Dana, a Palestinian-American student at Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, Texas, was immediately taken aback by the multiple choice quiz question in her classroom this January. “What is an important cause of terrorism in the Middle East?” Options included that “Israelis believe terrorist acts are needed to defend settlements in the West Bank,” “Iranians use terrorism to collect uranium for nuclear weapons,” and “radical groups in Egypt wish to give control of the Suez Canal to Britain.” The correct answer, according to a lesson plan designed to address Texas education standards: “Many Palestinians believe terrorism is justified against Israeli occupation.”
Dana, the only Muslim student in her 9th grade World Geography class, says the quiz was the latest in several instances just that month where she felt villainized by how the curriculum approached conflict in the Middle East. In one case, Dana says her teacher taught the class that 9/11 was caused by a Muslim group that was angry with the United States for its relationship with Israel. In another, a textbook depicted the “Palestinian viewpoint” with intimidating images of Hamas, a militant fundamentalist resistance group, in dark masks and assault rifles, while the “Israeli viewpoint” was shown with far more humanizing photos of Israeli soldiers.
“I’m wearing the headscarf, everyone knows I’m Muslim and Palestinian, and in that moment I felt like they were demonizing my people,” she said of the quiz question. According to her father, Luay, in order for Dana to get the answer right, she would essentially have to label herself a terrorist. The family requested that only their first names be used to protect Dana’s privacy.
In response to the quiz, Luay contacted Lowery officials and the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He found out that the textbook that the question came from, “Mastering TEKS in World Geography” by Jarrett Publishing Company, has been used by the district since 2013, and is used as a resource by other schools across the state. Faizan Syed, executive director of the Dallas Fort-Worth branch of CAIR, says that he often hears about anti-Palestinian bias in school curricula. A report from his organization last year found more than 40 percent of surveyed Muslim students in the area were not comfortable with engaging in class discussions about Islam, and nearly half reported some form of bullying. Syed believes that the Jarrett Publishing textbook should not be used in any public school system. “You don’t have to have a PhD in Middle Eastern studies to know these things are wrong,” he says. “The fact that this book was used at Allen ISD for seven years, and nobody saw this problem until this father did, is a reflection of our Texas public education system.”
In an emailed statement, the school said it is listening to the family’s concerns and looking for potential resolutions, writing that: “Allen ISD strives to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all of our students.” Mark Jarrett, of Jarrett Publishing, says he believes that the book’s presentation of the conflict is balanced, “However, there may be one or two word changes that we can agree to make in future editions or printings of this book.”
The state’s Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) education standards, adopted by the largely conservative State Board of Education (SBOE), have garnered criticism in the past for providing students with misrepresentations of history that are rooted in political and ideological beliefs rather than in academic consensus, such as downplaying the role of slavery in causing the Civil War and neglecting Native American history. And Texas schools are expected to teach that the central factor driving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the rejection of the existence of the state of Israel by the Arab League and a majority of Arab nations,” generally dismissing the Palestinian perspective. Amid a national movement to recognize and address forms of structural racism, schools across the state are being pushed to adopt initiatives that foster diversity and inclusion in the classroom, and to re-examine bias in educational material. But while that bias is engrained in state standards, in misrepresentations in school curriculum and educational materials, it falls to individual schools or school districts to respond to incidents that arise—and advocates say they often fall short.
At Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a 6th grade quiz question in March asked students to identify which Chinese cultural norm was true—with possible answers being lashing children with a cane for stealing candy, cutting off someone’s lips for burping, and eating cats and dogs. After the family of a student brought attention to it, the district announced it would enhance a recently launched diversity program, and placed three teachers on paid administrative leave. In nearby Southlake, viral videos of white students chanting racial slurs prompted Carroll ISD to consider a cultural competence action plan last summer. It has since sparked an ongoing debate in the district, with many families pushing back against the diversity plan for being biased against white students. Last summer, Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who is Black, sided with those families, urging Southlake residents to fight “liberal indoctrination” in Texas schools.
This session, a bill proposed in the Texas Legislature called the “Cultural Inclusion Act” would require the SBOE and the Texas Education Agency to establish a “culturally inclusive curriculum reflecting the cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity of society” statewide. The bill, filed by state Representative Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, a Bexar County Democrat and member of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, includes instruction that would help students recognize “stereotypic images” and encourage critical thinking about bias in the classroom. The bill has not moved since being referred to the House Public Education Committee in February. Gervin-Hawkins’ office did not respond to questions.
Nancy Stockdale, a University of North Texas professor who specializes in modern Palestinian history and representations of the Middle East, says even calls for more diverse narratives in education often leave out Palestinians. “Most Americans don’t learn about their histories, they don’t have an understanding of their dispossession, and there is a lot of propaganda circulating that even claims they don’t exist,” she says. “The major issue that we see in a lot of the curriculum around the Israel-Palestine conflict is that it’s written from ideological perspectives that people have, instead of being written from a factual and historical framework.”
Since January, Dana and her family have been meeting with school officials in Allen to lay out their concerns. “They were teaching the curriculum, so they thought there was no way it could be wrong,” Dana says. “When I tried to speak up about why I felt like it was offensive, they didn’t really understand.”
Allen ISD officials say they relayed the family’s concerns to the textbook publisher, which plans to use a different photo to depict the “Palestinian viewpoint” and change the wording of the quiz question to “some Palestinians,” instead of “many Palestinians,” in future editions. Allen ISD says they will update the wording on current copies, likely with printed labels over the existing text. But CAIR and Dana’s family say the changes miss the broader point.
“For many people, the only things they know about the conflict is what they learn in school,” Syed says. “If students are being taught at a young age that this group of people are inherently violent, they are going to take that and believe it for the rest of their lives.”