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Published in Print: June 2, 1999, as States Setting Strategies To Reduce Mistakes in Textbooks

States Setting Strategies To Reduce Mistakes in Textbooks

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In a recent review of textbooks proposed for adoption in California, a panel of mathematicians found hundreds of errors. While the mistakes ranged from a missing equals sign to a muddy explanation of the quadratic equation, it was their pervasiveness that surprised state officials most.

"It was shocking," said Cathy Barkett, the administrator of the curriculum-frameworks and instructional-resources office. "In one 200-page text, 50 of the pages had errors."

As a result of such blunders, California is one of several states that are taking steps to ensure greater accuracy in the textbooks they purchase--and publishers are taking notice.

The discovery in the math texts, compounded by numerous mistakes a panel of social studies experts had found in texts in their subject, makes California's task of reviewing 330 more pieces of instructional materials--including textbooks, teachers' manuals, software, workbooks--over the next year all the more daunting.

This marks the first year the state is using the panels of volunteers, primarily made up of scholars in the relevant fields, to review the books for accuracy, alignment of the content with the state's new standards, depth of coverage, and the quality of the scholarship. While it is costing more than $500,000 to organize the panels, the penalty could be far greater, Ms. Barkett believes, if the errors go unchecked.

"We have so many new teachers in California," she said. "If you put a textbook in the hands of a new teacher who can't spot the error, or even in the hands of an experienced teacher who has to take time [to clarify the content], you've got a problem."

Heavy Levies

The threat of rejection in California because of typographical or factual errors would likely prove costly to publishers. Their sales in the biggest state--with its centralized system of textbook adoption--could make or break profits for the year and could determine the popularity of the books elsewhere. California officials hope that clout will give publishers incentive enough to shape up their products.

As a result of the math review, Ms. Barkett said, fewer than 40 percent of the texts submitted for adoption were recommended to the state board. In adoption states, districts must spend the bulk of their textbook money on state-approved texts.

Publishers bent on securing a portion of the lucrative Texas textbook market may also be swayed by the bottom line.

But state administrators there have recommended an added incentive for publishers to get the facts straight. If the state board approves recommended changes to textbook-adoption rules at its meeting next month, hefty fines will be levied for mistakes that publishers had previously agreed to correct--up to $25,000 and 1 percent of the sales for major errors that impede student learning, and $5,000 for less serious ones.

Last fall, Texas fined publishers $60,000, a token amount considering the state textbook budget next year is expected to reach almost $500 million. The fines would likely multiply under the proposed policy changes.

"The publishers realize the importance of having error-free textbooks," said Robert H. Leos, the state's senior director for textbook administration. "They are concerned about the [public] attention that the mistakes are getting and the effect that they might have on students. But I think that making the penalties more severe will [guarantee] more attention in the editorial process."

Industry representatives say that most of the mistakes are caught in the first printing, which is used for sampling and marketing purposes, especially in the big adoption states. Those states generally have a say in the final product. The lengthy and complicated development process for most textbooks makes it nearly impossible to turn out a perfect product on the first try, according to Rick Blake, the vice president for the school division of the New York City-based Association of American Publishers.

"When you're talking about books that are 1,200 pages long and have tens of thousands of facts, it is inevitable that a few things are going to slip through," he said.

While critics may concede the challenges of producing a flawless textbook, they say that many errors can only be explained as carelessness. One text, for example, states that Christopher Columbus set out on his historic voyage in 1500, while others have published upside-down pictures and descriptions of presidential races pitting the wrong candidates against each other.

Corrections in Cyberspace

If punitive measures don't get publishers' attention, some amateur sleuths are certain to. Howard Lyon is one part-time hobbyist who scrutinizes the details and seeks out flaws with investigative zeal.

A music teacher by day, Mr. Lyon has found many science experiments in popular middle school texts simply impossible to perform. He has compiled lists of technical errors from his children's textbooks and written publishers urging they correct them.

Four years ago, he started a crusade in the 7,600-student Mill Creek district in Erie, Pa., where he lives over Exploring Physical Science, a middle school book published by Prentice Hall. He found more than 100 errors, he said, and the publisher eventually agreed to pay for a correction booklet written by the district's science teachers. ABC's newsmagazine "20/20" highlighted the problem in April, complete with footage of Mr. Lyon showing the uselessness of one of the text's experiments.

Publishers say that new technology and the expansion of Internet access in schools are making it easier for them to provide corrections, and even updated material, before the next edition of a particular text is printed.

Within the past few weeks, Prentice Hall's parent company, Pearson Education, unveiled its Open Book initiative, an Internet service for teachers and students. The World Wide Web site includes a list of corrections to the physical-science book, complete with revised graphics and illustrations, and the company said it will be reviewing some 45,000 products for accuracy during the next year.

On some of the information, however, accuracy may be in the eye of the beholder.

"There were some things that slipped by our pretty extensive fact-checking and proofreading processes, which [were] corrected in the latest printing," said Maggie Aloia Rohr, a spokeswoman for Pearson Education. "But Mr. Lyon is not a science teacher. Though he made several wonderful points, ... it came down to a disagreement over the level of detail that needed to be provided to teach science to 6th graders.

"He was insisting on some pretty technical explanations that had been generalized to be understandable by 10-year-olds."

Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 6

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