Textbook Adoption: A ‘Mad, Mad World’ that Hurts Schools and Students

Published December 1, 2004

A major school reform organization has condemned government-run textbook adoption for generating dumbed-down texts that harm students and schools across the nation, even though the process is used in only 21 of the 50 states. The report recommends devolving decisions about textbook purchases to individual schools, districts, and teachers.

In “adoption” states, a central textbook committee designated by the state education bureaucracy selects the textbooks schools may purchase with public money. The reviewers often enforce so-called sensitivity guidelines by demanding publishers change wording and content.

Because of the size of their combined market, the adoption states effectively dictate textbook content nationwide, given the vested interests of the publishers in selling their wares as widely as possible.

In a study for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, veteran journalist David Whitman charges interest groups from the politically correct Left and the religious Right “exert enormous influence” on textbooks by pressuring reviewers to dilute content so as to make the texts “inoffensive to every possible ethnic, religious, and political constituency.” Whitman’s study, published as a paperback book, is titled, The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption.

In her research for the 2003 best-selling book, The Language Police, Diane Ravitch found the education publishing industry had identified hundreds of words, phrases, and representations of reality that were to be stripped from schoolbooks regardless of context–words like “fireman” and “actress,” for instance, and any verbiage ever depicting a woman as emotional or a man as brave. Ravitch believes that trend threatens to “eviscerate the expressive and denotative power of the English language.”

Reconstruction Origins

Textbook adoption had its origin in Reconstruction, when the states of the defeated Confederacy issued guidelines for school materials in an attempt to ensure the Southern version of the Civil War would be taught to Southern students. Today, most of the states still using official adoption are in the South or West; however, the system now goes far beyond trying to present the Civil War as the War Between the States.

For instance, the Fordham report documents the effect of radical multiculturalism on U.S. history textbooks. Many texts seek to downplay the European heritage of the United States while inflating the importance of pre-Columbian civilizations and African tribal kingdoms that had no significance in the development of our constitutional republic.

Thus, a number of textbooks tout the reign of Mansa Musa, an Islamic ruler of Mali, who made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 accompanied by supporters and thousands of slaves. But the texts never explain any connection to U.S. history. Similarly, the textbooks praise the contributions in architecture, artistry, and technology of Meso-American civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, while failing to show how such human activity influenced the founding of the American Republic several hundred years later.

Intellectual Dishonesty

Moreover, while providing great detail about the social ills of European cultures, the textbooks display intellectual dishonesty in ignoring or glossing over the ugly side of the Meso-American and African societies–for example, the Mayan practice of human sacrifice and the Islamic slave trade.

Because of the magnitude of their textbook purchases, California and Texas are two key textbook adoption states. California is where the multiculturalists and other leftist advocates score their greatest successes with “social content” guidelines, while Texas occasionally has bowed to pressure from religious fundamentalists who seek equal time for creationism and sometimes object even to classic fairy tales about magic, monsters, and witches.

No evidence suggests statist textbook adoption is having a positive effect on student achievement. Indeed, with a few exceptions, such as Virginia and North Carolina, most adoption states rank among the bottom half of all states in reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Let Schools and Teachers Choose Texts

The Fordham report concludes mere tinkering will not reform the adoption process. Instead, Whitman recommends governors and legislators in the adoption states should abolish the process and hand over decisions about books and materials to schools, districts, and “even individual teachers.” If parents had school choice, that would give them a share of market power as well.

In the era of No Child Left Behind–the federal law that puts a premium on methods and materials proven to work–objective results for students are what matter. However, notes Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr., few textbooks are subject to any independent field testing of their educational effectiveness–an omission he deems “a scandal and an outrage.”

“I’m usually loath to suggest further federal involvement in K-12 education, but Congress should seriously consider legislative action here, perhaps requiring instructional materials paid for with federal dollars to prove their efficacy, which would make life less pleasant for textbook adoption states,” writes Finn in the foreword to the report.

The report further contends textbook adoption has spawned a textbook cartel that leaves the $4.3 billion textbook market in the hands of just four multi-national publishers. Small, innovative publishers of instructional materials find themselves frozen out.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

A copy of the September 2004 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, may be ordered online at http://www.edexcellence.net/institute/publication/publication.cfm?id=335.

The full text of the report also is available online at http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/Mad%20World_Test2.pdf.

An additional perspective on textbook adoption is available in a School Reform News interview with Gilbert T. Sewall, “Textbooks: ‘Where the Curriculum Meets the Child,'” available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=15596.