Friday, January 28, 2022 Jan 28, 2022
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Public school textbooks are dull, noncontroversial, poorly written, oversimplified, bland, and inaccurate. And that’s exactly how they were planned.

For God so loved the world that he did not send a committee,” according to the old saying. In that case, the Almighty would shudder at the process by which your child’s textbooks are created-by a vast “committee” of warring pressure groups, professional zealots, ponderous academics, timid publishers, and harried school boards.

So? So plenty. The average child will read, or read at, around one hundred textbooks during his sojourn through the public schools. However creative the teachers may be, studies show that between 75 percent and 95 percent of all classroom teaching is determined by what is and is not in those brown-clad bundles of facts. Says Arthur Woodward, textbook researcher at the University of Rochester: ’Teachers rely so greatly on textbooks for the content and method to teach the content that the textbook becomes the single most important thing determining what students are learning and teachers are teaching.”

That heavy dependence on textbooks is a major reason why, according to textbook critics across the ideological spectrum, our children seem to be learning very little. Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart calls textbooks “the greatest enemy of our children in these United States.” But liberal critics with People For The American Way, a lobbying group formed to fight censorship, are equally alarmed at the shortcomings of the texts. Some critics say our textbooks have left out God; others, values; still others, essential facts about the world, If one pressure group rages over the absence of minority history, another is sure to protest that the record of the past is being distorted in an effort to compensate for years of discrimination and neglect of minorities. Some say that publishers have put so much material into texts that the books are like prairie rivers, a mile wide and an inch deep. Others argue that the publishers, bowing to pressure groups, have omitted so much-especially anything smacking of controversy-that the juices of life are squeezed out, leaving nothing but a dry, tasteless rind. Ironically, feminists and fundamentalists alike seem to agree on only one thing: for a number of reasons, today’s textbooks are sadly inadequate.

In Dallas schools, textbooks share the weaknesses of texts around the country. That’s hardly surprising; in fact, it could be said that Texas and a few other large states are responsible for the texts that so many find dull, superficial, poorly written, and irrelevant.

After all, Texas is the third largest purchaser of texts in the nation, accounting for almost 7 percent of the market each year. In 1983, when the state spent more than $65 million on textbooks, a publisher who made me adoption list could net $3-4 million per book. And Texas’s power is growing. For the 1986-1987 school year, the state bought $114 million worth of textbooks. Publishers find it easier to tailor books to the Lone Star State and sell them across the nation than to produce a set of books strictly for Texas. Whatever Texas wants, Texas gets, and the state has wielded that power in ways both trivial and controversial:

? Years ago, Texas demanded a change in a Scott, Foresman elementary math book, An addition problem used General Ulysses S. Grant’s birth date as a takeoff point; the State Board of Education demanded that a Confederate general be used instead.

? In 1979, the state board told the publisher of a health textbook to delete a paragraph stating that homosexuality was not a mental disorder. The statement reflected a shift in the position of the American Psychiatric Association, but no matter. The offending sentence was removed.

? For years, every biology text in the coun try carried a disclaimer reminding students that evolution was merely theory, not fact, because Texas rules for textbooks insisted on it, The disclaimer remained until 1985, when Attorney General Jim Mattox ruled that it violated the First Amendment.

Coronado, publishers of a world history text, were forced to alter a sentence that read, “The earliest people lived on earth over one million years ago.” To mollify creationists, the sentence was changed to “Many scientists believe that the earliest people…”

? “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s haunt ing short story, was a staple in high school anthologies for years. In 1978, the Texas Board of Education ruled that the tale, which deals with the ritualistic murder of a lottery “winner,” was too violent. Despite protests from teachers who said Jackson’s work en couraged students to examine traditions, the board refused to accept any text that included the story. As a result, “The Lottery” van ished from most American textbooks.

So Texas is the dog wagging the tail-the rest of the nation. Says LuOuida Phillips, recently retired DISD textbook consultant: “Texas tells publishers that it doesn’t matter what you’ve published before. If you don’t do it according to our guidelines, we won’t buy it. So what choice does the publisher have?” Felix Laiche of Laidlaw, Doubleday’s textbook division, is blunt about Texas’s clout: ’if Texas backs us up against a wall and says, ’You either take il out or we won’t sell the book in Texas,’ then we’ll take it out.”

Of course, textbooks have always been a battleground of debate, and for very obvious reasons: they are a means by which adults decide what their children should be. Historian Frances FitzGerald goes so far as to consider textbooks primarily instruments of socialization rather than tools for training the mind. “On the scale of publishing priorities,” writes FitzGerald in America Revised, a study of history texts, “the pursuit of truth appears somewhere near the bottom.” Gone are the days when a scholar wrote a text and handed it down, as from Olympus, to the masses. Now, with an eye cocked warily toward pressure-sensitive school boards, textbook publishers assemble books that will sell; the bottom line is the bottom line, not the textbook’s scope or depth or aesthetic qualities.

