THOUGHTS ON TEACHING: Textbooks, School Reform, and the Silver Lining

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HELL-IN-a-hand-basket doomsayers. Ya gotta love 'em. These modern Minutemen stand stoically ready to snatch the lantern, scurry to the Old North Church, scramble up the rickety stairs, and alert a sleeping countryside, always just in time to avert a cataclysm. But their warnings are more form than substance, and the dangers they foresee are more like tempests in a teapot than Armageddon. As a result, I find their premonitions more useful as sources of amusement and irritation than as prophecies. That makes it easy to resist their pessimism, drama, and quick-fix blarney.

So how could it be that today I find myself frighteningly close to abandoning my writing, searching through my junk drawer for matches, lighting the lantern, and elbowing for space in the crowded church steeple? The very thought riddles my psyche with anxiety and torments my conscious mind. I want to tell you that my angst is the aftermath of some calamitous event -- that I was hit by lightning or abducted by aliens. But no. The opposite is true. I don't recall anything out of the ordinary.

It all started when I decided to learn more about how textbooks present Native Americans and Native American history. So, I read some textbooks. I wasn't surprised. Textbooks treat Native peoples in pretty much the same way society treats them -- as an afterthought brought into our collective consciousness only as they serve our interests and tell our story.

But that's not the news here. In fact, finding that textbooks ignore Native Americans would hardly have been worth developing the charts and graphs or accumulating the piles of data that currently clutter my office floor. Nor is it news that I found the texts unbalanced. History is, after all, merely a tale told by the winners. They get to decide which stories are told and from what perspective. They get to choose the villains and heroes; they get to assign motives, values, and morality. And it is not breaking news that I found an abundance of factual inaccuracies, flat-out fabrications, transmissions of myth as reality, glaring omissions, and best-case interpretations of historically shameful events. A quick re-read of James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me would have revealed as much.

Looking back, though, it seems my arteries started to clog and the blood began to drain from my brain about the time I found a short article by Frank Wang titled "How Textbooks and the Considerable Economic Resources of Textbook Publishers Can Be Used to Improve Student Achievement." A Google search for "textbook effectiveness research" brought it to my computer screen, and I was taken with an illustrative little story it tells.

In North Carolina, textbooks are approved for funding by a relatively small group of people called the textbook adoption committee. According to Wang, this is an "idiotic" system. As evidence, he offers the aforementioned story, which has to do with how one man used the political system to change history -- at least as told by one textbook.

Wang reports that between 1966 and the late Eighties, students using an unnamed textbook read "more . . . about . . . a relatively obscure [battle at] Moore's Creek than either the Boston Tea Party or the First Continental Congress." He quips, "In this case, Moore is less."

As Wang tells it, it happened this way. Just one committee member -- a descendant of a carpetbagger, no doubt -- was unwilling to approve the textbook for state use until the battle, which was fought on a bridge over a little creek that runs near his home, was added to the text. The member held out; the publisher caved in. Once the text's content was "revised . . . [to include] more . . . about Moore's Creek," the member was satisfied, the textbook was approved, and the textbooks were distributed to classrooms across America.

But why would a textbook company bend to one man's will? Aren't those companies themselves the rightful authors of history? Nothing is that simple. Most states leave textbook adoption to individual school districts. But around 20, including North Carolina, California, and Texas, use a statewide adoption process. In the publishing industry, those using the former process are "open" states, and those using the latter are "closed." Closed states are considered "large market adoption" states. That is, if a textbook is approved for purchase in a closed state, the publisher sells a lot of textbooks. On the other hand, if a closed state rejects it . . . well, an investor might want to look elsewhere. Since "textbooks designed for a few large . . . markets are . . . used for the whole country," it isn't difficult to imagine that authors keep large-market readers in mind as they select their words and stories. After all, there is money to be made by pandering to closed states.

So emerges the classic clash between capitalism and ethics. In spite of its pitfalls and the vigilance required to maintain balance between profit and democratic principles, I do love capitalism. It frees the great entrepreneurial spirit that runs through our veins and makes the American dream a possibility. I know because my family lived it.

