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Publishers, Educators Trade Blame for Content Decline

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New York--Textbook publishers this month convened what was to be a meeting of the minds here with curriculum planners on the decline in religious content in their books.

But the curriculum representatives instead got a piece of the publishers' minds--and an invitation to share the blame for the inadequacies of contemporary texts.

Rallying against what they called "textbook bashing," the publishers said the alleged lack of depth and controversy in their books was a product of market forces--and that any slight to religion could be traced back to teachers and curriculum planners.

"[They are] attacking us for not including religion," said Richard G. Ravich, social-studies product manager for D.C. Heathand Company. ''But teachers are not asking for it."

The Nov. 4 meeting between representatives from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the Association of American Publishers was called in the wake of several major reports this year citing the lack of adequate coverage of religion in American-history and social-studies texts. One of the reports, Religion in the Curriculum, was released last July by a nine-member panel of the ascd

It joined a list of 1987 critiques that includes a federally funded study and reports from People for the American Way and the American Federation of Teachers. All have said that religion is virtually ignored in most history textbooks.

But publishers here called the religious-content controversy a political debate in which national educational organizations and fundamentalist religious groups play the leading roles.

At the "grassroots" level, they said, there is little support from teachers for increasing religious content.

They appealed to the ascd members for increased support.

"You're telling us to walk the plank off the side of a ship and you're urging us on as we go down," said Judith A.V. Harlan, special-projects editor for Zaner-Bloser Incorporated, a subsidiary of the Columbus, Ohio, publisher Highlights for Children.

Lois Eskin, former editor-in-chief for Holt, Rinehart & Winston and now a textbook consultant, suggested that the ascd members attend textbook-adoption hearings in influential states such as Texas, California, or North Carolina, "to understand what we go through."

Diane Berreth, director of field services for the ascd, said the curriculum association may poll its membership--which includes teachers--to begin the compilation of a list of important events in American religious history that textbooks should contain.

Teachers 'Burned'

Ms. Berreth, who was chairman of the ascd panel that wrote Religion in the Curriculum, acknowl4edged that many teachers consider discussion of the topic--even in a historical, nontheological context--to be a ''risky" venture.

"They've been burned--everyone knows a story of a teacher whose career was damaged by attempts to deal with religion," she said.

Only the activism of religious fundamentalists, who claim that their beliefs are being excluded from school studies while competing philosophies are not, has brought the issue to the forefront, she said.

In fact, said Timothy Smith, professor of history and education at The Johns Hopkins University and a panel member for the ascd report, many of the publishers probably came to the meeting "not really sure this is a real issue."

But the growth of religious activism, he said, will ensure that the controversy does not "blow over in a few years."

Among the topics that history and social-studies texts rarely discuss, he noted, are the religious revivals of the colonial era, the so-called First and Second Great Awakenings, and the role religion played in the Progressive era and the civil-rights and peace movements.

The texts he has examined, said Mr. Smith, have "fallen below scholarly standards by ignoring and distorting the facts."

The exclusions, he said, "leave young people thinking that religion is some old-fashioned practice that their parents cling to."

But many of the publishers reiterated their frustration over the fact that the impetus for reform is coming from the top--not from those most likely to use the books. They said they were not convinced that teachers would buy texts that deal more frankly with religion.

Teachers are not comfortable discussing religion, said Malcolm C. Jen8sen, executive editor for social studies at the Houghton Mifflin Company. "It's like discussing money in the classroom--it becomes clear that some people don't have enough, and you're going to embarrass somebody."

How Far to Go?

Others pointed to the potential clash of viewpoints that would greet any frank discussion of the important religious trends in American history. As one editor asked Mr. Smith of Johns Hopkins, "How far would you have us go?"

The professor responded that issues should be discussed objectively, but advised the editors not to "hesitate to make moral judgments." He noted that a majority of high-school history texts have been able to describe thoroughly yet objectively the contentious rise of the U.S. labor movement.

But editors questioned whether the detailed study of such topics was suitable for elementary- and secondary-school students, or whether that is best left for college.

"Public schools are a citizenship vehicle," said Mr. Ravich of D.C. Heath. "The books are written for cultural transmission, not a scholarly search."

He and others suggested that in its list of important religious events, the ascd give publishers advice on what grade level would be appropriate for teaching each development.

Said Donald A. Eklund, vice president of the school department of the Association of American Publishers: "The curriculum people need to tell us what ought to be in [the texts]."

Pressure of Guidelines

Most state curriculum standards, which publishers generally follow to get books approved for use in many states, do not discuss teaching about religion, according to the publishers.

Marilyn Braveman, director of edel10lucation for the American Jewish Committee, said the responses she received in an informal survey of states and large school districts showed that "no one's teaching about religion."

"It's going to take a lot of pressure from education groups to overcome that reluctance," she said.

There are some indications, however, that the situation may be changing in some states.

During its selection of elementary-school history texts this year, the Alabama Board of Education asked publishers to submit a statement on how their books deal with religious groups.

The treatment of religion was also a topic at hearings last August before the North Carolina textbook commission, which was selecting social-studies texts.

"The question was raised by some of us about texts being bland and uninteresting, not only on the religious issue, but on other topics," said James H. Ellerbe, chairman of the commission.

"There's a feeling that we have to address religion in some way," he said.

Also last summer, the California Board of Education adopted a new curriculum framework for social studies that places greater emphasis on the role of religion in history. The 263-page document also encourages more study of history altogether. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1987.)

Publishers are watching closely to see if school districts in California adopt the voluntary guidelines, said Allan S. Wheatcroft, executive editor for elementary social studies for D.C. Heath. How much influence the California curriculum will have on other states is unclear, he said, since many of the 22 states that adopt books statewide have completed their social-studies selection process for the next three- or five-year period.

Need for Wider Reforms

Some textbook critics have used the so-called "religious literacy" issue as a vehicle for wider attacks on the industry. They claim that, to protect their sales base, publishers have systematically excised--or downplayed--controversial issues. And because teachers depend too heavily on texts, they charge, the topics excluded have also vanished from the classroom.

"We're seeing a growing body of negative research about the quality and role of textbooks," said Arthur Woodward, a research associate at the University of Rochester and a leading proponent of textbook reform.

Social-studies and history texts already are crammed with sometimes inadequate treatments of hundreds of topics teachers are required to cover, Mr. Woodward said. "By adding more on one topic, either something else has to be discarded, or the books have to get even weightier," he said in an interview.

Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, a textbook consultant for the Council for Basic Education, predicted in an interview that current efforts at curriculum reform will not produce better texts.

She said the "Southern reform states" that are attempting to raise students' scores on standardized tests will push textbooks toward an even stricter adherence to state guidelines. As a result, she said, little room will be left in books for "religious literacy."

"If publishers do respond," she said, "[discussion of religion] is going to be in the same wooden, impersonal, tid-bitty way everything else is mentioned."

But many publishers at the meeting here this month were skeptical about doing even that much.

Mr. Jensen of Houghton Mifflin said that his company had no plans to revise its books with an eye toward "religious literacy," but that it was examining how the books present the "contributions of ordinary Americans" to history, and whether the books convey enough "civic values."

"[Religion] is not going to be a significant issue," he said.

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