This new approach has led to what might be called the “blandifying” of American textbooks: when in doubt over the trouble some (act or interpretation might cause, better to omit it than run the risk of offending the Knights of Columbus, the National Organization for Women, the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the NAACP. In Texas, the best-known critics of textbooks

are Mel and Norma Gabler, the Longview couple who have made a reputation by roadblocking texts that, in their view, undermine traditional values. In addition to their well-publicized attacks on texts containing material about evolution and human sexuality, the Gabiers have protested a junior high reading text because a story in it portrayed Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, as a hero. But the Gabiers are hardly alone. Defenders of myriad causes both right and left, secular and religious, would agree with Mel Gabler: “Kids become what they’re taught, and textbooks mold nations because they largely determine how a nation votes.”

But how honest can a textbook be if it deliberately avoids controversy? On the subject of Watergate, the McGraw-Hill fifth-grade social studies text used by DISD children says only that former President Richard Nixon became involved because “he tried, to help his friends.” Surely this is an example of ducking controversy at the risk of misinforming students; adults may remember that Nixon allowed, his “friends” on the Judiciary Committee investigating the scandal to risk their own political lives by defending him when all the while he knew he was guilty.

Ironically, the no-controversy syndrome has made it difficult for students to learn much about either the role of religion in American life or the challenge that evolution poses to religious beliefs. Dr. Paul Vitz, a New York University psychology professor, examined some ninety-six elementary, middle school, and high school texts and found them almost empty of references to the seminal force of religion in shaping American institutions. Vitz found that some books discussed the Pilgrims and the Puritans without putting them in the context of their religious beliefs. Some texts ignored influential religious figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell; one history text examined Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the civil rights movement without ever identifying King as a minister.

The same strictures often apply to fictional works read in the schools, placing publishers in the position of censors. A DISD third-grade reader features a story called “Molly’s Pilgrim,” about a Jewish immigrant girl who learns to celebrate Thanksgiving. The publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) originally removed all references in the story to God, the Bible, the Jews, and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. After a dispute with the writer, who might have wondered about a Thanksgiving story without religion, the publisher replaced the references to Jews and the Jewish holiday; God and the Bible were still omitted.

THE FOUNDATION THEORY OF MODERN biology, evolution, is the most debated of all the issues concerning school textbooks. This is nothing new; evolution has been a target of attack since the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. The battle rages on today : this

past June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Louisiana statute requiring public schools that teach the theory of evolution to offer “creation science” as well.

And how have textbook publishers responded to this fiery debate? Largely by ignoring it. Several studies show that evolution is entirely absent from many elementary science books and is presented in a severely watered down form in most high school texts. Dr. Gerald Skoog, an education professor at Texas Tech University and one of the leading researchers in textbook treatment of biology, determined in a 1984 study that coverage of evolution and related topics in various books had declined, as much as SO percent since 1974. As for the DISD’s biology text, Holt’s Modern Biology, Skoog found that the 1981 ed.ition devoted 30 percent less space to evolution than had the 1973 edition, and 7 percent less than the 1977 edition.

In Skoog’s latest study, however, he finds mention of the “E-word” increasing. The 1985 edition of the DISD text has 2,000-plus more words on the subject then did the 1981 version. “There’s much evidence that supports the idea that evolution has taken place,1’ the text admits. Scientists may deem that a weak statement, somewhat akin to a geography text cautiously granting die existence of Europe, but it’s there. The statement did not appear in the 1981 edition.

While most of the court cases in the evolution-creation fight have arisen in otherstates, the textbook battle over human origins has been waged largely in Texas, again emphasizing our state’s crucial role in determining what young America studies. As Texas goes, so goes the nation; anti-evolutionists knew that winning in Texas meant an important national victory. In 1974, the Texas State Board of Education passed a law requiring textbooks to present the theory of evolution “as only one of several explanations of the origin of humankind,” thus forcing the disclaimer mentioned earlier. The board rejected a proposal in 1984 that would have required biology texts to mention Charles Darwin; and in 1985, the board ignored the pleas of scientists by adopting a group of seventh-grade science texts that critics said gave only cursory attention to evolution.

In Dallas, biology teachers have had their own problems with fundamentalists. In 1977, the Dallas School Board became the first major-city board to adopt a high school biology text that attacked scientific research and conclusions about evolution. The text offered a literal interpretation of the Bible as a counter-theory. The book was dropped a couple of years later. But, says DISD super-intendent Linus Wright, who was not in the post at the time, “the policy of the DISD hasn’t changed. Biology teachers are to teach both concepts [evolution and creationism], and not to teach them as fact, but as theory.”

