Why calling slaves ‘workers’ matters

In Houston, student Coby Burren was taken aback by a caption in a chapter on immigration in his geography textbook recently.

In a map of the United States, it said the Atlantic slave trade brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”


The error escaped several editorial layers and the official textbook reviewers and members of the Texas Board of Education.

In matters of textbooks, Texas, because of its size, rules the country. It has more influence over textbooks than any other state, although that influence is said to be waning.

On her education blog today, NPR’s Laura Isense says the mistake shows the subjective nature of trying to teach race in our schools.

In the last year, Texas textbooks have been criticized for listing Moses as a Founding Father and for downplaying slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Those issues stemmed from the learning standards that the Texas State Board of Education sets to guide publishers.

But David Levin, CEO of McGraw-Hill Education, believes this mistake was an editorial error and not a problem with the standards or what he calls a “transparent” adoption process.

“It was a terrible error and the minute we saw it we said, ‘We’ve got to sort it out,’ ” Levin says.

There are 100,000 copies of the book in Texas, tens of thousands more around the country and the company is scrambling to fix the problem. It will ship corrected copies to schools for free, or it will provide a sticker to cover the caption along with a lesson plan about the cultural context of language.

While Levin stands behind the rest of McGraw-Hill Education’s materials, he admits they need to review their books more carefully. In particular, the CEO wants more “cold reads.” Those evaluate individual lessons on a stand-alone basis, which is basically what Coby Burren did when he spotted the error.

The young man’s mother posted this video on YouTube