Critics Raise Questions Over Textbook Accuracy in California

Published December 1, 2007

Is the Rio Grande California’s southern border? Not likely, since the river never comes close to the Golden State.

But according to the Textbook Trust, a schoolbook watchdog, the textbook Oh, California says it is–and that’s just one of many mistakes the Trust found in the book adopted for statewide use more than a decade ago.

Oh, California, published by Houghton Mifflin, is far from the only error-riddled textbook the state has adopted, says the Trust–a result, the group says, of the state doing far too little to ensure the accuracy of textbooks it adopts.

According to the Textbook Trust Web site, “Studies have found hundreds of errors in California textbooks. … California virtually ignores factual accuracy in reviewing textbooks.”

Textbook Mistake

Textbook Trust founder Carl Olson said he has spent the past seven years examining the accuracy of California textbooks. This year the issue came to a head after several events.

The first was in March, when in response to heavy lobbying by the Sikh community the state Board of Education ordered corrections made to the textbook An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600, which depicted Sikh founder Guru Nanak wearing a crown rather than a turban, and a beard that was trimmed instead of long. The story made headlines across California and the country.

The next event concerned Olson directly. In July, a member of the Ventura County Board of Education challenged Olson’s assertion that the state board of education does not ensure the accuracy of information in state-adopted textbooks. In an effort to substantiate his claim, Olson sent a letter to the California Department of Education asking how it ensures the content of state-adopted textbooks is “factually accurate.”

Legal Loophole

In August, Olson received answers to his inquiry, with officials acknowledging the phrase “factually accurate” appears nowhere in adoption regulations or the job description of any department staff.

“The existing California Code of Regulations … do not include reference to ‘factually accurate’ as stated in California Education Code (EC) section 60200 (c)(3),” Susan Martimo of the Department of Education’s Curriculum Frameworks Unit explained in an August 6 letter to Olson. Martimo noted new adoption regulations were being written at that time.

In addition, Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division Director Thomas Adams explained in an August 17 letter that textbook Content Review Panel members–who are volunteers, not state employees–are trained to evaluate textbooks’ accuracy.

Public Right

Despite those assurances, Olson believes California needs a system that enables anyone who finds a textbook error to alert the state, and that it should then be the responsibility of state officials to get it corrected.

“Everybody should have a right to put in a complaint about an error and have it fixed,” Olson said.

Olson says the state government should take the lead in fact-checking textbooks, however, because thoroughly vetting most books is far too involved a job for districts or individuals to do regularly on their own.

Bigger Problem?

It is particularly important for California to take the lead in identifying textbook errors because it is the largest state in the union and publishers often tailor the products they offer nationwide to needs expressed in the Golden State. Catching errors after the state has already adopted a book thus can cause unnecessary harm nationwide.

Some observers, including Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council, contend the inaccuracy threat might be overblown. “The idea that textbooks are rife with errors is a misconception,” Sewall said. He believes incoherence and lowest-common-denominator “balance” in many textbooks, driven by special-interest politics, is the biggest problem.

Olson said he will continue to work for a mechanism to fix textbook errors.

“When errors get out to the public, the public has the right to fix them,” Olson said.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.