Our texts fare little better with other controversial subjects. Dr. Gerald Pander, a professor of education at North Texas State University, took part in a study of history texts funded by People For The American Way, the lobbying group founded by television producer Norman Lear. Ponder, like Frances FitzGerald, believes that our textbooks are particularly weak when dealing with controversial events of the past three decades, events on which there is no clear public consensus. “It’s easy for U.S. history textbooks to explain the sins of the past, like our treatment of the Indians,” he says. “But the closer one gets to modern times, the textbooks take on a more muted tone toward issues. There is not yet a fully developed, treatment of Vietnam. The Moral Majority is not even mentioned., It’s still difficult to find a fully developed discussion of the civil rights movement. A student learns that there were marches and sit-ins and so on, but there is little attention paid to the background of these things, and why they had to happen.” The history texts used in Dallas schools, Ponder says, tend to downplay conflict and “turn it into a long march toward progress. You never learn the intensity of conflict and protest that surrounded Vietnam. Instead, it becomes some dull conflict out of which we learned some lessons.”

IN DEFENSE OF TEXTBOOK PUBLISHERS, they are often caught in a pincers movement between critics of differing ideology. The People For The American Way study criticized Magruder’s American Government,the civics text used, by DISD high school students, for muffling the volatile issues of American politics. “The book is too comprehensive, too rote, too bland,” the report concluded. “It would profit from some lively extended-case studies of political events and public policy issues.”

On the right, Mel and Norma Gabler objected to the book for other reasons: it was not too dull, but too liberal. They found a “subtle bias” in the book in favor of nuclear disarmament, and protested the book’s claim that the Constitution has endured since 1787 because of continual interpretation by the courts. The Gabiers say the Magruder text wrongly emphasizes the changing nature of the Constitution rather than its stability.

Frances FitzGerald’s view of textbooks as socializing tools may help to explain the depiction of women and minorities in current textbooks. A Martian introduced to America only through its textbooks would conclude that, as social critic Diane Ravitch says, “we are a sooiety in which all problems are solved, blacks and women are fully achieving, and there are no problems other than personal problems.” Today, minorities are sprinkled through texts in a kind of academic quota system, with the number of references to and pictures of minorities being equal to the number of references to white males-regardless of the very real disadvantages still hampering the full participation of women and minorities. Many basal readers present a world where girls never play with dolls and women are shown as airplane pilots and construction workers, but not mothers. To judge only from texts, our Martian would think that blacks and Hispanics are as likely to be doctors as they are to be manual laborers. Again, FitzGerald’s point is relevant: a color- and a gender-blind world may be desirable, but since that world does not yet exist, are such textbooks giving children a distorted view of the actual social landscape?

According to DISD school board president Mary Rutledge, a fixation on the equal depiction of minorities in texts can sometimes overshadow the other purposes of textbooks-to impart knowledge, for instance. “A few years ago, when 1 sat on a DISD textbook committee, we spent an unusual amount of time studying the illustrations of the elementary math books,” she says. In one book, Rutledge recalls, there was a picture of a white child standing with a big dog. Two pages over was a picture of a black boy standing with a smaller dog. “One black member pointed it out and said the subtle message of these illustrations was that the white boy was so intimidated by the black boy that he had to have a bigger dog. And most of us nodded, our heads seriously. Not once did anyone mention whether the actual teaching of the math in the book was any good.”

Occasionally, the not-so-hidden agendas that forge textbooks clash, with one imperative canceling out another. A study by Lucien Ellington, assistant director of the Center for Economic Education at The University of Tennessee, showed that economics textbooks basically ignore the particular economic circumstances of blacks and His-panics. Of course, to focus on minority problems would contradict the sunny, harmonious world-view so loved by textbook publishers. The study pointed out that the economics text used, in the DISD (Essentials of Economics and Free Enterprise) contains virtually nothing about the economic problems of minorities; the text doesn’t even mention the fact that blacks and Hispanics tend to be disproportionately poor and unemployed relative to the white population. Nor was there any mention of discrimination in employment.

