Published Online:

California Rejects Science Texts as 'Watered-Down'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In an unprecedented action that may have a national impact, the California Board of Education voted unanimously this month to reject 24 7th- and 8th-grade science textbooks submitted by six publishers for state adoption, because of the books' "watered down" treatment of evolution, human reproduction, and "ethical considerations."

To qualify their books for adoption, the publishers have until Oct. 15 to submit to the board preliminary revisions and until Feb. 1 to provide final versions.

To date, all six publishers--Macmillan Publishing Company, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, Prentice-Hall Inc., Scott Foresman & Company, D.C. Heath & Company, and Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston--have indicated they will attempt to meet the deadlines.

"We must send a message to the publishing industry that we cannot tiptoe around certain subjects just because they are controversial," said Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, in a written statement issued before the board's Sept. 13 meeting. "Doing so undermines our efforts toward excellence in our classrooms."

"The reality of it is we are going to establish policy for the rest of the country," Mr. Honig told board members after the vote.

"The issue here is: Are we going to allow publishers to water down texts and draft them politically to avoid controversy? Or are we going to insist on quality standards?"

Mr. Honig pledged to extend his fight against "watered down" books to future textbook adoptions in history, literature, and other subjects.

California, which represents 11 percent of the national textbook market and spends about $100 million yearly on elementary- and secondary-school books, is expected to spend $25 million in the 1986-87 school year for new science texts for students in grades 1 through 8.

Local districts are prohibited from using state funds to purchase textbooks that do not appear on the state board's list of approved titles. The state has a seven-year adoption cycle for new textbooks.

The California board's action was based primarily on the recommendations in July of textbook reviewers and the state's advisory commission on curriculum development and supplemental materials.

The commission's subject-matter committee, in its review of the books, found that such topics as cells, genetics, evolution, human reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, and nuclear energy were "systematically omitted from the vast majority of textbooks."

The chief recommendation of the commission was that the textbooks provide more in-depth treatment of the theory of evolution. Many of the books submitted dealt with the early history of the theory but failed to cover current scientific concepts of evolution, according to Francie Alexander, director of the state office of curriculum framework and textbook development.

The commission also recommended that the publishers provide more information on human reproduction, including anatomy and physiology. And it called for coverage of the ethical issues involved in such topics as toxic waste and pollution.

The commission's recommendations reflected guidelines contained in the "California State Science Frameworks and Addenda," a document distributed to publishers in 1984. Before the guidelines' distribution, according to Ms. Alexander, they were discussed with publishers "as long as three years ago."

At a meeting with publishers last year, she said, "the industry asked us point-blank, 'What do you hold us to in evolution and human reproduction? Do you really mean this?' We said, 'Yes.' The commission made its intent clear."

'Different Signals'

Albert Bursma Jr., general manager of the school division of D.C. Heath & Company, said he expected his firm to work to meet the board's recommendations.

But Mr. Bursma disagreed that the science-text guidelines that California officials say have been available to publishers for some time were available to D.C. Heath when the company was developing its current science series.

"Our book was produced in 1983 for a 1984 copyright," he said. "Certainly those standards weren't available for us. It's normally a three-year process from concept to editing and producing a book."

"There are different signals being sent out now," Mr. Bursma said. "At one time, Mr. Honig was saying4they'd give us three to four years' advance notice. Now they're saying they want instant books."

"I don't think it's a case of 'watered down,"' he added. "I think it's a case of the standards changing."

Mr. Honig affirmed in an interview that the central issue in the debate is indeed standards. "Whether we teach evolution or not is not the issue here," the superintendent said. "That was settled by this board in 1973. The issue is how well it is taught."

"We have looked at these books from a science perspective," he continued, "and they just don't come up to a level that's acceptable as far as making these ideas understandable to our students."

Divergent Interest Groups

The California decision has once again raised the question of how publishers--who often find themselves caught between divergent interest groups--produce textbooks to meet conflicting demands.

People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that has pushed for the inclusion of evolution in science texts, applauded the board's vote. "It is exactly what we have been encouraging school boards and state selection committees to do--insist upon high-quality textbooks," said Susan Vogelsinger, a spokesman for the group.

On the other side of the debate, Nell Segraves, a representative of the Creation Science Research Center in San Diego, said her organization will sue publishers and the state board if California adopts science textbooks that do not treat evolution in an "open-minded, speculative" manner.

'A Clear Split'

Because publishers continue to be torn between opposing demands, the California vote may precipitate "a clear split" in the kinds of textbooks that are published, suggested Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, director of the textbook-reform project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"The publishers can no longer please both audiences," she said. "They are going to have to decide which audiences to write for."

But Ms. Alexander of the California textbook-development office disagreed, suggesting instead that educators across the country are beginning to reach a "consensus" on the issue of textbook content.

"We're reflecting the consensus of many people," Ms. Alexander said. If publishers revise their texts to meet California's standards, and other states adopt the same books, she said, students across the country will benefit from the improved materials. "We're talking about textbook improvement nationally," she added.

Ms. Alexander said the Texas state board last year repealed its requirement that evolution be taught as only one of several explanations of man's origin. The repeal followed a ruling by the state attorney general that the requirement was unconstitutional.

In Texas, however, several of the science texts that were rejected by the California board were recommended for adoption in August and will be voted on by the Texas board in November, according to J. Henry Perry, director of the textbook division of the Texas Education Agency.

Mr. Perry predicted that the textbooks would be accepted in their present versions, unless the education commissioner decides otherwise.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories