Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Student Disputes How Textbook Was Taught, as South Orange-Maplewood District Weighs Continued Use

A textbook co-authored by James Q. Wilson, one of the creators of the “Broken Windows” theory that ultimately led to stop-and-frisk policing policies, will remain in use at Columbia High School as the South Orange-Maplewood School District continues to review the use of the text.

In response to a petition by Bryn Healy, CHS Class of 2020, the district says it is weighing her contention that it contains biased content and defended the district’s use of the textbook, saying that American Government: Institutions & Policies is approved by the College Board. The statement sent by district spokeswoman Anide Eustache also stated that textbooks are not to be viewed as an “unbiased source of truth.”

“Students have the added benefit of an instructor whose career included experience with civil rights law,” reads the district statement. “It is from these experiences that the course content, including information in the text, is contextualized in order to raise issues so that students can critically evaluate different perspectives. Specifically, real-life examples pertaining to the theory of ‘Broken Windows’ were addressed in order to convey that it was unconstitutional, unreasonable, and ineffective. Further, students learned about examples addressing Equal Protection and Risk of Exclusion.”

The district also stated that the social studies “department is reviewing a list of more recent textbooks received from publishers. We will review these texts and make a recommendation based on comparing how content is presented in newer texts vs. the one currently used in our district.” She continued, “If it is recommended that a different text is to be presented to the Board for approval, and funds are available to purchase the text, the department will move forward with the purchase (pending BOE approval) for the upcoming year. If funds are not available for the upcoming year, the department will adjust how it delivers the content until such time that the budget will provide for a new text in AP U.S. Government & Politics.”

After reading the district’s response, Healy told Village Green she is “extremely glad that the district is taking the demands of the community seriously.” However, she disputed the district’s statement that “the course is not taught ‘to the text.'”

Healy said that the course is taught “expressly” to the textbook and that students “would read the textbook, answer the publisher’s own questions about the text we’d just read, and that was it; no other information or analysis was done in or out of class.” She contends that students were not encouraged through critical thinking  to grapple with the “controversial” textbook: “In my experience in this class in the past year, that was never the case. Debates and dialogue were never held in class in relation to the textbook and its contents. ”

Finally, she says that, regarding the theory of “Broken Windows,” “We never discussed the biases of the authors of the text nor their backgrounds; I did research on my own time after observing clear and blatant biases in the text. And — this is important — students are asked to answer questions that simply parrot the views of the textbook authors.”

Previously Healy told Village Green, “It’s fine to read conservative viewpoints as long as they are being presented as such and taught alongside opposing viewpoints”: however, she said she objected to the textbook, American Government: Institutions & Policies, which she said presents such viewpoints  “as fact.”

Response on June 29, 2020 from Anide Eustache on behalf of the South Orange-Maplewood School District:

We appreciate the concern and advocacy regarding the use of the book, American Government: Institutions & Policies for the course AP Government & Politics (United States).  The current text is on the approved list of texts from College Board, and is dated, 2011.

Our goal in any of our courses is to encourage critical thinking and to help students to grapple with text and topics that can sometimes be controversial.   The social studies department views the study of history as a constructed narrative and in class, the information provided in any given text is to be examined critically and not be viewed as an “unbiased source of truth.” This particular text seeks to present both sides of many issues in the American government, some not as “balanced” as others.

As it pertains to instruction, the course is not taught “to the text” although students are required to read the material in preparation for the AP exam. Students have the added benefit of an instructor whose career included experience with civil rights law. It is from these experiences that the course content, including information in the text, is contextualized in order to raise issues so that students can critically evaluate different perspectives. Specifically, real-life examples pertaining to the theory of “Broken Windows” were addressed in order to convey that it was unconstitutional, unreasonable, and ineffective. Further, students learned about examples addressing Equal Protection and Risk of Exclusion.

We acknowledge the concerns that were brought forth and some suggestions that were in discussion internally (prior to the Covid-related school closure) and are being weighed as we move forward include:

  1. The department is reviewing a list of more recent textbooks received from publishers. We will review these texts and make a recommendation based on comparing how content is presented in newer texts vs. the one currently used in our district.
  2. If it is recommended that a different text is to be presented to the Board for approval, and funds are available to purchase the text, the department will move forward with the purchase (pending BOE approval) for the upcoming year.
  3. If funds are not available for the upcoming year, the department will adjust how it delivers the content until such time that the budget will provide for a new text in AP U.S. Government & Politics.

Full response from Bryn Healy to the district’s statement:

I am extremely glad that the district is taking the demands of the community seriously by considering a change in the textbook for AP Government, but I have a couple of corrections to make in regards to the district’s statement.

Firstly, in contrast to the statement that “the course is not taught ‘to the text,’” the course was heavily textbook dependent. As someone who took this course, I can say that the class focused expressly on this textbook. As a class, we only referred to other articles a handful of times during the entire course and never on the topics I brought up in my letter and petition.

I know that AP classes don’t have to be textbook dependent; I took AP United States History which used a wide variety of texts. However, this class is currently being taught to the textbook. We would read the textbook, answer the publisher’s own questions about the text we’d just read, and that was it; no other information or analysis was done in or out of class.

Next, the district spokesperson mentions that this textbook is listed among the College Board’s stated options; however their website recommends the 2018 version of this textbook, not the 2011 version, which is what we use. College Board states that older versions of textbooks may be acceptable, but have to be supported by supplemental materials, which was not the case in this class with this textbook. They also cite 24 other textbooks available for this course. The list of College Board’s accepted textbooks is linked here.

Additionally, the statement claims that “the goal in any of our courses is to encourage critical thinking and to help students to grapple with text and topics that can sometimes be controversial.” However, in my experience in this class in the past year, that was never the case. Debates and dialogue were never held in class in relation to the textbook and its contents. 

Finally, the district claims that “real-life examples pertaining to the theory of ‘Broken Windows’ were addressed in order to convey that it was unconstitutional, unreasonable, and ineffective” and that that we learned about “ Equal Protection and Risk of Exclusion.” I can say based upon personal experience that none of this occurred. We never even discussed the policy in class. We never discussed the biases of the authors of the text nor their backgrounds; I did research on my own time after observing clear and blatant biases in the text. And — this is important — students are asked to answer questions that simply parrot the views of the textbook authors.

The district has contended that they will explore changing the textbook “until such time that the budget will provide for a new text.” I would argue that there should be no greater priority for a district with a catastrophically large racial equity gap than teaching with educational materials that are nonracist and grounded in science.

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