Our blandified texts are made even more inadequate by another problem: the “dumbing down1’ of the books via readability formulas. When a district buys only one textbook for a subject, it almost always has to find a book that the least able students in that grade can read. As a result, the needs of more capable students may be slighted, and even the slower students are not challenged. Linus Wright says the result is an insidious downward spiral. As the district enrolled more minority students, Wright says, too many educators assumed they couldn’t learn unless texts were made easier to read. But teachers soon found they could not get students up to reading on grade level by lowering readability levels. Now, says Wright, “we have textbooks at the high school level with a readability factor only at the fourth or fifth grade. And, of course, these students get high school diplomas that say they have completed high school. People make the assumption that they are reading at the twelfth-grade level. But we all know that they are reading at much lower levels. That is exactly what has destroyed, a generation of young people in our country,”

Texas law demands that textbooks for grades 2-8 meet the Harris-Jacobson Readability Formula; books for grades 9-12 must conform to the Dale-Chall Formula. While readability formulas differ in some particulars, the premise is that word length, sentence length, and unfamiliar words are the main causes of reading problems. The solution? Short sentences and short, easy words. Adults who remember the old fairy tale of “The Shoemaker and the Elves” may not recognize this more “readable” version of the story included, in a first-grade reader from Modern Curriculum Press: “Tap, tap, tap. See me work. I make good things. See the red ones. See the blue ones. See the yel-lowones. No, no, no, I do not want red ones. I do not want blue ones. I want green ones. “

In this version, the key ideas of the original tale-elves, shoes, shoemakers-do not even appear. The mind has nothing tangible to grasp-a “thing” could be a toothpick model of the Taj Mahal. And the formulas are quirky and arbitrary in other ways. Hamlet’s “to he or not to be,” considered merely as syllables, weighs in at a lower grade level than, say, “Mother has a pocketbook.” But who would argue that the latter statement is more challenging, more “adult” than the former? DISD reading specialist Marjorie King concedes that the reading formulas are often counterproductive. “There is a tyranny about trying to say something interesting with short sentences and readability formulas. Frankly, there’s a lot lacking.” She insists that DISD teachers are encouraged, to read to their students “at a higher level than what they are able to read. We feel that will push them past the readability levels.” And many teachers supplement the formulaic texts with “real” novels written by authors, not committees of consultants.

Most students rememher the monotony of “See Spot run. Spot is going home.” Most educators agree that readability formulas are to blame for the choppy, singsong language found in many of today’s textbooks. Naturally, a computer is the culprit. Educators feed prospoctive texts into computers, which automatically cut up the sentences, vaporizing connective words like “hecause,” “however,” and “therefore.” In the process, the computers destroy any semblance of the style, rhythm, and beauty that well-written prose can offer, Worse, the readability taboos make it harder for children to detect the subtle relationships between ideas that are essential to grasping any complex thought.

Here is a passage from a sixth-grade text, stripped of the transitional words and complex sentences that bind concepts together:

“In the evening, the light fades. Photosynthesis slows down. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air space builds up again. “

Nowhere in that paragraph would a child find the relationships between events. It is because the light fades that photosynthesis slows down, thus giving time for carbon dioxide to build up again in the air. Throw in the fact that most texts today are written not by one author but by teams of editors, thus losing the individual “voice” that can lend a book conviction and intimacy, and you have the typical modern textbook. Perhaps Johnny can’t (or won’t) read because what he is reading makes little sense.

Despite the ample shortcomings of too many textbooks, the record in DISD shows that progress toward better books is possible-if difficult and expensive. Years ago, the district announced a goal of attracting more students into high school algebra classes. Today’s high-tech workplace, the thinking went, made advanced math critically important. But in 1983, according to Mary Lester, mathematics director for DISD. 70 percent to 75 percent of the students were not taking algebra or geometry. The following year, district officials decided to break ranks with the state, discard the state-approved text, and pay for their own algebra book.

They chose a set of books by John Saxon, a retired military man who had decided that the standard textbooks were unclear and confusing, emphasizing mathematical theory at the expense of practice and written in bafflingjargon. The old books were teaching theory first and skills second-the reverse of the way children usually learn. But the state refused to approve the text, so DISD spent $2 million of local funds to put the books in grades 7-9. “’The thing that most people criticize the Saxon text for,” says Wright, “is that it has so many repetitions. But in other books they teach one concept on Monday, give you a few practice problems, move on to something else the next day, and never come back to what they taught you on Monday.”

The results were nothing short of startling. Achievement levels almost doubled in the subject in the first year, Wright says. A study at a North Dallas high school found that only 2.5 percent of students using the Saxon book failed Algebra II, while 60 percent using the standard text failed. One teacher compared students using Saxon with those using another book and found that the Saxonites correctly answered an average of 21.26 questions on a thirty-question quiz. Students using the old book answered only 9.36.

Most important, the goal of attracting more students to algebra was reached. In 1975-1976, only 3,500 students were enrolled in DISD high school algebra. This past school year, though overall enrollment is lower now than a decade ago, 6,500 students took algebra. If textbooks are to bear the blame when so much goes wrong, it’s fair to credit some texts with producing healthy results. If only such happy endings weren’t the exceptions to the rule.