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Over Protests, Calif. Board Adopts History Textbooks

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Over the protests of a variety of ethnic and religious groups, the California State Board of Education has approved new social-studies textbooks that supporters predict could herald an end nationally to the "blandness and pabulum" that characterize many such books.

The board's Oct. 12 vote to approve the books--Houghton Mifflin Company's K-8 series and an 8th-grade book by Holt, Rinehart & Winston Company--was unanimous. It mirrored the recommendations of the state's Curriculum Commission, which voted in July to recommend only those 10 books from among the 27 submitted for review. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

"This is part of a national agenda of reversing the 'dumbing down' of textbooks that occurred in the 1970's and moving forward so that the books are of higher quality, more complete, and more demanding of our students than ever before," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. "The whole country has been talking about reforming the way history and geography is taught, and many of those same ideas are in these books."

The adoption of history and social-sciences textbooks in California has major implications because that state controls an estimated 11 percent of the nation's $1.7-billion textbook market. The textbooks up for adoption this year were the first approved under a new curriculum framework, adopted by the state three years ago for history and the social sciences, that departs significantly from the way those subjects are taught in other states.

Who Will Follow?

The question now, according to observers, is whether the rest of the nation--and the rest of the textbook industry--will follow suit.

Mr. Honig and other supporters of the framework predict the textbooks will set a new standard across the country for history and social-studies books. And Houghton Mifflin, by producing a series it once may not have been able to sell in many other states, is banking on it. Linda Sanford, the company's national marketing manager for elementary social studies, noted that West Virginia and Arkansas already have approved the books for school use.

But the uproar the books provoked from ethnic and religious groups in California has also caused some concern among industry observers, who said the controversy could have a chilling effect on text book firms.

"I wonder if a message has been sent to other publishers that bland ness sells--or at least appeases," said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a New York-based institute that reviews in structional materials. "Some of us have begun to wonder whether a com mon textbook for children of all back grounds can ever be written."

California officials said the new textbooks differ from traditional so cial-studies texts in several ways. They include in-depth discussions of world religions, for example, and in terweave geographical studies throughout.

They abandon the traditional "expanding horizons" approach of many elementary-school texts, which focuses attention on a child's immediate environment and gradu ally moves out to include other cul tures. In its place, students learn more history, sooner.

And the history is presented in a more engaging style that incorpo rates original materials, such as the writings of historical figures, in an effort to make the subject "come alive" for students, backers say.

Supporters of the books said they also make an unprecedented effort to focus attention on the contribu tions of a wide range of ethnic and other groups.

Ethnic Criticisms

But spokesmen for blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, Chinese-Americans, gays, and other groups said the books do not go far enough. In a raucous hearing before the state school board last month, representa tives of those groups complained of omissions, inaccuracies, and misrepresentations in the books.

"This sends a strong political message that these books, which a number of people found to be stereotypical, distorted, and biased, are really great books," said Joyce King, a teacher educator who served on the state curriculum panel.

"To have a 5th-grade book tell children that the United States is a nation of immigrants and Native Americans are the first immigrants and Africans were forced immigrants takes the European model of immigration and tries to fit every one else in it," she argued. On the recommendation of the commission, the publishers modiied the books to address some of those complaints. But, for the most part, supporters of the books con tended, the groups were asking for something no single book could ac complish: a separate ethnic history of their own culture or religion.

"What these books do is celebrate the story of one nation, many peoples," said Charlotte K. Crabtree, who chaired the panel's history and social-sciences committee. "We feel that's enormously important because separatist movements and efforts to resegregate our population are grow ing with such strength today."

"If you had every person, every point of culture represented, you would have books that were the size of the Manhattan telephone directory," said Ms. Sanford of Houghton Mifflin.

Her company and Holt, Rinehart & Winston were among only a handful of publishers who attempted to tailor books to California's frame work, according to commissioners. Ms. Crabtree said other publishers told her they would not risk investing in books that could not be sold elsewhere.

Under state law, however, the pub lishers may submit new textbooks for review in two years, rather than wait ing out the next formal adoption. But for now, many classroom teachers will only have one or two state-approved social-studies texts from which to choose--a result that troubled some observers.

"In effect, this adoption has reoved choice for students in kinder garten through 7th grade," Ms. King said. Under state law, school districts may spend only 30 percent of state funds on unapproved textbooks.

Even so, Mr. Honig said, "the most important thing is we got a strong book." "We showed in a pluralistic state with some heavy political attacks, we still could adopt a strong book," he added.

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