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Turmoil over textbooks


"Only one publisher submitted middle school history books to the 1998 panel. And intense controversy later erupted over Houghton Mifflin's "Message of Ancient Days" and "Across the Centuries" when it turned out Islamic culture chapters blurred the lines between religious belief and historical facts."

Textbook criticism comes in waves in California.

The books are too expensive, too heavy, too politically correct -- or not enough. Publishers are out to make a buck; school districts aren't spending their money wisely; a little legislation will fix everything.

Missing from this ocean of debate is a picture of California's role as overseer and how state regulations have driven up costs.

"The state does not have confidence in (local districts) to make proper choices," said Stanford professor Michael Kirst, a member of the state board of education from 1975 to 1981. "Big Brother has to come in and select the textbooks."

With 12 percent of the U.S. textbook market, California has exercised its considerable buying power not to negotiate prices but to dictate content. The result is that a few dozen politicians and education experts determine what children read and how much taxpayers spend on the books. The Reagan years saw state-approved science books that touted creationism, Kirst said, while the same books were banned by Jerry Brown's administration.

"It's a fundamental political issue: What knowledge is most worth knowing, and who should decide that?" Kirst said. "In California, we've decided the state."

This summer, the Legislature approved bills that could bring a measure of local control to textbook selection and rein in textbook prices. Both are now awaiting the governor's approval or veto. The bills may help, or they may add a layer to a convoluted process. Either way, they are a first stab, and two of several pieces of legislation publishers spent $800,000 lobbying for or against in 2003-04.

The current state of affairs began with good intentions.

The rules

Back when Dick and Jane ruled the reading groups, textbook adoption was designed to maximize local district choice. Schools could choose from as many as eight different textbooks in each subject. But quality and content ran the gamut, and competition was fierce.

"Publishers took liberties," said state curriculum frameworks administrator Don Kairott. "They were dangling goodies."

Regulations were tightened, and by the mid-'90s, the push was on to align textbooks and exams to the new, comprehensive curriculum standards. The state mandated that every student have state-approved, standards-based textbooks in every core subject -- English, math, science, social studies -- before a school could purchase nonstate-approved books.

"Standards, instructional materials, assessments all had to sing from the same hymnal," said Scott Hill, chief policy adviser to Delaine Eastin when she was state schools chief. "The standards said, 'Not everyone can play here, guys.'"

The resulting process is not for the meek. Nor for the small, independent publisher. The dozens of publishers that initially express interest in producing a particular book may dwindle to two or three by the time the approval process winds down.

Take, for example, the state's 2003 call for new history books, which publishers are now in the process of answering. In May of 2003, 26 textbook honchos descended upon a Sacramento conference room for the publishers' briefing. Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, all the big guys were there.

Between developing content, printing samples and presenting the proposed final product, it costs at least $20 million to play the textbook game. California's massive English/language arts "adoption" in 2002 cost Houghton Mifflin $100 million.

"I call it gambling -- scary gambling -- to make that investment on a shifting field, three years out," said Houghton Mifflin vice president Maureen DiMarco, California's former secretary of education. "We ante up to play in the game with no guarantee."

But this is not blackjack. There are detailed curriculum frameworks and criteria, and the major publishers understand there are certain things California won't accept. The state's Education Code prohibits mention of any matter that reflects "adversely" on any race, gender or occupation, for example. Textbooks also must encourage thrift and fire prevention. Jujubes are banned and Fritos forbidden.

"You have to say five boxes of granola," said Stephen Driesler, director of the Association of American Publishers.

An entire unwritten code underlies the textbook industry, Diane Ravitch writes in "The Language Police." In the K-8 textbook world, Africa has no AIDS and stereotypes are forbidden. African Americans don't live in urban environments. Native Americans don't carry papooses or ride pintos -- and thundering herds of bison are out.

After the briefing, the publishers returned to their home offices with marching orders for writers, photographers and artists. Over the following 18 months, each company crafts a sample textbook and all the ancillary materials -- workbooks, teacher and English language learner editions, wall maps and CDs -- that will become "the program family."

The advisors

Back at the state department of education, recruiting is under way for two advisory panels. One consists of history professors and similar experts. The other combines curriculum experts and educators like Clovis Unified history teacher Rob Darrow, who served on the 1998 social studies panel.

"What was amazing to me is how much money the publishers put into meeting the criteria," said Darrow. "It's a huge investment in the state of California."

Despite the lack of pay and the hundreds of hours involved, Darrow can't wait to do it again, even the part where he listened to publisher presentations.

"You know that old adage, the book speaks for itself? Well, it didn't quite work that way," Darrow said.

Only one publisher submitted middle school history books to the 1998 panel. And intense controversy later erupted over Houghton Mifflin's "Message of Ancient Days" and "Across the Centuries" when it turned out Islamic culture chapters blurred the lines between religious belief and historical facts.

"The size of our state, there's such diverse need: Personally, I believe the more adopted texts, the better," Darrow said.

When the vast array of English books in 2002 whittled down to McGraw-Hill's carefully scripted "Open Court" and Houghton Mifflin's more open-ended option, some districts felt they had no options at all.

"Lafayette decided 'Open Court' was something they didn't even want to look at; it was too restrictive," said Lafayette curriculum director Maggie MacIsaac.

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