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Textbook raises constitutional concern

A U.S. history textbook recommended by teachers has drawn fire from Medford School Board members, who criticized the author for “editorializing” the U.S. Constitution.

At Monday’s board meeting, a team of advance placement teachers from North and South Medford high schools presented their curriculum recommendations to the board for adoption.

Board members unanimously approved the recommended AP chemistry, AP European history, AP literature and AP composition curriculum. But board Chairman Jeff Thomas and board member Kim Wallan questioned the recommended AP U.S. history textbook — the 16th edition of “The American Pageant” by David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen — and asked that the board wait to vote until the April 6 meeting so all board members could be present. Board members Marlene Yesquen and Larry Nicholson were absent from Monday’s meeting.

Thomas noted that while board members Tricia Prendergast, Ron Andersen and Sally Killen supported the textbook, it still needed four votes for it to pass.

Both Wallan and Thomas have degrees in political science and were outspoken about their disapproval of how the author embedded words and phrases in brackets and as side notes in the Constitution.

For example, the Second Amendment read: “The people may bear arms. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms [i.e., for military purposes] shall not be infringed.”

Prendergast pointed out that “i.e.” means “that is” or “this means” and should have been replaced with “e.g.” which means “for example.” The exact meaning of the Second Amendment has long been a hot-button issue in the debate over gun rights.

Thomas called the bracketed phrase in the Second Amendment the most “egregious” example of the author’s editorial comments.

“There’s no way I can support it and not because I agree with the author or don’t,” he said at the meeting. “It’s just that that should not be taught to sophomores who are still forming how to think critically.”

“I loved the book except for that massively glaring issue,” he said later. “If they could rebind the book without those pages, I would be fine with it.”

Wallan said she would be fine with the textbook if that version of the Constitution were replaced with a clean copy. 

“I thought all the editorial comments were unnecessary because the Supreme Court of the United States exists to interpret the Constitution and determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress, so to presume that with some editorial comments you can embody the full scope of the U.S. Supreme Court is arrogant for one thing,” she said Wednesday.

Other examples of added comments seemed less controversial, such as this addition near the end of the Fifth Amendment: "... nor shall private property be taken for public use [i.e., by eminent domain] without just compensation."

Daniel Woodard and three other AP U.S. history teachers reviewed all the textbooks recommended by The College Board, which governs the AP program, and even read several of them cover to cover before making their recommendation to the school district.

Of all the textbooks he evaluated, Woodard said “The American Pageant” was the most accessible and engaging, offered the best supporting materials and produced the most success on the AP exam.

“ 'American Pageant’ is the most used textbook for AP U.S. history across the nation,” he said at the board meeting.

Woodard said he understands and respects the board members' concerns and has had conversations with the publishers about the editorial comments.

“The editorials are an attempt by them to clarify the meaning of some of the language in the Constitution,” he said.

As a class, the students will look at the language and the various interpretations, as well as the case studies behind them, he explained.

Medford schools Superintendent Brian Shumate said Wednesday that the AP curriculum committee has been in touch with the publishers of the textbook in question, who have offered to come to Medford to have an open dialogue about the issue before the board votes.

“This way all the stakeholders have a chance to understand how the book is laid out and what the editorial comments mean so our board can make an informed decision,” he said.

If approved, the district intends to order about 240 copies of the textbook, totaling about $20,406.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.