Education Opinion

Textbooks and Tests Share Ills

By Walt Gardner — April 11, 2012 2 min read
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When the New York City Department of Education ordered test publishers it does business with to avoid 50 sensitive words and topics, it instantly became the butt of jokes. Realizing that the politically correct demand had gone too far, the city’s chief academic officer revised the policy (“City Revokes Testing Word Ban,” The New York Times, Apr. 2). But curiously nothing was said about the textbooks used in classrooms.

That omission is hard to understand because textbooks and tests are inextricably linked. The content of textbooks forms the basis of instruction. As a result, altering the policy on tests but not on textbooks will create a distorted view of student performance. But it will also have the unintended consequence of turning off increasing numbers of students. Students do not live in a vacuum. They’re aware of sex, crime and other topics that are considered too controversial by many school districts to be addressed frankly (“The cowardly censors at Tweed,” New York Daily News, Apr. 1).

I’m not suggesting that textbooks become glorified tabloids, but as Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, explained, today’s students mature much earlier than previous generations because of the Internet (“Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood,” The New York Times, May 17, 1999). We do them a disservice by trying to shield them from the realities of life. Is it any wonder that so many students are bored to tears when their teachers completely avoid or dance around these issues?

The textbook publishing industry consists essentially of Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin. They are not about to do anything that will jeopardize the hundreds of millions of dollars involved when textbooks are adopted. For example, Texas certifies textbooks centrally rather than by individual school districts. As a result, publishers alter their books to please the conservative Texas Board of Education. Inculcating “children with a history that celebrates the achievements of our past while ignoring its shortcomings” is a priority (“Twisting History in Texas,” The Nation, Mar. 18, 2010). On the other hand, California tends to be liberal, demanding textbooks that reflect the state’s diversity, but often excluding important historical figures who don’t help meet quotas (“Aiming for Diversity,” Textbooks Overshoot,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19, 2006).

As education becomes increasingly politicized, students in public schools will be even more shortchanged than they are now by the perpetual tug of war between special interest groups. Eventually, parents will get fed up, and when they do they will pull their children out of neighborhood schools to enroll them in private, religious or charter schools. The trend is already underway, but I expect it to accelerate.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.