Upcoming Ravitch Book Confronts School Textbook ‘Language Police’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 12, 2003 5 min read
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A snowman has a better chance of surviving an early spring than it does a season of textbook adoptions, says a forthcoming book.

Other topics, words, and images—from death and disease to gender and racial stereotypes—have also been effectively banned from many schoolbooks in an effort to eliminate material that might offend various groups of students and parents, scholar Diane Ravitch writes in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

The result, contends Ms. Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, is a culture of censorship widely accepted among publishers, authors, policymakers, and education officials, yet largely out of the public view.

“With the best of intentions, the publishers have established a strict code of censorship,” Ms. Ravitch writes in the book, due out next month from the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, based in New York City. “The textbook publishers have surrendered control of their products to the language police.”

Publishers Pressured

Over the past several decades, publishers, test developers, professional associations, and state education agencies have instituted detailed guidelines to help eliminate the stereotypes and bias that characterized generations of instructional materials. They have employed panels of reviewers to remove questionable material from historical and literary entries, photos, and illustrations.

While those guidelines have led to a more inclusive curriculum, Ms. Ravitch argues that the panels’ literal interpretations of seemingly innocuous terms have placed absurd restrictions on authors and, in some cases, even forced rewrites of classic texts.

“Snowman,” for example, along with terms like “tomboy,” “Founding Fathers,” and “actress,” are seen as reflecting gender bias, Ms. Ravitch says. Images of men in business suits or of women baking, and of African-Americans as athletic or of Asian-Americans as studious, she says, are considered unacceptable stereotypes.

And children’s literature that portrays rebellious teenagers might be deemed to present inappropriate role models.

The texts, Ms. Ravitch says, are often evaluated under a quota system that requires proportional representation of men and women and members of minority groups.

Publishers acknowledge that pressure from interest groups—from religious conservatives to advocates of multiculturalism—drives many decisions about content.

“Publishers are in a position where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers. “If they present a critical view of a particular interest group, even if it’s historically correct, they are accused of being biased. Yet if they present [a group] in a favorable way, they are accused of glossing over the history.”

The publishers, he added, are often bound by the detailed content requirements of states that approve texts for school districts. California and Texas, the largest such textbook-adoption states, distribute voluminous guidelines to publishers that require proportional representation of minority groups, age groups, people with disabilities, and even occupations. The publishers must also remove the names of specific products and include references to nutritious foods and exercise.

In one instance, Ms. Ravitch writes, a California review panel ordered the removal of an illustration of a birthday party because it included a birthday cake, a food item not considered nutritious under state guidelines.

Such pressure has marked textbook development and selection since early in the 20th century, according to Joan DelFattore, the author of What Johnny Shouldn’t Read: Textbook Censorship in America. In the 1960s, she notes, civil rights advocates pushed for greater representation of minority groups in the curriculum, prompting publishers to begin crafting “bias and sensitivity guidelines” for reviewing textbook content.

While advocates of fair or explicitly favorable portrayals of minority groups have been successful in getting more diverse examples and viewpoints into instructional materials, some scholars have complained that the process leads to a sanitized—and sometimes inaccurate—version of history and mundane literary selections.

Ms. DelFattore, a professor of English education at the University of Delaware, agrees that the scrutiny of textbooks has, in many cases, gone awry.

“The textbook publishers say this is reasonable, and that they are delivering a product based on what the market wants,” she said. “But we’re descending into education by poll ... or the squeaky-wheel school of educational reform.”

Scrapping State Adoptions

Ms. Ravitch, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education in the first Bush administration, said she first became aware of the bias reviews in the late 1990s, when she was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board, the group that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

As the group began selecting potential questions for President Clinton’s proposed system of national voluntary tests, she said, its members were bombarded with recommendations from reviewers to eliminate references that could make some students uncomfortable and thereby undermine their performance.

The reviewers “believe you shouldn’t offend anybody,” Ms. Ravitch said in an interview. “They go through all kinds of contortions [to sanitize test questions], and if they can’t ‘fix’ it, they drop it.”

Education officials in New York state were stung by criticism last year for questions on the state regents’ exams that altered literary passages to put them in line with “sensitivity guidelines.” (“Stung by Criticism for Altering Texts, N.Y. Changes Policy,” June 12, 2002.)

After a parent complained that references in popular fiction and even in the text of a speech by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan were altered, and the issue was taken up in the news media, the state changed the policy. Watchful critics of the tests, however, have since found other examples of such changes.

Ms. Ravitch suggests three remedies to the problems she attributes to bias reviews.

Informing the public about the review process and its impact on schoolbooks, and building a highly qualified teacher corps, she said, could foster a counterdemand for better textbooks. Moreover, she asserts, statewide textbook adoptions, which have sparked debates over content, should be scrapped.

Mr. Driesler doubts that those changes alone would neutralize the pressure. “It’s unfair to totally blame [the situation] on adoption states,” he said. “When a local school board is adopting a textbook, parents and community members often try to influence the selection based on whether they view these materials as ‘politically correct.’”

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