conceptual math instruction than by using traditional methods. The State Board does not have the responsibility of choosing among the various instructional programs any more than it should involve itself in specific pedagogical techniques or skills. Therefore, it should not impose its power into this issue or controversy by its authoritarian rejection of textbooks that espouse one method or the other.

The Minority Report

The seven religious right SBOE members who voted to reject the McGraw Hill math book are radicals and fundamentalist religionists, not social or traditional conservatives as they self-style themselves, because they do not respect traditional values such as public education, science, and now the rule of law. What is most disturbing, however, is that Rick Agosto, a San Antonio Democrat on the State Board, voted with the radical religious right seven-member minority on 2007 November 17 to give them a majority to reject the math book in November (he abstained so the right-wingers could win) and again on 2008 January 18 to strike the minority report from the record that six members of the SBOE wrote to express their claim that the math textbook rejection was illegal. Someone needs to get in touch with Mr. Agosto and teach him the facts of life about the politicization of public education in Texas. He should be helping the students and teachers in our state, not the seven radical-right Creationists who are his fellow Board members. What is going on? Did the Radical Seven know Mr. Agosto would abstain before they voted to reject the book in November, since they would not have succeeded without it? I tried to ask Mr. Agosto these questions on January 17. He told me he abstained because he didn't like the math book, but he wouldn't tell me specifically what was wrong with it. I began to explain why the book's rejection was illegal (because the Texas Education statutes only allow rejection for specific reasons, none of which apply in this case) and that the SBOE didn't have the authority to determine specific educational methodology for the state, but he refused to engage in further discussion and told me he couldn't discuss those legal matters because they were going to come up in executive session when the Board would be briefed by the TEA attorney about McGraw Hill's appeal later that day. Our conversation ended at this point on Thursday.

I was not present on January 18 when six members of the SBOE attempted to get a minority report entered into the minutes so their viewpoint could be recorded. The minority report is short, and hardly begins to analyze all the issues in this complex controversy, but it is revealing. It can be found at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/math-minority-report.pdf. The seven-member radical right bloc on the SBOE, plus Democrat Rick Agosto, voted 8-6 to strike the report from the official record (one member was absent); the reason they gave was that its presence would demonstrate that a significant number of SBOE members thought the rejection was illegal, valuable ammunition for McGraw Hill when they sue the SBOE. Contrary to them, I can state that the minority report is an accurate portrayal of the math textbook rejection episode and is, in fact, illegal. Of special note is Rick Agosto's quoted statement: "This is about the credibility of this board, and I will challenge anyone here who tries to challenge my credibility." I think the Board member doth protest too much. The Board's credibility becomes Mr. Agosto's personal credibility before the sentence is even finished. Why is a freshman Democratic Board member voting with the most radical, extreme members of the SBOE? TCS does not know the answers to these questions.

SBOE Member Terri Leo's Faulty Legal Justification

The most active SBOE member among those who rejected the math text and voted to strike the minority report from the record is Terri Leo. In several letters and columns, she has explained her rationale for rejecting the textbook without acknowledging one of the three legitimate statutory reasons. Her explanation involves an idiosyncratic reading of the educational statutes that govern textbook adoption in Texas, plus an analysis of two court decisions that followed a similar but not identical SBOE rejection of a science book in 2002 that led to court litigation which the SBOE "won." Unfortunately for Ms. Leo, her reasoning and justification for precipitous textbook rejection by the State Board is--as is the case for so many other claims she makes--faulty.

To be continued.... (I apologize for the delay, but new events and circumstances keep getting in the way of finishing this and other reports.)

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2008 February 11