February 01, 1999 6 min read
The whole family sat under wide trees and ate. Adan talked and sang until his voice turned to a squeak. He ate until his stomach almost popped a pants button. Afterwards he fell asleep under a big mosquito net before the sun had even gone down behind the mountains. In the morning, Uncle Ulise called out, "Adan, everyone ate all the food in the house, Let's get more." "From a store?" "No. From my plantation on the mountain."
--From "Yagua Days," by Cruz Martel, 1979 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich grade 4 reader.
The whole family sat under wide trees and ate arroz con gandules, pernil, viadas and tostones, ensaladas del chayotes y tomates, and pasteles. Adan talked and sang until his voice turned to a squeak. He ate until his stomach almost popped a pants button. Afterwards he fell asleep under a big mosquito net before the sun had even gone down behind the mountains. In the morning, Uncle Ulise called out, "Adan, everyone ate all the food in the house, Let's get more." "From a bodega?" "No, mi amor. From my finca on the mountain."
--From "Yagua Days," by Cruz Martel, 1995 Scott Foresman grade 4 reader.

The epigraph contains two versions of a passage from a story “Yagua Days,” by Cruz Martel. Which version did the author actually write? The original version, which I located in the picture-book section of the children’s room in my public library, is in fact in Spanglish, so the text reprinted in the Scott Foresman reader is the authentic one. But no graphic distinction (such as italics) is used in the Foresman text to help children understand that some of the words are not English. Native English-speaking children might suspect which words are not English words, but the English-learning Laotian or Haitian student is unlikely to know. That the story was first published as a picture book intended to be read by adults to very young children may explain why italics were not used to distinguish non-English from English words. Note also that the Spanish words in the story are not words that are part of an advanced academic vocabulary for English readers (as such words as conquistadores or mestizo would be). They are words that are part of the daily life of a particular group of people; in fact, one-third of the total number of Spanish words in the whole story refer to the food these people or their animals eat.

In the 1970s, no responsible publisher would have offered a story in Spanglish for the purpose of reading instruction. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich clearly altered the story--which it may have wanted because it deals with Puerto Ricans and there were probably few published children’s stories about Puerto Ricans available in the 1970s--to make it suitable for reading instruction, despite its lack of paragraph development and the simplicity of its sentence structure and vocabulary for grade 4. Clearly, this selection was not chosen for its reading instructional value for 4th graders in either the 1970s or the 1990s. But the fact that this story is offered today in its original version attests to the depths that publishers have had to sink to accommodate the ideologies of their multicultural or other academic advisers from schools of education.

Since the mid-1960s, educational publishers have made continuous changes in the racial and ethnic content of reading instructional series for elementary schools. Originally, these changes were spurred by the academic and social goal of presenting young students with a realistic picture of the racial and ethnic nature of the U.S. population. They were also motivated by a belief that such changes would enhance the self-esteem and hence the reading achievement of low-achieving minority students.

The chief problem today is not that the readers include selections about America’s ethnic and racial groups. They should, as long as they are quality pieces of literature. All students should be able to gain some understanding of the multiethnic and multiracial nature of this country and the rest of the world in the literature they are asked to read. They should also be able to see members of different ethnic and racial groups as major characters in what they read. These egalitarian goals are positive ones, for young students especially, whether or not there is any evidence that including such works in the curriculum enhances their self-esteem.

The problem is that publishers have gone far beyond any reasonable effort to broaden the cultural content of basal readers and to foster a more inclusive sense of citizenship. The social goals now spelled out as the purposes for reading instruction in many series seem to overwhelm academic and literary criteria in the choice of selections. Although educational publishers still want to teach children to read, the implementation of these social goals seems to have led, in varying degrees, to the construction of an instructional tool more likely to produce multicultural illiteracy than the accurate understanding of the world. And the very children in whose name these changes were initiated several decades ago may now be the most vulnerable.

Textbook publishers have not substituted social goals for academic and literary goals in the elementary school readers on their own. Given the unusually rich heritage of children’s literature in the English- speaking world, it must be painful for editors who know this literature well to find themselves in the position of offering children advocacy journalism or stories with banal plots, bland characters, and humdrum language. School textbooks are susceptible to the pressures of many different groups. In addition, editorial decisionmaking for school textbooks takes place in a broad professional context, guided by much more than simply market forces. Indeed, even the market forces themselves are shaped to a large extent by the professional context that influences editorial decisionmaking at an educational publishing house.

Major textbook publishers are influenced by a set of interlocking institutional forces over which they have no control. They must make a profit from selling their products, and in the elementary school market in particular their products must reflect whatever the most prestigious teacher educators and researchers in the universities suggest is sound pedagogy in reading and writing. They must listen to administrators and teachers in the schools, educators who have been influenced by the faculty in schools of education and who speak directly to their sales representatives. Finally, most publishers want approval by textbook adoption committees in states that by law must recommend a list of textbooks from which local schools may choose for purchase. In these adoption states, which include many of the most populous states, textbooks go through a rating process conducted by staff members of their departments of education before they are approved or rejected for recommendation.

Publishers have probably been less influenced by local school boards than by the other groups because these boards were deliberately bypassed many years ago after changes in the content of the curriculum were first urged. As a professor in the school of education at the University of Illinois candidly explained in a 1993 article, those who believe that the treatment of minority groups was less than equitable began by pressuring teachers and local school boards for changes. But, he declared, they quickly learned that it was far more effective to pressure teacher organizations, state school boards, and publishing houses, with assistance from pressure groups and politicians, in order to bring about changes.

An analysis of the role of each component in this set of interlocking institutions suggests why there has been so much change since the mid-1960s. It helps us see how the positive social goals of the first decade or so of change were quickly converted into the negative social goals of the past decade or so, overwhelming or displacing academic and aesthetic goals. It also makes it clear why not even common sense was able to check the lemming-like progression of textbook publishers of basal readers toward the cliffs of academic and literary deconstruction. Indeed, the institutions responsible for the quality of public education continue to drive each other relentlessly to a greater and greater extreme, with no reality check ever breaking this accelerating process.

From Losing Our Language, by Sandra Stotsky. Copyright © 1999 by Sandra Stotsky. Reprinted by permission of The Free Press.