Sitting in her high school AP world history class, Rimsha Abbasi suddenly found herself in the uncomfortable position of explaining the word “jihad.” The class conversation in suburban northern Virginia had turned to Islam, and Abbasi’s teacher suggested she lead the discussion.
The task felt daunting. Her peers may have had ideas “in their heads about what jihad is, about what Islam is,” the 18-year-old said. But she felt compelled to explain that the Arabic word means “struggle,” despite negative connotations tethered to it.
“If I didn’t explain what that meant, I wouldn’t want someone else to then have a misinterpretation of that,” Abbasi said. “That would have been more painful.”
That’s why, when public schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, selected history textbooks this year, Abbasi demanded that the school system reject three works she and many others decried as culturally insensitive and Islamophobic.
They, like many others across the country, are countering false or incomplete portrayals of their communities in textbooks and class lessons. Students, parents and educators are calling for material that reflects a diversity of experiences, saying it’s a matter of providing a fuller telling of history.
The discussions are unfolding during a time of dramatic demographic shifts in the nation’s public schools. Students of color made up a majority of the country’s public school population for the first time in 2014, and the federal government projects the percentage of white student enrollment will continue to fall.
In Loudoun County, critics denounced entries in some prospective textbooks they characterized as equating Islam with terrorism. In one book, a section titled “Terrorism Around the World” is followed by two paragraphs with subheads that read “Islamist Movements” and “The Middle East.” A smaller paragraph labeled “Europe” follows.
“A child doesn’t even have to read all the paragraphs,” Abbasi said. “It’s bolded out for them, and their mind makes those mental associations. You’re reading ‘terrorism around the world,’ and right under, you’re associating that with Islamist movements in the Middle East.”
The Loudoun school system ultimately agreed that book and two others were culturally insensitive and biased and chose alternatives. Patricia Coggins, the system’s social science and global studies supervisor, said at an April meeting that textbook publishers may lack cultural sensitivity and struggle to account for the country’s changing demographics.
“Every textbook we looked at had bias of one sort or another, depending on what group was looking at it. That’s the issue in social science and especially in history, when we have multiple lenses through which people are looking at this history,” Coggins said. “It’s become an issue now that our community is so diverse.”
The school system can’t control what material goes into textbooks, Coggins said. But she said teachers can focus on providing multiple sources and incorporating different perspectives in social science lessons.
Members of the National Arab American Women’s Association are demanding a seat at the table when Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school system in Virginia, scouts new textbooks in coming years, said Ilham Nasser, a volunteer with the organization. They also have asked to distribute a list of resources on the Middle East to Fairfax teachers.
The group, which is also working on the issue in Loudoun, wants to combat stereotypes and do away with one-sided narratives that may advance dangerous ideas about Arabs and Muslims, said Nasser, a senior researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, an educational research center focused on advancing education in Muslim societies.
“Far-right discourse has been prevalent, and you wonder what’s happening,” she said. “But if you go back to the education system, you think there must be something there that we’re not doing right . . . that we’re really just ignoring these stereotypes that are going around about Muslims, about Arabs and so forth.”
Nasser trained Fairfax public school educators to teach history when she was an associate professor at George Mason University. She observed ill-informed educators resort to shallow stories and cliches, including one teacher who, during a lesson about the Iraq War, told students U.S. soldiers caught “bad guys” with a net, she recalled.
During a Fairfax County School Board meeting in February, Nasser pointed out a passage in one textbook that declared, “Much of the terrorism in the Middle East is aimed against the West.”
She called the statement inaccurate and oversimplified, telling the school board that “Americans who read it will be afraid of people from the Middle East. Most of the terrorism in the Middle East, unfortunately, is people against each other.”
The accuracy of textbooks and the depiction of underrepresented communities in them has, for years, been a contentious issue in Texas, a state that has outsize influence on publishers because it is one of the country’s largest textbook markets.
Members of the State Board of Education, which sets curriculum standards in Texas, are voted into their roles in partisan elections. Social conservatives took control of the board for a few years in the mid-2000s, said Dan Quinn, a research director for the Texas Freedom Network. They have lost ground since 2010, Quinn said, but are still influential.
The Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that describes its goals as protecting religious freedom, individual liberties and public education, asked scholars to review the state’s curriculum and textbooks three times after Texas revised social studies standards in 2010, when Quinn said the state adopted standards that politicized topics such as the Civil War and the role of religion in American history.
Those curriculum standards guide what students are expected to learn and, by extension, influence the content publishers include in textbooks, Quinn said.
The state board made hundreds of changes to the state’s social studies curriculum standards in 2010 “based largely on their own personal beliefs and pet causes,” according to a Texas Freedom Network report. Textbooks chosen after the standards were adopted reflected many of the politicized standards, Quinn said.
Chaos marked that process, according to the report, which said the state board ignored scholars, including one plea that the board not include standards suggesting Moses, a biblical figure, influenced the writing of foundational American documents such as the Constitution.
At one point, the board banned the children’s picture book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” because one member mistakenly believed the author was a Marxist, the report read.
Donna Bahorich, chairwoman of Texas’s State Board of Education, acknowledged the state’s influence on the textbook market but said it has waned in the digital age. The board, she said, has “done a lot to create an environment that would overcome a great deal of bias as well as we can.”
Bahorich pointed out that the board in 2017 removed science standards that critics said undermined the teaching of evolution. The board also adopted standards for Mexican American studies last year, after years of debate. The state educates more than 5.4 million public schoolchildren, most of whom are Hispanic.
“They are part of the American story. Absolutely,” said Bahorich, who has been on the board nearly seven years. “We want them to be able to fully embrace their part of the American story because they are us.”
The stories contained in history books and curriculum signal to students information and perspectives that are valued, said Margaret Crocco, former chair of the department of teacher education at Michigan State University and a feminist scholar.
White men have traditionally occupied positions of power in the United States, crowding out space in curriculum for women and people of color, she said. Students who don’t encounter stories about people they relate to “can begin to think that you are existing on the margins rather than the center.”
“When you think about how diverse this nation is becoming, we’re seeing many more calls at the local level for that reflection, that mirror,” she said. “Curriculum is a statement, a value statement – this is the knowledge we say has the most value.”
In Alexandria, Virginia, where students in the city school system hail from more than 114 countries and speak 119 languages, school leaders considered the diversity of the student body as they chose reading material for elementary school students last year.
New titles include a book called “Clothes Around the World,” a tale about a family’s journey as refugees from Colombia. An account about Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate and an activist for girls’ education in Pakistan who was shot by Taliban militants, was also selected.
Jose Lara, a longtime educator in Southern California, seldom encountered faces that resembled his own in his high school textbooks in the late 1990s. He was taught mostly “traditional U.S. history” about presidents and prominent military figures who were invariably white men.
Lara, an assistant principal in the Anaheim Union High School District, is a leading voice in pushing for an ethnic studies graduation requirement in California through the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, which advocates for ethnic studies. He knows, firsthand, the lasting influence of learning stories from within his own community.
He was a middling high school student who did enough to graduate but fell short of qualifying for a four-year university. But in community college, Lara was exposed to Chicano and Filipino history, to the overlapping experiences of African Americans and Latino Americans.
He developed an “academic identity” studying those histories and scored admission to the University of California at Los Angeles, he said.
“It got me excited about education,” Lara recalled. “It helped me build a positive self-image of myself.”