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California Requires Textbooks to Teach Religion with ‘respect’

Sixth-graders in America’s most populous state will soon learn that Romans, not Jews, crucified Jesus. The lesson could have been different had some of the textbooks approved by California this week gone through in their proposed form.

But when the California state board of education voted Wednesday to adopt new social studies textbooks for elementary and middle school students, it required nearly 1,000 edits and corrections to be made to the materials.

As a result, students will also learn that the biblical story of Exodus commemorates national liberation, not Jewish tribal unity; and that the Jewish God is a god of justice and mercy, not just reward and punishment.

Far from the spotlight of the public debate over evolution and intelligent design in science textbooks, a less-publicized battle was being waged for months over the religion content of social studies and history materials.

In its Nov. 9 meeting, the state board of education voted unanimously to adopt 10 publishers’ educational programs, including textbooks and related materials. Two publishers’ materials were rejected for not meeting state standards.

Close to 200 of the nearly 1,000 edits and corrections had been put forward by the Institute for Curriculum Services, a project of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, which spent months reviewing all 12 of the proposed educational programs for bias against Judaism or inaccuracies in their depiction of Jewish history.

“You may be wondering why I and my colleagues are here today, why this meeting is being covered by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and why would Jews all over the world care about your actions today,” JCRC educational consultant Jackie Berman told the board during its five-hour public meeting.

“The answer is clear. The sixth-grade textbooks you are about to adopt contain the lessons that children will learn about the religions of the world, Judaism among them.”

Getting the coveted seal of approval from California means big money to educational publishers. California is the nation’s largest purchaser of school textbooks, and schools throughout the state may use public funds to purchase approved programs. Not only do other states often follow California’s lead in their own adoptions, but as one board of education member noted at the meeting, publishers “write for our state.”

California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Students learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity in sixth grade, and Islam in seventh grade.

In its adoption approvals, the board followed in every respect but one the recommendations made a month earlier by the state’s curriculum development and supplemental materials commission.

The exception was the sixth-grade program submitted by Oxford University Press, which had been rejected in September by the state curriculum commission largely because of complaints of bias and factual error by the Hindu and Jewish communities.

The board voted on Nov. 9 to accept Oxford’s program, noting that the publisher had spent the last month working closely with Hindu and Jewish groups to correct errors, and had issued a written and verbal apology to the board.

“Oxford has been very cooperative, and we have reached agreement on changes with them,” said Susan Mogull, a policy analyst with the Institute of Curriculum Services who urged the board this week to accept Oxford’s sixth-grade program subject to those changes. She had spoken out strongly against the Oxford program in September.

“We’re so pleased with the results,” said an obviously relieved Casper Grathwohl, Oxford’s reference division publisher, who had flown in from New York for the board of education meeting.

“We are extremely grateful for how gracious the ICS was in working with us and our scholars to better our program, and bring an appropriate respect for Judaism to it. That cooperation was the biggest factor in our being able to move the program back onto the table.”

Board of education textbook adoption meetings are not heavily covered by the media, despite the fact that, as speaker after speaker reiterated, this is where tangible decisions are made that affect what and how children learn.

A special JTA investigation recently revealed how some Islamic organizations with political agendas were involved in the dissemination of biased and distorted teaching materials. It also showed how some groups were heavily involved in consulting with publishers on the development of textbooks. Some critics contend that these organizations promote an uncritical approach to Islam.

One textbook, “History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond,” published by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, was piloted in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this year. But after a series of protests from parents — who objected to what they saw as distortions of Christianity and Judaism, with an overarching positive spin on Islam — the publisher decided to stop the trial.

“There was a lot of objection to the amount of coverage of Islam,” Liz Russell, the development director of the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, which is based in Rancho Cordova, Calif., told JTA over the summer.

The book was developed to meet California standards, which require “a lot more on religion in general than most other states,” she said.

“History Alive” was one of the programs adopted this week by California.

Close to 80 speakers addressed the education board during its five-hour meeting here, and the 13 board members listened to all them carefully, discussing their major points publicly before voting on adoption.

Looking at the overflowing room and the long line of speakers waiting to address the board, Michael Berson, associate education professor at the University of South Florida who worked on one of the programs that was eventually adopted, said, “Bringing all these people together who are concerned about children’s education is exciting.”

Although the public’s criticism “can be divisive,” he said, “I think it’s welcomed, I really do.”

The vast majority of the speakers were Hindu and Sikh, communities who said they felt slighted by all the publishers’ offerings.

“Hinduism is not treated with the same respect as Christianity or Judaism,” complained Dr. Mihir Meghani, president of the Hindu American Foundation. “The sacred scriptures of Hinduism are referred to as legends or myths,” he said. In contrast, with Christian or Jewish biblical accounts, “they write ‘the Bible says’ or ‘according to the Torah.’ “

Sikh speakers told the board that although there are almost 600,000 Sikhs in the United States, half of them in California alone, none of the textbooks discusses Sikhism or shows pictures of Sikhs so children can learn to identify and respect them.

These complaints highlight some of the difficulties faced by board members as they waded through hundreds of pages of corrections and edits submitted to them.

Brandishing one of the heavy documents, board member Ruth Bloom asked her colleagues how they were supposed to judge the content of all these textbooks and related materials in order to make educated decisions.

“How do you teach about religion in the context of history? Accurately and with respect,” responded board president Ruth Green.

Berman said 187 of the group’s edits and corrections were accepted by the ad-hoc committee on Oct. 31, including all of the major problems her group had found in the various textbooks. Oxford, she noted, promised to make every change her group requested.

“We have found all the publishers to be very cooperative,” she said. “We feel the process is working and the books will be enormously improved from the standpoint of the Jewish community.”

This kind of watchdog activism is crucial, says Amanda Susskind, Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “If in our view a textbook is disseminating myths or untruths to children that perpetuate negative stereotypes about Jewish people or any other group of people, it is not only appropriate but necessary for us to respond,” she said.

It is up to the publishers themselves to make the required changes, Berman said. She said her group would review the materials after they are published next spring “to make sure all the changes we requested were made.”

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