Political Propaganda in Elementary Reading Texts

Published April 1, 1999

Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason
Sandra Stotsky
The Free Press, New York, 1999
316 pages, $26.00

What could be more innocent than a basal reader?

These collections of stories and excerpts from literature are used in virtually all elementary school classrooms. They are the primary source of vocabulary and grammar for most students, and they provide a cornerstone of a child’s knowledge of the world. They also have changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

Once a rich source of American civic culture and history, basal readers have been reduced to a propaganda vehicle for advancing a narrow multiculturalist agenda. Today’s politicized readers fail to serve their most fundamental purpose: teaching children to read and to think.

Parents and reformers who lament the declining quality of American public education have long been aware of serious problems in early reading instruction. Critics have placed responsibility for the country’s notoriously abysmal scores in reading and writing on faulty teaching methods–i.e., the “whole language” method instead of tried_and_true phonics. However, few have realized the extent to which the drive for “diversity” also has influenced the way our youngest students develop literacy and cognitive skills.

Indeed, concern about the spread of multiculturalism has focused largely on higher education and public secondary school curricula rather than on the content of the elementary school basal reader. Now, Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has conducted a careful study of the history and content of these basal reader textbooks. She shares her disturbing findings in Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason (The Free Press, New York, 1999, 316 pages, $26.00).

Revisions to the readers have been made at an accelerating pace over the last 30 years, motivated by a belief that under_performing students need to feel self_esteem before they can succeed academically. How will self_esteem be cultivated? Not by demanding that all students achieve a high level of academic achievement–and thus earn self_confidence–but, notes Stotsky, by increasing “lower achievers’ self_esteem by altering their perception of their academic status.”

Stotsky documents the implementation of this theory with measurements such as the number of challenging words in glossaries over succeeding editions. Startlingly, difficult vocabulary words are now introduced at a declining rate as a student advances through the grade levels. Basal readers are less challenging in their sentence structure and grammar as well. There is a depressing quantity of slang and dialect, such as Spanglish and Ebonics.

As is always the case with multicultural “infusions,” the basal readers have replaced information about essential aspects of American culture and history with a plethora of stories, poems, articles, and inspirational tales by and about members of affirmative action groups in the U.S. or non_European foreign groups. In one instance measured by Stotsky, the 1993 edition of the Macmillan/McGraw_Hill fourth-grade reader, 100 percent of foreign content was non_European.

Peppered with difficult non_English words that children will likely never use again, the new readers rob students of precious time that could be spent more productively. In addition, a strong theme running through the new reading instruction is an emphasis on emotive responses over analytical thought. Teachers are instructed to ask how students “feel” about politically biased selections crafted to produce a politically desirable reaction.

In sum, “the moral impulses guiding the choice of these selections in the readers seem to entail high academic costs at the level of language learning itself, especially, and ironically, for black and immigrant children,” writes Stotsky.

If reading Losing Our Language sends parents rushing to their school board with pointed questions and firm demands, they should be prepared for bitter opposition from “progressives” like author Alfie Kohn. He dismisses parents who are concerned about academic standards as “selfish” for being unwilling to “sacrifice their own children” for the supposed benefit of the underprivileged.

Stotsky describes how multiculturalist advocates have established a pedagogical scheme that we now know diminishes the intellectual capacity of very young children. For too many students the damage has already been done and irreplaceable time has been lost. The poorest children–the putative beneficiaries of multicultural theories–have been most severely harmed.

Unless we move now to improve elementary reading instruction, Stotsky foresees a deep fissure forming “between those citizens who can use the language of this country to participate in public affairs and those citizens who have been deprived of the opportunity to learn it.” Losing Our Language is a compelling call to action.

Andrew Hazlett is with the Manhattan Institute.