Oakland Scrambles To Make Do Without Rejected Textbooks

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When the Oakland, Calif., school board voted last spring to reject a set of social studies textbooks sanctioned by the state of California, most members probably knew they were taking a "road less traveled."

Now, as the district scrambles to pull together lessons and supplementary materials for tens of thousands of 4th, 5th, and 7th graders who more than three months into the school year still have no formal textbooks, community groups and educators are learning just how rocky that road can be.

Students in those grades are using old texts--widely considered inferior to the new books--together with hastily developed lessons and worksheets their teachers have photocopied for them. And educators and community groups are hurrying to create new lessons to help the students keep up with their peers elsewhere in the state.

"They're trying to put the best face on it," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who is a staunch supporter of the state-approved series, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. 'but I think the youngsters in that district are paying the price for a political decision."

E Pluribus and Unum

The state of California charted new territory of its own last year when it approved a series of history and social-studies textbooks that depart from the way those subjects traditionally have been taught. An aim of the new Houghton Mifflin books is to present more history to children at earlier ages, to give it to them in an engaging style, and to interweave that story with lessons on geography.

Supporters of the books say they also make an unprecedented effort to focus attention on the contributions of a wide range of ethnic and religious groups.

In that respect, however, the Oakland school board decided the books have failed. Overriding the recommendations of the district's teachers, it voted on June 5 not to approve the books.

In a district where 9 of 10 children are African-American and many are poor, board members and community activists said, the Houghton Mifflin social-studies textbooks are, in the words of some of their sharpest critics in the community, "racist, classist, and sexist."

The discussion in Oakland reflected debates taking place all across the state last year. In contentious hearings before the state school board, representatives of a number of ethnic and religious groups complained of what they considered omissions, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies in the books. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

In the end, however, roughly 600 of the 900 school districts in the state decided to use the books--the only ones that can be bought with state textbook funds except for one other 8th-grade text. The series has also been adopted, with less controversy, in five other states. And it has received favorable reviews from many textbook critics.

At issue in all of the debates was a basic dispute over how to present a multi-cultural view of history. The authors of California's social-studies framework, which guided the development of the textbooks, say history should recognize diversity while also stressing the common heritage binding the nation together. They accuse their critics of promoting an ethnocentric version of history, one that views the national saga--and possibly distorts it--through a prism of race or ethnicity.

"The reality is everybody in America does not have a common heritage," Fred Ellis, a teacher-educator in Oakland who opposed the books, countered in an interview this month. "It's still possible to look at people's differences and celebrate them."

Added Kitty Kelly Epstein, a local community activist and parent: "The whole notion behind the series is sort of a sense of a nation of immigrants who had problems and ultimately came together and had a better life."

"That excludes Native Americans, Latinos, and African-Americans," she said.

Ms. Epstein noted, for example, that one book refers to African slaves "boarding" ships to America, leading students to think of the journey as a cruise. She said a 4th-grade text carries a dedication to "children who love animals and Indians." It is unclear whether that passage has since been deleted.

The authors and publisher of the books, however, dispute that kind of interpretation. But community activists, in turn, criticize the company for not hiring any minority authors to write the books.

A Racial Split

In the bitter debate over the matter, the Oakland school board split along racial lines. All five black members voted not to approve the books.

"I think people voted their conscience for whatever reasons," said Sheila Jordan, a board member who voted for the books.

Like the teachers and district staff members who reviewed the books, Ms. Jordan favored buying them and adding other materials to supplement the books where they were lacking. The teachers favored the books for grades 4 through 7.

The school board approved different texts for most grades, and the district won waivers from state school officials to buy them. But in grades 4, 5, and 7 there were no textbooks that fit the state's new social-studies framework.

While the district has held training programs to help teachers in those grades and is working to put together curricular units for them, the burden has fallen largely on teachers to fend for themselves.

"By making this decision, the board has really left the teachers with nothing," said Sigret Nikolei, a teacher and the social-studies department chairman at Edna Brewer Junior High School. "I'm just standing at the copier and getting frazzled, and students have nothing to take home--just these scraps of paper they put in a giant binder."

The situation has been most troublesome in 7th grade, where the state's social-studies framework departs most from the way the subject was taught last year. For example, students in that grade this year are expected to learn the history of the world from 300 A.D. to 1700 A.D. and early modern history in Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East--topics not covered in the district's old textbooks, approved in 1985.

"It's completely impossible to find books that deal with all of those areas during that time period," said Steven Weinberg, a 7th-grade teacher and the social-studies chairman at Claremont Middle School. "if there were going to be alternatives, the board should have started thinking about them a long time ago."

Rewriting Social Studies

In addition to the Oakland district's own efforts to plug the gaps in the curriculum, the community activists formed a group to begin writing their own history lessons for schools.

The group, which originally included 100 members from various racial and ethnic groups, worked intensively for several weeks over the summer putting together classroom units. It also held a book fair to display trade books that, in the eyes of these groups, depicted their cultures more fairly.

"This had wonderful consequences for the community," said Ms. Epstein, who is also an education professor at Holy Names College in Oakland. "People feel they have stood up and taken a stand about something."

But the process has also been difficult and painstaking, members of the group acknowledge, "There are some problems from almost everyone wanting themselves to appear positively," Mr. Ellis noted.

Even though the group's materials have not yet reached the classroom, some educators in the district have expressed concerns about them.

Some of the lessons focus on modern political issues, such as racism in the United States, at a time when students are expected to study ancient and medieval periods, educators said. Some said a few others are heavily politicized.

A lesson on geography, for example, asks students to draw maps showing the distribution of Oakland's ethnic groups. Then, it introduces the subject of racism and reportedly asks students: "What might be the economic/political interests of some people for keeping some communities more wealthy than others?"

"That's one way of interpreting geography; that's not the traditional way," said Shelly Weintraub, the district's social-studies coordinator. She said some other lessons are "quite good."

Ms. Weintraub said plans were "in flux" to appoint a districtwide committee to approve all of the various curricular efforts before they go into the classroom.

Meanwhile, parents at one school reportedly have sought to purchase with their own money the Houghton Mifflin books for their children.

The unanswered question in all of these efforts is whether the students' education is suffering.

"Many of the teachers would've taken those books and not used them for the next five years," said Mr. Ellis, an adjunct professor of teacher education at California State University at Hayward.

"Kids' scores were horrible when they had textbooks," he added. "No way in the world did we go into this with the notion of hurting kids."

"We're doing something that's going to be better for the kids," Ms. Epstein argued.

Educators and school-district officials, however, remained skeptical.

"It's better in that teachers will be forced to teach without relying on a textbook," said Ms. Weintraub. "On the dark side, there will be some teachers, I'm sure, who will say "Forget this. I'm not going to even teach social studies."

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as Oakland Scrambles To Make Do Without Rejected Textbooks
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