Social studies teachers made their case for new textbooks to the Cumberland County Board of Education Wednesday.
In a special-called meeting immediately following, the board voted 6-2 to approve adoption of the recommended social studies textbooks that have been the source of recent controversy and two failed adoption votes.
"If you want us to do our jobs and you want us to go to these standards we're going to, you have to give us the tools," said Will Foster, teacher at Cumberland County High School.
Teachers said textbooks they currently used were outdated, not aligned to current standards and, in many cases, in poor condition, held together with duct tape. With changes to social studies standards beginning next year, new and additional resources were necessary, they said.
"These aren't just textbooks. They're educational resource programs," said Angie Janow, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasant Hill Elementary. "In this day and age of teaching, I think it's pretty safe to say there are no teachers anywhere that do not seek outside the textbooks for teaching resources...That's why the program is so valuable. You can look outside the textbook for the resources we need. And we do need them."
Current fifth-grade textbooks, like many other grade levels, do not address current academic standards required, she said, adding the selected textbooks were specific to Tennessee standards and were unanimously chosen by the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers.
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, said she had been contacted by several teachers and parents.
"What I'm hearing is that there are some grade levels where we are in dire need," Brewer said.
Sixth- and seventh-grade standards will change dramatically next year, merging world history and world geography. That makes new resources particularly important in those grades, said Dewayne McGhee, Martin Elementary teacher.
"We have no tools for sixth and seventh grade," he said. "The current materials are no longer valid. We have to have something."
McGhee said there was unanimous agreement from the committee on the selected texts for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. There were only two options available that had been approved by the state textbook commission, but McGhee said it was not a situation of choosing the best of two bad options, but an excellent textbook with valuable online content.
All teachers speaking talked of the online and electronic supplemental materials provided by the selected textbook publishers, from kindergarten through high school. McGhee noted the McGraw-Hill books for sixth through eighth grades could have the reading level adjusted based on each student's current reading level, something many teachers were excited about.
"These sixth- through eighth-grade teachers may have students reading on a second grade level in their classroom. It's almost impossible to teach those students reading from that textbook. I think that is a very positive thing," Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative.
Teachers addressed some of the criticisms of the books, adding members of the community had provided page numbers and specific examples of material they deemed inappropriate, inaccurate or objectionable. One such criticism is that textbooks refer to time periods as C.E., common era, B.C.E., before common era, as opposed to B.C. for before Christ and A.D. for Anno Domini, "In the year of our Lord."
McGhee explained that change had taken place long ago in textbooks; however, Tennessee standards require students know all time notations, including B.C. and A.D.
Other criticisms at the sixth and seventh grade levels included discussion of Islam. McGhee said teachers had been teaching the five major world religions for years.
Sixth grade standards do not include learning about the Muslim religion or the impact it had on the development of the culture of the Middle East or the contributions that culture made to the world, such as advancements in astronomy and mathematics. Because of that, McGhee said those sections of the book would likely not be covered in the sixth grade.
"At the end of the day, it's the standards that guide what we teach," he said.
That is part of the seventh-grade standards, however. But the issues of controversy could provide an opportunity for cross-curricular lessons.
"A lot of the controversy stems from the idea there is more emphasis here or there on certain things," McGhee said. "Propaganda, persuasion and bias are things they work on at the elementary level. It gives us an opportunity to do those cross-curricular things to see if we can spot the bias or see the influential information in this text. We can use it as a tool. We can debate. We want these students to think.
"We want these students to grow. We want these students to be able to stand on their own two feet, know what they think, why they think it and be able to tell you why and write it correctly."
The high school textbooks in history, geography, government and psychology had also drawn fire, but teachers at the high school level who evaluated the books said they needed the tools to teach the standards required by the state.
"There are some things I disagree with based on religious beliefs, but I still have to teach them," said Tim Smith, teacher at Stone Memorial High School.
Foster said, "It is my job as a world geography teacher who happens to be a preacher at a Southern Baptist church to teach about Islam and to teach about Judiasm. I have to tell them about the culture and why that shaped the whole Middle East and shaped our country, as well."
Smith said the committee wanted the best resources for students, adding that his 18-year-old psychology textbook came with "e-learning" tools that used a floppy disk.
