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History as she is wrote
By Terry Graves
No teacher, but every textbook, left behind.
More than a hundred years ago one A.W. Tuer chose this name for his guide to English-Portuguese conversation: English As She is Spoke. I am reminded of this by an August 9 dispatch from the AP's Jennifer Coleman about a chain of private schools whose curriculum is so "riddled with errors" that outraged judges and attorneys general in four states have acted to close them down. The schools, run by Daniel Gossai, target Hispanic immigrants and charge between $450 and $1450 for a ten-week course. According to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the schools claimed the course "… would lead to a valid diploma and help them get into college, find better jobs and get financial aid." But the course's only teaching material was a slim volume filled, Ms. Coleman continues, with howlers such as:
1. The United States has 53 states but the "flag has not yet been updated to reflect the addition of the last three states" - Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.
Mr. Gossai's textbook should have been called History As She is Wrote – it is no wonder the various state law enforcement officials are so exercised. Here are some more textbook stunners:
4. Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo.
Science is not spared its share of errors:
11. A map shows the equator running through Texas and Florida. (I suspect this is a result of global warming.)
As well as outright errors, there are biases and dubious interpretations:
18. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were "a married couple who held radical views."
Besides items that are tendentious or flatly wrong, there are what we shall kindly call irregularities:
23. A prominent scientist is advertised as having reviewed the textbook for accuracy. (The scientist says he has never seen it.)
This is only a sample of the errors, dubious interpretations, biases, and irregularities. How can so many be associated with Daniel Gossai's one "slim volume"? As it happens, we can blame him for only the first three. All the others are from textbooks that major publishers like Prentice-Hall and Glencoe/McGraw-Hill have been selling by the tens of millions to public elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the United States. These examples, and dozens more, of how-not-to-write-a-textbook are readily available on the "interNET" at these and other sites -- from the AFA of Georgia (numbers 4, 22, 25), Forbes.com (23, 24), CNN (11, 12), William J. Bennetta's The Textbook Letter (5-10, 13, 14, 18-21, 26-28), and John Hubisz, a North Carolina State professor of physics who led a two year study for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (15-17).
No story has mentioned what firm published the textbook Gossai's schools use. More importantly, no one seems prepared to say how well or ill the graduates of his schools fare on tests given for, say, GED certification. Even lacking this validation, judges and prosecutors are taking legal action against Gossai. If they are coming down so hard on him for his alleged bilking of adult Hispanic immigrants out of thousands of their dollars, then these authorities must be in avid pursuit of the publishers of shoddy public school textbooks and of the people who used billions in tax money to inflict them on our children. Right? Wrong. There is no public outcry about "education contractors" or analogies to $600 Pentagon hammers, no demands for refunds, no civil suits, and no publishing houses' executives doing perp walks. The reasons why are doubtless many, but not least would be that most of the employees involved in buying the books are members of powerful unions, and the president of those selling the books, the American Association of Publishers, is former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. So in the highly unlikely event Schroeder ever were hauled before a Congressional committee to provide details on Napoleon's victory at Waterloo, the grilling would start something like this: "So, Pat, how're the grandkids?"
How about self-policing by the education, uh, professionals who select textbooks for public schools? (By the way, they use the word adopt instead of buy, presumably because of the latter's implication of tawdry commercialism.) These professionals have their own organization: NASTA, which stands for, one of its web pages tells us, National Association of School Textbook Administrattors [sic]. Apparently the "administrattors" carried over to their web site the skills they had finely honed in reviewing textbooks for half-billion dollar adoptions. NASTA's level of concern over textbook errors is almost below sea level – the agenda for its summer meeting includes that topic as one of eleven to be covered in one three-hour session, and only one of the respective state reports from the last two years mentions it, and that only in boilerplate as something it would be nice to avoid. The only specific subject linked from NASTA's home page is the Overweight Backpack Phenomena [sic] that, I was relieved to learn, turns out to be in reality a single overblown phenomenon. That is, despite the media hype and overreaction by some state governments, most backpack injuries have nothing to do with the weight of the backpack. Instead, they were caused by "… ‘nonstandard' use of a backpack, including tripping over it or getting hit with one." So NASTA's only subject link is to a topic even it found to be trivial.
Of course, overweight backpacks are to be expected when one textbook can be, as the American School Board Journal noted, well over 1000 pages long, with "… splashy illustrations, large type, short sidebars, and funky headlines, all set off by expanses of white space." The same article summed them up as "20-pound packages of glitz." (Such great thudding clunkers resemble the Pentagon's $600 hammers in another way: you can use either to pound nails.) Size does make a difference, and thousand-page textbooks are to be expected when one recalls what economy of scale means to a publisher: money. Multiply this by millions of textbooks, and it is a marvel there are still trees left standing in North America. So the crux of the complaint about the Gossai schools' textbook may be that it does not weigh enough.
The US Department of Education, Jimmy Carter's gift to the teachers' unions, seems even less interested in textbook errors than is NASTA. The DOE Web site is enormous but neither it nor other sites linked to it mention textbook critics like Hubisz or Bennetta. There are 34 mentions of the Hubisz' sponsor, the Packard Foundation, none of them about his study of science textbooks. If the Department of Education is on top of the textbook problem, it is only to cover it up.