I've now determined three factors leading to my anxiety: capitalism, the winner's view of history, and politics. These are pretty ordinary things, and, taken alone, or even well blended, they couldn't really be responsible for my anguish. Ah . . . but now comes the catalyst el grande -- the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. That's what gets things really popping.

I know my previous columns have mentioned the dark cloud NCLB casts over American education. But this time I'm not alone. Frank Wang is almost beside himself with worry, too. In the No Child Left Behind rush-to- reform debacle, it seems we took time to argue about class size, standardized testing, merit pay, terrorist organizations (a.k.a. the NEA), vouchers, and even adding 100,000 new teachers. Although Wang agrees these are "all worthy of serious consideration," he apparently finds them also spineless. "The very backbone of every young American's education is absent from the discussion," he says.

And what is the backbone of every young American's education? According to Wang, it is textbooks. And he should know. He is chairman of the Saxon Publishing Company. Since John Saxon opened the doors in 1981, the company has sold more than seven million textbooks and now serves the textbook needs of more than 100 countries. Maybe that's why Wang says, "A debate about the future of American education is, at best, incomplete without a debate about textbooks." And I say, "Fair enough, Dr. Wang. Let's hear your points."

"Simply stated," Wang says, "for most students . . . textbooks are the primary basis of instruction. . . . Studies show that 90% of classroom time is structured around them." Even though there are no data to support his claim, I believe him. In fact, I'd go even further and say that textbooks often become the school's de facto curriculum. That, of course, makes focusing on textbooks common practice -- not necessarily best practice.

"The weaker the teacher," he continues, "the greater the reliance on textbooks." Yes, I've seen this with my own eyes. As young teachers, we used to say that some teachers had 20 years of experience and others had one year of experience 20 times. We all wanted to be in the first group and were determined to avoid the second. Things are different now. In effect, NCLB's insistence that teachers rely on textbooks and scripted programs discourages them from growing more skilled and artful over time. The system is specifically designed to ensure that one experience is repeated as exactly as possible year after year after year.

Wang also reports that "students spend 70%-90% of their homework time using textbooks." Again, even without the data, his "scientific" conclusions fit with my nonscientific teaching experiences.

Since textbooks are so central to education, no wonder Wang is so concerned about the process by which they are chosen. His article called for an end to "the cumbersome and convoluted state textbook selection proc-ess." Apparently, in that system, quality counts for little. "Not a single . . . state adoption process," he revealed, "includes effectiveness as part of their criteria. . . . [I] personally heard the chairman of the California curriculum commission [say] in [an] . . . open meeting . . . that . . . effectiveness . . . is not part of the . . . selection process and should not be considered." Wow. That's pretty damning. And California is a "large market" state. If effectiveness doesn't matter there, those of us out here in the small markets are way out of luck.

Wang argued that, instead of the state selection process, "local educators should be freed to use whatever curriculum they wish as long as they meet the standards." That way publishers would spend "less (or no) time primping and preening to win the textbook adoption 'beauty contest.'" (That was two years ago -- before his textbooks were being purchased with NCLB funds. I'm not sure what he would say today.)

Unfortunately, though, NCLB did not end the beauty contests. Instead, it limited the number of contestants. And as it rolled onto the stage, the right of schools and communities to choose their curriculum, methods, and materials rolled off.

Today, local educators have less freedom than ever. When the federal government anointed some research "scientific" and declared the rest unworthy, it narrowed local choices and helped big publishing. When NCLB created an exclusive list of programs and textbooks that could be purchased with federal monies, it narrowed local choices and helped big publishing. And when the lawmakers cried for accountability with standardized tests as the sole indicator, they narrowed local choices and helped big publishing. Moreover, NCLB created an enormous flow of wealth, which rushes like a flash flood from the department of education into the hands of big publishing companies.

If some of the federal monies actually trickle into the classrooms and communities where children live, work, and learn -- well, I guess that is the NCLB cloud's silver lining. And that, my friends, is truly angst- worthy.

BOBBY ANN STARNES writes and speaks on education issues. She lives in Loachapoka, Ala. (e-mail: bobbyannstarnes@bellsouth.net).

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