As the work session came to a close, teachers pleaded with the board to not only provide teachers with the resources they needed, but to trust teachers to not only teach the state academic standards as well as community standards.
"I feel confident that the board and the Cumberland County school district have chosen professionals that can be trusted to use the textbook programs as they are needed for relevant student learning and not for any other agenda," said Janow.
Smith added, "I don't teach a textbook. I teach a class to kids. I teach them ideas and to learn to think for themselves. The textbook doesn't matter, but the teacher does."
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, asked about another option of a company that contacted him following the first failed vote April 24. That company, Global Educational Ventures, offers only U.S. history textbooks, but Janet Graham, interim supervisor of K-12 curriculum, said she had contacted that company as soon as she was made aware of them, but information had been limited on the products they offered.
"She asked what our level of interest was. I said, 'I don't know what our level of interest is. I'm interested in hearing what you have,' and I am very interested," Graham said.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said, "Sometimes it's a little bit late, even with a good idea."
The company is also not on the state's adopted textbook list and a waiver would be necessary to use those textbooks in the school system. Textbook adoption was to have been completed by April 15.
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, questioned a pilot for e-textbooks next year. Graham said the school system was not ready for a full-scale e-textbook adoption due to challenges of infrastructure, devices and accessibility, but there was great interest in piloting a program and exploring options.
Board members thanked teachers for their time that evening to explain why they selected the chosen textbooks. David Bowman, 7th District representative, said his email account had been flooded by those against the textbook adoption.
"We get one side and not the other," he said. "I'm getting that side but I'm not getting your side. Let me know how you all feel.
"Our job is to make sure that we're getting the best bang for our buck. We want to know is this the best tool for you? Is this what you really need or is this just what you want? Sometimes we can't get what we want. We have to get what we need. I appreciate this. I wish we had done this several weeks ago."
Schlafer said, "I kept all of the emails that I received. I received two from teachers and an overwhelming majority of people saying there's something wrong with this.
"I want you to have what you need, but I'm sitting here with 40 years' experience in this profession. I've taught every grade level. I've been a principal. I've been an athletic director, a coach, central office supervisor. I've taught public schools. I've taught in private parochial schools. I've never had a controversy over a textbook selection, ever, until now. I have to listen. We don't want to be outside the law, but sometimes you just have to take a stand."
The board took a brief recess to allow those in the audience to approach board members and make comments prior to the special-called meeting on textbook adoption. When the board reconvened, Bowman moved to approve the textbook adoption as recommended by the textbook adoption committee.
Brewer recalled the words of her history teacher years before about sometimes having to choose "the lessor of two evils."
"Maybe the textbooks are not perfect, but I have a lot of faith. Tonight, with these good teachers, you've sat here and you've pleaded with us and you've told us what we've got to have for our children," Brewer said. "Textbooks aren't perfect but I have a lot more faith in the teachers now and how our children are going to be taught, and I believe we have got to give them the tools to do it.
"I don't think that any teacher in Cumberland County should have to come to this board and beg for teaching tools."
Brewer also encouraged everyone to examine candidates for national and state office in order to make changes to education across the nation.
"I'm going to watch state-level decisions on education and book adoption. That's where we've got to start, at a higher level. When it gets here to us, we're almost dictated by federal and state laws on what we can and cannot do," she said.
Tollett noted much of the controversy surrounding textbooks related to books that had not been selected by the local textbook committee.
"I think that is significant," Tollett said. "We do have books out there that would give any textbook a bad name. Those are not the ones that came through our selection process and were recommended."
The motion was approved 6-2, with Tollett, Janeway, Brewer, Hutson, Bowman and Josh Stone, 4th District representative, voting in favor. Voting against were Schlafer and Jim Blalock, 8th District representative. Gordon Davis, 5th District representative, was not present.
As the vote was taken, a man in the audience got up and exited the room, stating loudly, "This is a great job of communism."
The meeting was the third time the board had voted on the textbook adoption and the second work session on the topic.
The adoption of social studies textbooks is a separate issue from purchase of the books in the coming year. That will be a budgetary decision, with purchase of textbooks estimated to cost from $433,000 to $218,500, depending on if each student will have a textbook or if classroom sets are used.
Foster said, "I understand this is just adoption. It doesn't mean we're going to get them. But if you want us to teach, give us some options and some tools to do these things."