It was the equivalent of, “Show your work.” To help explain the puzzling rejection of dozens of math textbooks, the state of Florida released nearly 6,000 pages of reviewer commentary this week, revealing an often confusing, contradictory and divisive process.
A conservative activist turned textbook critic was looking for mentions of race. Another reviewer seemed unaware that social-emotional learning concepts, such as developing grit, should be banned according to the state. A third noted a word problem comparing the salaries of male and female football players.
As part of the official review process, the state has instructed educators, parents, and other residents to review textbooks, in part to determine whether they adhered to Florida’s teaching standards for math — from simple preschool addition to interpreting graphs in high school statistics. .
But Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and allies in the state legislature have also fought what he calls “awakened indoctrination” in public schools and enacted a series of regulations and laws designed to restrict the way race, gender, and socio-emotional subjects are taught.
So reviewers were asked to highlight “critical race theory,” “culturally responsive education,” “social justice in relation to CRT,” and “social-emotional learning,” according to the documents.
To illustrate how politicized and subjective those terms have become, the various reviewers rarely agreed on whether those concepts were present—and, if so, whether the books should be accepted or rejected for containing them.
While many states and school districts appoint textbook reviewers, the process is highly unusual in Florida. Some reviewers considered race and socio-emotional learning alongside detailed points of mathematical content and pedagogy, while others looked only at critical race theory, according to the documents.
It’s not clear why certain reviewers took on a more limited role, and the Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to a list of written questions about the review process.
But in an April press release announcing the textbook rejections, the department said, “Florida’s transparent review process for instructional materials ensures the public has the opportunity to review and respond to submitted textbooks.”
And Governor DeSantis has said he thinks concepts like social-emotional learning are a distraction from math itself.
“Math is about getting the right answer,” he said at a news conference last month, adding, “It’s not about how you think about the problem.”
Conservative activists were involved in the review process. For example, five reviewers read “Thinking Mathematics” by the publisher Savvas Learning Company, a rejected high school textbook. Only one of the reviewers—Chris Allen, an Indian River County parent and activist with the conservative group Moms for Liberty—flagged the book for containing critical race theory and social-emotional learning.
In detailed comments, Ms. Allen, 33, objected to math problems that, she wrote, suggested a link between racial prejudice, age and education level and drew attention to the gender pay gap.
She also mentioned several topics for being “age-inappropriate,” such as mentions of divorce and drug and alcohol use.
In an interview, Ms. Allen, who works in tech, said she first learned about the opportunity to review textbooks in January through a local activist email list known as the Education Action Alliance. At the time, Florida had put out a call for volunteer “guest reviewers.”
She described herself as “a newcomer” to state politics who first got involved during the pandemic, to oppose the mandates of school masks. She has also been active in efforts to remove what she called “pornographic books” from school libraries.
Understand the Critical Race Theory Debate
The Florida Department of Education, she said, responded to her concerns better than her local school board.
“These are for high school students,” she said. “You are still discovering who you are and your place in the world. This math book tells you that depending on your age, you may have racial prejudice.”
The documents show that some reviewers failed to understand that they should reject textbooks on social-emotional learning, a mainstream education movement designed to help students develop skills such as teamwork and perseverance. It is widely taught in colleges and professional development sessions.
For example, a first grade book published by Savvas includes concepts such as striving to “disagree respectfully” about how to solve a math problem, and asks students to “use a growth mindset” when they get stuck.
One reviewer, apparently a teacher, noted that the book “provides good strategies for SEL.” But then the same reviewer also said the book had no content related to social-emotional learning. The textbook was rejected anyway.
Study Edge’s seventh-grade “Accelerated Math” textbook was rejected after one of the reviewers who recommended it asked questions about a “warming activity” that “contains a controversial topic about equal pay and discrimination.”
A look at the textbook suggests that the reviewer, an algebra teacher in Orlando, referred to a word problem comparing the salaries of male and female soccer players, using Megan Rapinoe as an example.
Many of the textbooks were rejected by the state, despite strong reviews from math teachers, who complimented the books for being engaging, thorough, and rich in digital resources. Some teacher reviewers gave detailed feedback on how the different texts would help or hinder students in math, often citing their own classroom experiences.
But in the end, for dozens of books, those comments were less important than the comments about race, gender, and social-emotional learning.
In recent weeks, some publishers have agreed to review their rejected books. Florida law also allows the companies to appeal the denials.