Turmoil over textbooks
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
"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
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
The current state of affairs began with good intentions.
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
"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."
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
"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
"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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