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How Texas Board, Publisher Hope To Prevent Mistakes After Mom Calls Out Reference To Slaves In Textbook

“For me, that word workers was an attempt to erase that hard writing that slavery has had on the paper of our society.”

 

It all started when Coby Burren sent his mom a text from geography class at Pearland High School.

“He took a picture of the blurb on a map that said that the Atlantic slave trade brought over Africans to work on agricultural plantations,” said his mom Roni Dean-Burren.

She recounted how her ninth grader went on to mock the description of their African-American heritage.

“It said, ‘We was real good workers, weren’t we?’ And he sort of had this little sarcastic emoji attached and I think I responded back kind of sarcastically. I was like, ‘Workers, yeah right!'” Dean-Burren said.

It alarmed Dean-Burren. She’s a former teacher and getting her doctorate in education at the University of Houston.

She called out the publisher in a video that quickly went viral.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=Mxawf6Ktyeo

It also renewed a national debate about how textbooks teach race and slavery to 5 million students in Texas. The state has long been a battleground over the content inside school textbooks.  During the past year, experts have criticized the books for naming Moses as a Founding Father and downplaying slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

For Dean-Burren, this geography lesson’s precise language had a real effect.

“For me, that word workers was an attempt to erase that hard writing that slavery has had on the paper of our society — the things that we saw, the things that happened to Africans as they were  brought over. They didn’t matter enough to call it what it was. It was just, they were workers,” she explained.

Her protest has prompted the book’s publisher to apologize and offer a correction.

“We are deeply sorry for the offense that’s caused,” said David Levin, CEO of McGraw-Hill Education in an interview. The mega publisher developed this geography book and has sold 100,000 copies in Texas and thousands more around the country.

“It was a terrible error and the minute we saw it we said, ‘We’ve got to sort it out,'” Levin added.

To fix it, Levin said that McGraw-Hill is offering schools two options.

One is they’ll ship new corrected copies of the book to schools for free. The other option is a sticker to cover up the caption along with a lesson plan to discuss why it’s wrong to call slaves workers and delve into the cultural context of language.

“We think that’s a wonderful opportunity to harness the moment in a positive educational way,” said Levin, who also invited Dean-Burren to a one-on-one meeting in New York.

Levin called the mistake “painful” because he believes the rest of their materials deal with slavery and race in a thoughtful and comprehensive way.

One member of the Texas Board of Education wanted to check that for himself. Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff examined the book and found 16 other references to slavery that he considered accurate.

That’s why he maintains that this reference was an isolated mistake and not a white-washing of U.S. history.

“Somewhere along the way, this has gotten blown out of proportion and a lot of accusations are being made against the publisher and the board that I don’t think are justified,” said Ratliff, who is a Republican from Northeast Texas.

Its 15 members set the learning standards that guide publishers who want to sell to the Texas market. The elected board also gives the final approval to products.

Ratliff said that it can be overwhelming: the last go-round involved some 300 products, including print textbooks and digital learning materials. He said that history and social studies books might have gotten a closer examination than geography materials.

“Still not an excuse,” Ratliff said. “It’s just other bits to the puzzle of how something like this could slip through the cracks.”

“Nobody on the board and nobody in the publishing company that printed this book believes that was an appropriate word choice and everybody admits it shouldn’t have happened, so let’s figure out how to prevent it in the future,” Ratliff said.

So how did a world geography book end up referring to slaves as workers?

The publisher said that one reason is they need to check the books more carefully. Levin said that they want to incorporate more “cold reads” in their editorial process, so that individual lessons are reviewed on a stand-alone basis.

Both the publisher McGraw-Hill and Texas officials said that they also need more diversity among the reviewers.

But others say the entire process to adopt books is too political.

“So it’s not surprising that the textbooks had problems,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning watchdog group.

She pointed out that state board members nominate people to the review panels.

“The process could be improved dramatically if the board members agreed to listen to experts and teachers about what should be in those books,” Miller said.

She added that they should also listen to more students like Coby Burren, who flagged the mistake.

And his mom Dean-Burren has vowed to conduct her own review to see if other books have problems.

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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