The harm done by textbook adoption
September 29, 2004
The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a splendid survey of what's wrong with textbooks today and how they went awry.
The main problem besetting textbooks, we know, is their quality. They are sanitized to avoid offending anyone who might complain at 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. As a result, they undermine learning instead of building and encouraging it.
This newest Fordham study, and others that have examined textbooks (see A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks), show that it need not be this way. There are plenty of examples of fine textbooks from the recent past, as well as from other countries. Good history books contain vivid narratives about significant people and exciting events that changed the course of human affairs; such books certainly do not sidestep controversial topics. Good literature anthologies contain a blend of outstanding traditional literature as well as recent writing that is worthy of study and analysis; such anthologies are not assembled primarily in terms of the authors' gender and ethnicity (unless they are intended to be compilations of writings by women, men, or members of specific groups). Good textbooks in mathematics and science focus on the facts and ideas that are necessary to build a cumulative foundation of knowledge in each field; they do not avoid issues that raise hackles, like evolution, and they are not stuffed with irrelevant sociopolitical commentary about subjects like global warming and the accomplishments of women and individuals with disabilities in these fields.
In my research for The Language Police, I found - as this new report does - that the textbook adoption process in California, Texas, Florida, and other states had warped the books' quality. I talked to many publishers who told me (off the record, of course) that their editors were trained to remove anything controversial or potentially controversial from their materials before submitting them to any of the twenty-one adoption states. Editors were instructed to avoid or delete anything that might offend feminists, conservative religious groups, disability groups, ethnic activists, or any other imaginable self-designated spokesmen for any other conceivable organization of aggrieved victims.
My contribution to this particular discussion was to discover that the education publishing industry - including both textbook publishers and test publishers - had adopted internal guidelines that listed words, phrases, and representations of reality that were to be avoided. These guidelines included hundreds of words and scores of representations (otherwise known as "stereotypes"), and they were broadly disseminated, shared, and acted upon by private companies, as well as state and federal testing agencies. I called these behaviors censorship because the private companies were not acting of their own free will. They were taking steps to please state agencies and qualify for state contracts. Most notably, the publishers were self-censoring in order to win contracts from the big states that practice statewide adoption and purchasing.
Since publication of The Language Police, I have learned a few things that add to my sense of outrage.
First, I found that the actual list of proscribed words and phrases is far larger than what I had originally reported. My glossary of banned words had only about 500 fairly well-known words that bias reviewers had decided to oust from common parlance, like "fireman" and "actress." Several months after my book appeared, however, I received a set of guidelines used by the New York State Education Department that included a significant number of additional words that were deemed offensive; these guidelines were drawn from a book that contained literally thousands of words said to be "biased." It was clear to me that these trends, unchecked, would continue to eviscerate the expressive and denotative power of the English language.
Second, I discovered that there is no natural ally in the fight against the corruption of textbooks. In my book, I argued that the adoption process should be eliminated because it provided a means for pressure groups that wanted to impose their political views on publishers and thereby on children. I argued for a free market in textbook publishing, where decisions about which book to buy were made by individual teachers or schools, not by state agencies. I imagined that the organization best suited to leading this fight against state regulation was the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which represents the industry. That organization, I felt sure, would be in the forefront of freedom to publish and therefore prepared to oppose a process that allowed bureaucrats and political pressure groups to determine content.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. When I spoke to the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers in February 2004, I urged them to assume the leadership of the fight against state textbook adoptions because of the censorship pressures exerted on publishers. They listened politely; a few publishers at the meeting agreed with me. But the organization itself, I discovered (by reading its reports on lobbying activities in the states) was actively working to block any legislative efforts to weaken or abandon statewide adoptions. At the AAP meeting, in fact, some publishers worried that states might reduce their textbook spending if there were no adoption process, although there is no evidence that adoption states spend more per pupil than non-adoption states, called "open territories." The AAP, sadly, uses its considerable clout to protect the adoption process in the big states, a process that benefits a very small number of publishing giants and disadvantages a large number of small publishers who cannot afford to meet the expensive requirements of the process and thus break into the textbook market.
Third, the politically correct censorship of education materials does not end in the classroom. My readers have told me of innumerable instances of similar censorship in children's trade publishing, in college textbooks, in hymnals, and in other arenas of publishing as well.
I continue to read textbooks, especially history textbooks, and to be deeply dismayed by their abysmally dumb and oversimplified content. I do not gainsay the difficulty of writing a comprehensive textbook of U.S. or world history, but it is shocking to see how thin is the content presented to American students, whether in elementary school, junior high, or high school. Recently, when reading the report of the 9/11 Commission, I was impressed by its terse, clear history of Islamic fundamentalism. It was accurate, dramatic, and informative. What struck me was recalling that in every high school textbook in either U.S. or world history, the same subject is glossed over with a few bland paragraphs, with no account of the history of fundamentalism within Islam. How can our young people possibly be prepared to understand international events when they are given so little background and context?
The lack of any advocacy group that brings citizens together to demand action on the recommendations of this report continues to be a problem. I have had literally hundreds of emails from readers who wanted to know, "Where can I join up to be part of this movement?" I regretfully informed correspondents that no such organization exists. It should.
I hope that Fordham's edifying and comprehensive study of the politics of textbook adoption will bring us closer to the day when policy makers recognize that they must eliminate state textbook adoption altogether. There is no good reason for the state to restrain competition and provide a platform for every grievance group that wants to exclude whatever they don't like from textbooks. There is no good reason for state interference in the educational materials marketplace, other than to offer research-based information about which textbooks are of the highest quality, gauged solely by their effectiveness in helping children meet academic standards.
This editorial was adapted from Diane Ravitch's introduction to The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption.
Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, is a research professor at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is a member of the boards of trustees of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute.