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US Textbooks Serve a Diverse Society - 2004-05-05

As a result of increased immigration in the past decade or so, the U.S. classroom in primary and secondary schools is more diverse than ever. So efforts are underway to make the curriculum and textbooks relevant to students of different backgrounds. Zlatica Hoke reports the results have not pleased everyone.

Since the late 1980's, a number of textbook reviewers have reached similar conclusions: the books are getting larger in size and more complex in format, but thinner and shallower in content. Gilbert Sewall recently wrote a report on world history textbooks for the American Textbook Council.

“In fact, what I am most worried about and what the report is worried about is the ‘dumbing down’ of textbooks, the tendency for textbooks to become more shallow, to have less information and to become picture-and-activity books, rather than basic reference works,” says Mr. Sewall.

On the whole, reviewers say textbooks are graphically attractive. They have multi-colored images and bold-face captions on every page. Insets and margins offer summarized stories. Steven Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, says this broken format is designed to help students learn more efficiently: “What we’ve found out, and we are always learning things about how kids learn, and one thing we know is that different kids learn different ways. Some kids learn from the written text best."

Mr. Driesler adds: "Some kids learn best from hearing the material presented by a teacher. Some are very visually oriented. They need to see a picture or a graphical representation of the content. And the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is very, very true. A lot of times you can show something to a kid in a picture or a graph and they will understand what literally would take you a thousand words to explain. But what we also know is that, really, you learn best when you have all of those.”

Critics say bright pictures and broken format are distracting and confusing. The main text is often hard to follow.

Another trend some reviewers criticize is the tendency to include as many topics as possible and give each equal space. Paul Gagnon, professor of history at Boston University, says part of the problems is caused by the 1994 national standards for teaching history, geography, mathematics and civics. Comprising more than one thousand pages, these standards provide outlines and thematic cues for publishers and curriculum specialists. But they do not emphasize topics that are especially important.

“For example, in the national standards and in textbooks, of 82 items for the period 1000 AD to 1500 AD, there is only one item on the roots of constitutional government and that item does not mention Magna Carta or the first English Parliament. And it does not even explain how the feudal system created the balance of armed power that underlies any contractual government. You don’t write a contract if you have all the power. And a constitution is a contract.”

Thus, says Professor Gagnon, of the 82 items, there is only one devoted to the basics of democracy, but more than ten items are devoted to the Mongols, for example. He also notes history textbooks abound in facts, but lack context and explanation that would make them meaningful to students. That, he says, makes history books boring.

Critics say the new, “globalist” view of the world seeks to give a rosy picture of all cultures as well as their interaction. Negative facts, particularly about non-western cultures, are often omitted, glossed over or described in bland terms. The result, some say, is a distorted view of present as well as past reality. Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council says this is especially true of coverage of the Islamic world: “When it comes to the status of women, Islamic slavery, sharia, jihad, the textbooks are full of fabrications and misrepresentations and that’s what leads me, in part, to condemn textbooks at their worst for being agents of geopolitical misinformation.”

But one person’s reality is another’s bias. Defenders say American textbooks used to be racist, ethnocentric, traditionalist and sexist. Minorities, including African Americans, native Americans and Muslims, found some of the material objectionable and even offensive. Such content has been removed from the revised material.

The textbook controversy is often blamed on the system. The United States does not subsidize or control textbook publishing. It is a commercial enterprise, dominated by four giant textbook publishers who depend on large sales to make a profit. So they try to please as many clients as possible.

In addition to national standards, more than 20 states have adopted their own strict guidelines for teaching history and world cultures, among them three of the largest: California, Texas and Florida. These states purchase textbooks for their public schools, amounting to millions of books, so publishers are attentive to their demands. Smaller states and individual school districts that cannot afford the expense of a tailor-made textbook buy those essentially written for the largest states.

“Our members produce about 85 plus percent of all the textbooks and other instruction materials that are used in American classrooms today,” says Steven Driesler of the Association of American Publishers’ school division. Publishers must closely follow state guidelines on language, content and format of books.

“They are given very strict direction as to what they can and cannot say about certain subjects. For example in California, there are extensive guidelines of foods we cannot show kids eating that are considered to be junk foods or unhealthy foods. So publishers have to either abide by these editorial guidelines provided to us by our customers or, basically, we don’t get adopted in that state,” says Mr. Driesler.

Coverage of religion has been perhaps the most sensitive subject for believers and non-believers alike. Susan Douglass has been reviewing textbooks for the past ten years for the Council on Islamic Education in California. She says discussion of any religion should be written by those who belong to it: “Any student who comes to school with a religious point of view should be able to walk back out the door with that unchallenged in this kind of fundamental way where the omniscient textbook voice comes along and says: ‘Well, you know, it really is a bunch of bunk at bottom.’”

California’s Council on Islamic Education is just one of many pressure groups that influence what goes into textbooks. Critics see such interference as a form of censoring. But Mr. Driesler notes textbooks are paid by taxpayers and those who pay are entitled to raise objections as to how their culture or religion is presented to school children. Of course, he adds, it is not easy to reconcile opposing views: “What some people would consider to be as overly politically sensitive is somebody else’s idea of not being offensive and being understanding and tolerant of differences. When you live in a pluralistic society and a diverse society, which this country is and is getting more so every day, it is not quite easy to write a book that addresses all of the concerns and interests that everyone in society has in a way that’s going to please all the other people in society.”

Mr. Driesler says even though textbook publishing in the United States is a private for-profit business, tough competition ensures the quality of the product. But he adds textbooks are designed to be used in conjunction with classroom teaching, discussions, additional reading and other teaching supplements. There is no such thing as a perfect textbook.