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New criteria for Oklahoma textbooks asks for ‘traditional’ gender roles, reverence for religion

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New criteria for Oklahoma textbooks asks for ‘traditional’ gender roles, reverence for religion

May 21, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Nuria Martinez-Keel
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New criteria for Oklahoma textbooks asks for ‘traditional’ gender roles, reverence for religion
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A student sits at a table covered with art projects at Mayo Demonstration School in Tulsa on April 8. Textbooks for fine arts, computer science and technology education will be up for adoption this year in Oklahoma. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A new rubric Oklahoma is using to review K-12 school textbooks asks whether learning materials “degrade traditional roles of men and women,” promote “illegal lifestyles” or neglect the importance of religion in preserving American liberties.

The language comes from an administrative rule enacted in the 1990s to regulate textbook content. The rule has been little used in recent years until Feb. 9, when the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee voted to add it to its evaluation rubrics, which help the committee decide which classroom materials it will approve for use in public schools.

The committee also included a series of questions that check for compliance with House Bill 1775, a 2021 law that prohibits teachings of certain race and gender concepts.

As teams of subject-matter experts begin evaluating fine arts, computer science and technology education textbooks in the coming weeks for this year’s adoption cycle, they will do so for the first time with the added language.

The new questions are a noticeable contrast to the rest of the rubric criteria. They add a focus on social and moral issues to evaluations that otherwise check for classroom usability and adherence to state academic standards.

They also appear to align with the conservative policy goals of State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who chose the chairperson of the Textbook Committee and whose general counsel has advised the board. The rest of the committee seats are appointed by the governor.

New criteria for Oklahoma textbooks asks for ‘traditional’ gender roles, reverence for religion
State Superintendent Ryan Walters, pictured April 25, has said he aims to exclude “indoctrination” from school textbooks. He selects the chairperson of the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

“Superintendent Walters will not allow woke indoctrination in Oklahoma classrooms or enable it in our textbooks,” Walters’ spokesperson, Dan Isett, said. “The best path forward for our students is a rich, systematic knowledge of Western culture and American history. These timeless values are central to what it means to be an Oklahoman now and into the future.”

The added section asks a series of questions, such as whether submitted materials undermine the principles and effectiveness of the free enterprise system, if they promote sexual behavior, if they play down the importance of the family as the core of American society, or if they condone civil disorder and social strife.

It also asks whether the textbook presents “imbalanced and nonfactual treatments to controversial, political, and social movements with biased editorial judgments.”

New textbooks are evaluated and adopted by subject on a six-year cycle. After fine arts and computer science, social studies and personal financial literacy will be reviewed next in 2025.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education created the first textbook review rubrics under Walters’ predecessor, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, in response to a 2020 law that required a higher standard of evaluation for classroom materials. 

The original rubrics focused on whether textbooks aligned to state academic standards, how user-friendly they are for teachers and students, and how well they assess student learning. 

Now, politics are being added to the mix, said Sen. Carri Hicks, a Democrat from Oklahoma City and former elementary school teacher.

“I think my initial reaction is just that this is not solving any problems,” Hicks said. “I’m really concerned that this is putting politics over people, and we’re putting politically charged rhetoric in the rubric that we’re assigning to the reviewing of these textbook materials.”

The rubric question upholding “traditional roles of men and women” is particularly concerning, Hicks said, and “doesn’t give any nuance to the various shapes, sizes (and) colors that our families come in.”

Each school subject up for textbook adoption has a review team made up of educators and experts. The review teams use the rubrics to grade the materials that textbook publishers submit to the state. 

New criteria for Oklahoma textbooks asks for ‘traditional’ gender roles, reverence for religion
The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee meets Oct. 6 at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

The Textbook Committee considers the teams’ reviews when it votes annually on which companies make the state’s approved textbook list for the next six years. 

Schools can purchase materials that are not on the approved list, but they would risk having to pay a higher price point and wouldn’t be allowed to use state funds designated for textbooks. State textbook funds can be used only for titles on the approved list, under Oklahoma law.

Former state Education Department officials have raised concerns that adding politics to the textbook adoption process could deter publishers from offering their products in Oklahoma and limit quality resources available to classrooms. Oklahoma already has little leverage with the publishing industry as a small-market state with unique academic standards.

Eight companies withdrew from consideration in last year’s math textbook adoption cycle, well before the Textbook Committee added the new rubric language. The state Education Department has not yet returned a request for a list of companies who submitted an intent to bid this year.

Former state officials said the number of withdrawals from the math cycle was alarmingly high, but Walters described it as a win for eliminating unwanted ideologies.

“I told Oklahomans we’re going to get indoctrination out of our schools,” he said in response to news reports of the departing publishers. “We made it very clear to any textbook company that if you put critical race theory; diversity, equity and inclusion; and this radical sexual gender theory in your textbooks, you’re not going to have a contract in the state of Oklahoma.”

Teachers already feel Oklahoma’s lack of purchasing power when they have to create learning materials themselves, Hicks said.

She said the added rubric language, some of which seems open to “personal interpretation,” could create more problems.

“I think the other major question is, are there any companies who can even adhere to any of what the committee will be reviewing?” Hicks said.