Unfortunately, textbooks are crucial to learning. As the American School Board Journal reports, "… between 80 and 90 percent of classroom and homework assignments are textbook-driven… [T]he Big Four textbook publishers – McGraw-Hill, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, and Pearson [that] have swallowed other publishing companies and made them imprints – have established a de facto national curriculum." The Journal reports another facto that reinforces this monopoly: "Driving the [textbook] market are four key states -- California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina – that provide state funding for texts approved by their textbook-adoption committees. Together, these states accounted for $971 million of the $3.3 billion in U.S. textbook sales in 1998, the most recent year for which sales figures are available."
This is frightening, and not just because of the examples cited (or that two of the four key states lie on the equator!). More generally, the quality of the twelve most popular science textbooks for middle-schoolers is so low, Hubisz concluded, that none had an acceptable level of accuracy. An example of the effect of this inaccuracy, as reported by CNN in 2002:
"For 10 years, William Schmidt, a statistics professor at Michigan State University, has looked at how U.S. students stack up against students in other countries in math and science.
"In fourth-grade, we start out pretty well, near the top of the distribution among countries; by eighth-grade, we're around average, and by 12th-grade, we're at the bottom of the heap, outperforming only two countries, Cyprus and South Africa."
The American School Board Journal also cites Schmidt, who blames U.S. textbooks, "… because the content of textbooks in different countries correlates very closely to what children learn in those countries…" In Schmidt's own words, U.S. "books just do not hold up by international standards."
The results are similar in history. The Christian Science Monitor cited a 2001 US Department of Education report that "…more than half of [American] high-schoolers thought the US fought World War II in partnership with Germany, Japan, or Italy. Sixty-five percent couldn't link the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution." These data about American high-school students came to mind when I happened to read an article by an 18-year-old woman who is pushing to lower the voting age to 16. Frightening, indeed. (In the young woman's defense, it may be that she merely thought her campaign would look good on her college applications -- "soccer: 2,3,4; French club: 3,4; amended the Constitution: 4." Colleges just eat that sort of thing up.)
It is not as if the schoolshave no alternative to these cheesy and expensive textbooks. As Bennetta pointed out, there are dozens of solid historians today, "writing trenchant books of history and biography, free of ideological claptrap." And there are thousands of books available to schools for free, over the "interNET." (We may as well finally put all those computers to some good use.) Project Gutenberg, for one, offers nearly 12,000 freebies. Of course, then the public schools might have to settle for writers of the caliber of Thucydides, Gibbon, and Franklin, but every idea has its drawbacks.
Why are public school textbooks so bad? CNN quoted the conclusion of Hubisz' report for the Packard Foundation: "Publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group, than they do to check the correctness of facts." Unchecked errors spread: in 1999 the Boston Globe reported, "Some educators have traced the transmission of errors from one textbook to another and compare the process to the spread of a virus through a population." The Globe was too delicate to say so, but this "virus" smacks of plagiarism by textbook authors too rushed, lazy, or inept to research even reputable secondary sources. They settle for stealing from each other.
One defense of these publishers might offer is that they have nothing wrong and provide "a service to individuals within the community." But, wait, according to joannejacobs.com, this is what Gossai's attorney, Scott Furstman, is saying about his client. So the publishers might want to come up with a different approach. Not that so far they have had need of much defense besides hiring Pat Schroeder, and this complacency is the most remarkable thing of all.
An exasperated William Bennetta explained why so many teachers accept inferior textbooks from these publishers, "[T]he major schoolbook companies… have long recognized that the teacher corps in America includes some desperate dumbbells, and the companies have learned to produce books that the dumbbells will like." Alistair B. Fraser, a professor of meteorology who runs web sites exposing bad science in textbooks, concluded bleakly, "Apparently, most teachers believe everything they teach." To which I add, why not? Cornell professor Donald Hayes, quoted in the Grandfather Education Report, reported on results of sampling 788 textbooks used between 1860 and 1992: "Honors high school texts are no more difficult than an eighth grade reader was before World War II." (And in an essay written over half a century ago Randall Jarrell complained that 1930's textbooks were much easier than the ones from the 19th century!) So by now our teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers, have been dragged through the same swamp of bad textbooks. They know not what they do, and they know not that they know not.
And the same might be true of the parents, school boards, and the culture at large. It may be that our culture has already dropped below the critical mass necessary to transmit learning, reason, traditions, and values from one generation to the next. That is, our culture can no longer pass itself on -- an eventuality that, to be sure, many would welcome. For example, a posting on joannejacobs.com, which discussed the Gossai case, chided Jacobs: "So sad to see that Joanne is still stuck in that patriarchal, Ice People view of absolute truth."
But that is the worst case. If we Ice People are not yet at the point of no return, then our first priority must be, "No teacher, but every textbook, left behind." Upgrading our teachers' preparation in their subject field will be wildly expensive, even if possible for some of them. But a modest beginning is possible without razing hundreds of schools of education: if we want, say, a teacher who is prepared to present more challenging material to 8th grade students, one is already available down the hall, teaching the 9th or 10th grade. As for those in the 11th and 12th grades, this nation has a surplus of under-employed college graduates. Better yet, most of them do not have degrees in education.
We have learned this, if nothing else, from the selective prosecution of Mr. Gossai: con a few people, and it's a felony; con millions, and it's educating the youth of America. Or, as Abraham Washington, for whom we get a day off in March, remarked to Harriet Beecher Tubman as they rowed undocumented immigrants across the Potomac to Cordoba, "You can fool some of the people all of the time."
Terry Graves is a freelance writer living near Pittsburgh. His novel, Rain in Hell, is about original sin without, he hopes, being yet another example of it.
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