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 Trouble in Texas

Editor's Introduction -- Once in a great while, the corruption that pervades the schoolbook business is displayed so vividly that it draws the attention of the national media. That is what happened in 1991, when the Texas State Board of Education staged an adoption of American-history books.
from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1992

Deep in the Heart of Folly

William J. Bennetta

This article is my personal view of Texas's recent fiasco in the adoption of American-history textbooks, and I begin by stating two questions that still bother me. First: How did textbook companies even find people -- let alone hiring them to write history books -- who imagined that Napoleon had won at Waterloo, that Sputnik had been a nuclear-armed missile, or that the Bay of Pigs invasion had been conducted by United States troops? Second: Did anyone at the Texas Education Agency or the State Board of Education really think that it made sense to adopt new history books, books on which the state would spend some $20 million, without subjecting them to an appraisal by experts?

I can't even guess at the answer to the first question, but I speculate that the answer to the second is yes. The practice of adopting textbooks without evaluating them is so widespread and well established, among state agencies and local school districts alike, that a lot of educators and officials must believe that it is a rational way to do things.

While there may be a question about what the Texas authorities believed, there seems to be no question about what they did: They undertook a ceremony which, by its very design, would lead to books' being endorsed and purchased without ever undergoing evaluation. That is the pivotal fact of this affair; everything else revolves around it.

Obviously, my key word here is "evaluation." Let me tell you what I mean by it. When I speak of an "evaluation" of books, I mean a process in which the books are carefully examined by people who have expert knowledge of both the content and the methods of the relevant discipline (in this case, history). I don't mean a bureaucratic ritual from which expert knowledge is excluded, nor do I mean a game played with checklists.

The Texas affair began in the spring of 1991, when publishers submitted samples of ten new American-history texts. Four were meant for use in the 8th grade: The Story of America, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1877 1992 (issued by Holt, Rinehart and Winston); History of the United States, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1877 1992 (Houghton Mifflin); American Journey: The Quest for Liberty to 1877 1992 (Prentice Hall); and America: The People and the Dream, Volume I: The Early Years 1992 (Scott, Foresman).

The six others were high-school books: American Odyssey: The United States in the Twentieth Century 1992 (from Glencoe); The Story of America, Volume 2: 1865 to the Present 1992 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston); History of the United States, Volume 2: Civil War to the Present 1992 (Houghton Mifflin); American Journey: The Quest for Liberty Since 1865 1992 (Prentice Hall); America: The People and the Dream, Volume II: The Later Years 1992 (Scott, Foresman); and American Voices: A History of the United States, Volume II: 1865 to the Present 1992 (Scott, Foresman).

In May 1991, the books went to a Subject Area Selection Committee appointed by the Texas Board. This committee -- one layman and fourteen professional educators -- was led by Stephen R. Johnson, who teaches history and Spanish in the Lubbock Independent School District. When I talked with Johnson a few weeks ago, he said that, as far as he knew, no member of the committee had had any professional experience as a historian.

"The committee's job," he told me, "was to see if the books met the essential requirements in Proclamation 67 [a state document, issued in 1989, that included specifications for United-States-history books]. Our job was not to edit books or find errors."

The committee worked for ten weeks, Johnson told me, and every member looked at twenty books: a student's edition and a teacher's edition of each of the ten titles in question. During the same period, the committee and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) held public hearings to collect comments about the books from the public. Then, in August 1991, the committee voted to recommend that the books be accepted. That recommendation (with suggestions for corrections and revisions to particular books) was put into a report that went to the Board in October.

November brought another public hearing, this one held by the Board. The Board members by then had received supplementary documents from people who had spoken at a hearing in July, and those documents included six prepared by Neal Frey of Educational Research Analysts, a right-wing organization based in Longview. Frey, writing in July and dealing only with the six high-school books, had found more than 200 outright errors and "defects and weaknesses in content." Now, for the November hearing, he issued a new report saying that the high-school books showed 231 "definite unmistakable" errors that still had not been caught. Some seemed minor, but many others -- such as botched dates or the notion (in Glencoe's American Odyssey) that Sputnik was a nuclear missile -- were outrageous. Frey's findings were alarming to some Board members and were effective in upsetting the adoption ritual. The Board decided in November that no United-States-history books would be accepted, for any grade, until the publishers and the TEA had checked all the books for errors and had instituted corrections. Moreover, the publishers would be fined for their mistakes. The checking and correcting would be finished in December, so results could be reported at the Board's meeting in January 1992.

This decision led to a bureaucratic imbroglio that looked much like a farce. Glencoe was sidetracked because its only entry, American Odyssey, could not be checked and corrected by the deadline that the Board had set. At the Board's January meeting, the TEA reported that the books of the four other publishers had been fully checked, would be purged of all the errors that had been found, and should be adopted. At the same meeting, however, Educational Research Analysts offered a new report by Neal Frey, averring that the books had 162 "previously unidentified still-neglected errors of fact." The Board accepted the books conditionally, giving the publishers two more weeks to correct all that was wrong. After this extension was granted, Glencoe and American Odyssey got back into the game.

