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Protect Yourself Against Textbook Tampering


StarrPointsThe Texas Board of Education recently approved an environmental science textbook after the publisher agreed to make changes to the book's content. Another book was rejected after its publishers refused to agree to content revisions. The actions, said one board member, send a message to textbook publishers: "If you want your book to be accepted, you have to rewrite it they way they want it written."

Last Friday, the Texas State Education Agency (TSEA) approved for use in the state's public schools an environmental science textbook that had previously been criticized by some members of the state board of education. The approval of Environmental Science: How the World Works and Your Place in It came after the publisher, J. M. LeBel Enterprises, agreed to make revisions to the book's content. A second textbook, Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, was rejected after Jones and Bartlett Publishers refused to agree to content revisions.

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In today's StarrPoints columnist Linda Starr reflects on how large adoption states influence what your students study. What do you think? Have big-budget adoption states and textbook publishers created a national curriculum? Share your reflections on the StarrPoints message board.

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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Board members cited "factual errors" as the basis for their original objections to the two textbooks. Those errors were not clearly documented, however, and the board's real concerns appeared to be the books' treatment of certain topics rather than the factual content. According to board member Mary Helen Berlanga, the board's actions send a message to all textbook publishers: "If you want your book to be accepted, you have to rewrite it they way they want it written."

Apparently, that comes as a surprise to Berlanga. It isn't surprising, however, to anyone who's ever been involved in textbook publishing. In fact, the only noteworthy aspect of the situation is that this adoption required a rewrite. Most publishers are savvy enough to make sure that the very first draft of any new textbook they publish complies with not just the curriculum and educational philosophy but also the politics and cultural climate of Texas -- and California and Florida.

In educational publishing, Texas, California, and Florida are known as the "big three" textbook adoption states; together, they account for 30 percent of the multibillion-dollar K-12 textbook market. Together, they largely determine the content and context of the textbooks you use in your classroom.

That wouldn't be a problem if textbooks were what most of us assume them to be -- complete, unbiased accounts of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." In fact, textbooks are actually compilations of selected facts, and the decisions about which facts to include -- and which to omit -- determine not only what your students learn but also how they interpret the information presented.

Does an environmental textbook include a criticism of deforestation? Does a science textbook present evolution as fact or theory? Does a history textbook emphasize slavery or state's rights in a discussion of the Civil War? Those are the kinds of questions textbook publishers must answer every time they publish a new textbook -- and they answer them with the content guidelines from the big-three big-budget adoption states firmly in hand.

With billions of dollars at stake, most publishers choose to err on the side of safety when deciding what to include in their textbooks. They routinely omit any information that might be remotely offensive to even one of the big-three adoption committees, and they present information that cannot be ignored in the least offensive way possible. As a result, vague concepts and sweeping generalities substitute for substance in many textbooks, and in others, "critical thinking" questions suggest that students form their own opinions about hard truths.

To complicate matters further, today's textbooks are far more than -- and far less than -- collections of selected facts. (How else could we entice kids to use them?) Today's textbooks are loaded with color commentary, subjective interpretation, and societal slant. Which historical events are included on a time line, what photographs are featured, which heroes are cited, what discoveries are applauded -- all those decisions lend a particular slant to the material presented. Most often, that slant reflects a particular cultural perspective -- one that is acceptable to textbook adoption committees in Texas, California, and Florida.

In effect, today's textbooks represent a national curriculum, one orchestrated by the adoption committees of three states -- the members of which are rarely subject-matter experts -- and implemented primarily by the four major publishers that control 70 percent of the textbook market.

Which raises the question: What can you, an educator in Topeka or Trenton, do if you object to the inclusion -- or omission -- or perspective -- of material in the textbooks you use? The answer is, "Not much!" Short of the development of a true national curriculum (which, like most compromises, would probably take forever and please no one), the current system is likely to continue.

You can, however, be aware that what your students learn is determined largely by the content of their textbooks. You can resist the assumption that the textbooks you use are complete and error- and bias-free. You can make it a point to participate in the selection of instructional materials for your school or district or state, and you can insist that those materials reflect, as closely as possible, your curriculum and educational philosophy -- and that they satisfy your standard as a true subject-matter expert.