A textbook case of failure

Aisha Jones, 6, does her reading homework in Bolingbrook, Ill. Aisha’s mother, Toia Jones, and other parents worry that the No Child Left Behind Act is enabling states and schools to avoid taking concrete measures to eliminate an achievement gap.Stacie Freudenberg / AP file

At its core, the economic surge in India and China comes down to brains. The industries driving the region’s challenge to American leadership — communications, information technology, biotech and the like — can’t thrive without a steady supply of highly educated, intellectually flexible workers.

This is where the United States is falling behind. “Most U.S. high school students don’t take advanced science; they opt out, with only one-quarter enrolling in physics, one-half in chemistry,” the National Science Foundation found. The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century concluded that U.S. students were “devastatingly far” from leading the world in science and math.

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative put almost every imaginable part of the U.S. education system under a microscope, establishing national standards for teacher training, student testing and basic funding. But glaring in its omission from the program is any significant examination of that most basic of classroom tools, the textbook.

Scandalously bad textbooks
As younger, inexperienced teachers are thrown into classrooms to meet new federal standards, as much as 90 percent of the burden of instruction rests on textbooks, said Frank Wang, a former textbook publisher who left the field to teach mathematics at the University of Oklahoma.

And yet, few if any textbooks are ever subjected to independent field testing of whether they actually help students learn.

“This is where people miss the boat. They don’t realize how important the textbooks are,” Wang said. “We talk about vouchers and more teachers, but education is about the books. That’s where the content is.”

If America’s textbooks were systematically graded, Wang and other scholars say, they would fail abysmally.

American textbooks are both grotesquely bloated (so much so that some state legislatures are considering mandating lighter books to save students from back injuries) and light as a feather intellectually, flitting briefly over too many topics without examining any of them in detail. Worse, too many of them are pedagogically dishonest, so thoroughly massaged to mollify competing political and identity-group interests as to paint a startlingly misleading picture of America and its history.

Textbooks have become so bland and watered-down that they are “a scandal and an outrage,” the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank in Washington, charged in a scathing report issued a year and a half ago.

“They are sanitized to avoid offending anyone who might complain at textbook adoption hearings in big states, they are poorly written, they are burdened with irrelevant and unedifying content, and they reach for the lowest common denominator,” Diane Ravitch, a senior official in the Education Department during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, wrote in the report’s introduction.

“As a result of all this, they undermine learning instead of building and encouraging it,” she added.

A closed market
The culprit is the system by which many states choose what books their students will read. Because the market is a small one, textbook publishers must cater to the whims of elected school board leaders in the biggest states that buy the most books: Texas and California, which control a third of the national market, the Association of American Publishers estimates.

Few elementary and high school textbook publishers “can afford to spend millions of dollars developing a textbook series and not have it adopted in these high-volume states,” the Fordham Institute said.

So the operating philosophy is one of “superficial compliance with the rules, not a focus on results,” Wang said.

As a result, the politics of the boards adopting the books in Texas and California shape what is, to all intents and purposes, a de facto national curriculum, said Wang, who left Saxon Publishers, where he was president and chairman, in 2001 after he concluded that “this system was really unintentionally hurting the kids.”

Texas and California have both been the focus of campaigns to introduce intelligent design, an alternative explanation of the origin of life that critics dismiss as “creationism lite,” into the curriculum. But from there, the pressures diverge.

In Texas, the Board of Education is dominated by political conservatives who are heavily lobbied by conservative activists, among them the evangelical group Focus on the Family and the husband-and-wife team of Mel and Norma Gabler, whose tireless campaigning for religiously centered teaching materials has made them among the most influential forces in the production of American textbooks.

Texas’ textbooks, which are often adopted by other states that have few alternatives, have included board-ordered passages mandating politically conservative definitions of marriage, abortion and same-sex relationships and instructing students that pregnancies are best prevented by “respecting yourself” and getting “plenty of rest.” They have eliminated any mention of condoms, even though Texas leads the nation in teenage pregnancies.

161 pages of bias guidelines
In California, by contrast, the controlling forces are “social content standards” that insist that the state’s textbooks — even those in math and the sciences — portray ethnic groups, women, the elderly, the disabled and religious groups in precise proportionality to their representation in the population.

Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley, now part of textbook giant Pearson Prentice Hall, developed a 161-page manual titled “Multicultural Guidelines” in 1996 just to navigate the process in California. As summarized in the Fordham Institute report, the manual says company textbooks:

must include illustrations of tall and short people, heavy and thin individuals, people with disabilities, and families headed by two parents, by one parent, by grandparents, by aunts/uncles, and by other adults. When writing about the development of the U.S. Constitution, authors are directed to cite the dubious claim that it was patterned “partially after the League of Five Nations — a union formed by five Iroquois nations.”

Wang vividly remembers an encounter he had with the board that approves California’s textbooks when he showed up to testify for a book by Saxon.

“I was relating how well students did on state standardized tests” using the Saxon program, he said. The chairwoman pounded her gavel to interrupt the testimony to point out that quality wasn’t part of the discussion, he recalled.

According to a transcript of the meeting, which took place in 2001, the chairwoman said: “Effectiveness, while certainly something that we all look at as consumers, [is] not a criteria [here] and I think it is important that we keep that in mind. Test scores [are not] part of the criteria.”

“She was only considering whether the books had met the criteria,” not whether they actually worked, Wang said.

Wang, Ravitch and others have what they call a radical proposal: do away with the approval process altogether and let teachers and local school officials choose their own books.

“The system is resistant to the entrepreneurial spirit,” Wang said. “There isn’t a mechanism for encouraging innovation in education because of systems like this adoption process.”