When the Board met in February, the error-count for the Glencoe book stood at 881. And the four other publishers now reported that they had found some 600 errors that nobody had noticed before. (Not all of these were errors of fact. During most of the error-clearing effort, the announced error-counts did not distinguish factual errors from technical errors, such as mistakes in punctuation or typography.)

By now the antics in Texas had attracted the attention of the national press. Here are excerpts from Gary Putka's story in the Wall Street Journal for 12 February 1992:

"These are the worst errors I've seen in my career as an educator," says William Hudson, a retired school superintendent who is a member of the Texas Board of Education. "Horrifying," adds Jane Nelson, another board member, who says the publishing industry is inept and adds: "Maybe we need the Japanese to produce our textbooks." . . . Gilbert Sewall, who reviews many schoolbooks as editor of Social Studies Review says the errors are indicative of deeper problems in the way such books are made. He says the books generally aren't written or reviewed by top university scholars, who prefer more prestigious work.

By the time of the Board's March meeting, the error-count for the Glencoe book was about 1,200. The combined count for all ten books was 5,552, with the three Scott, Foresman books accounting for more than 2,400 of them. The Board was contemplating fines totaling $647,100, including $271,900 to be paid by Glencoe and $192,900 to be paid by Scott, Foresman.

And so on, with more checking, more certification by the TEA, more fining by the Board.

In the end, at the Board's July meeting, all the books were adopted. The Board's vote was 10 to 1; the negative vote was cast by Jane Nelson.

At this writing, the final tallies have not been made, but the books still seem to carry some 150 errors that were identified but somehow eluded correction. The publishers will be fined for these residual defects: $3,000 for each error of fact and $1,000 for each technical error. When these last fines are added to the ones already imposed, the total to be paid by all the publishers will probably be between $800,000 and $900,000.

Louis Grigar, the program director for social studies at the TEA, regards the error-correction campaign as a success. "If you look at where we began and then look at the books that we have now, there has been a substantial clean-up," Grigar said to me during a recent telephone interview. "With minor exceptions, these are clean books."

Jane Nelson was less sanguine. "The final versions of the books, the ones that will go into classrooms, still have errors that we know about, and I think we're going to find a lot more," she told me. "But the Board voted to go ahead and write all the checks to all the publishers -- the ones who did correct all their errors, and the ones who didn't. What message does that send?"

What really is needed, Nelson said, is a basic change in the Texas's adoption process. "Everybody's rubber-stamping these [books] and nobody's reading them. There should be people reading the books for content, but nobody's doing it."

In my view, she is right. The Texas authorities will not see better textbooks until they institute an evaluation process and until they learn simply to say no to books that are manifestly sloppy and poor. The recent error-correction campaign, no matter how successful it may have been in clerical terms, hardly suggests that the publishers need change their behavior. After all, the very essence of that campaign was that the state did a lot of the publishers' work for them. And the Board, by making conditional adoptions while the campaign was still going on, clearly signalled that it intended ultimately to accept all the books, even the worst, no matter what. Or so it seemed to me. The paramount effects of all this, in my view, were two: an endorsement of the publishers' failure to hire competent writers and editors to begin with, and an assurance that there will be no need to hire competent writers and editors next time. As for the fines: They evidently will amount to less than 5% of the revenues that the publishers can expect to gain by selling the corrected books to Texas school districts.

Postscript

Meet the Author?

Here is a passage from Gary Putka's story about the Texas history-book affair, in the Wall Street Journal for 12 February 1992:

William Jay Jacobs, one of three authors [of Houghton Mifflin's History of the United States, Volume 1] says he didn't know there were accuracy problems with the book, didn't see a final manuscript of the book and didn't ask to. "For me to read the book and check it for factual accuracy simply makes no sense -- you're talking about one of the finest publishers in the U.S.," says Mr. Jacobs, who heads the social-studies department for the Darien, Conn., public schools.

Jacobs didn't see a final manuscript? Didn't even ask to? And he was one of the book's "authors"? What was going on? After reading Putka's piece, I called Jacobs on 2 June and asked whether he was or wasn't one of the people who had written Houghton Mifflin's book. He refused to answer, saying only that there had been a "misunderstanding" involving some other book. Did he mean, I asked, a misunderstanding by Gary Putka? Had Putka failed to quote him correctly in the Journal? Jacobs told me to direct my question to an editor at Houghton Mifflin. I could not see how that editor would know what had been said in a conversation between Jacobs and Putka, so I again asked Jacobs whether he had been quoted correctly. He again refused to answer.

"All right," I said, "will I be correct if I print that you decline to confirm or deny the quotation?"

"You can print," he replied, "that I decline to discuss the situation."

W.J.B.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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