Brian Thevenot: The Textbook Myth

Roundup: Media's Take

[Brian Thevenot spent a dozen years at The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, most recently as special projects editor.]

As the furor over the State Board of Education’s ideological rewriting of social studies standards has exploded nationally in recent weeks, a primary narrative has emerged: that whatever 15 politicians in Texas (or at least the rightest-leaning half of them) decide will be published in textbooks nationwide for years to come.

That fear has already stoked a political backlash: One California state senator is drafting legislation to keep any hint of the Texas version of U.S. history out of California textbooks. “The de-emphasis on civil rights in so many areas — reducing the scope of Latino history, especially in a state like Texas — is just mind-boggling,” said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for San Francisco Democrat Leland Yee.

But Yee and his liberal-to-moderate contemporaries in other states need not fret, textbook industry experts say. Though Texas has been painted in scores of media reports as the big dog that wags the textbook industry tail, that’s simply no longer true — and will become even less true in the future, as technological advances and political shifts transform the marketplace, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers. Diskey calls the persistent reports of Texas dominating the market an “urban myth.” Yet the myth persists....

Texas, like many other states, still operates with an “iron triangle” of standards, textbooks and tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, deputy associate commissioner for student assessment for the Texas Education Agency. After the state board completes its work on the standards, expected in May, teams of teachers will scour them to identify “critical” concepts that will appear in test questions. Those will include about 60 percent of the standards, Zyskowski said. And test questions will be developed from those critical components.

But despite the heated, word-by-word editing battles among state-board politicians, it's not so clear how much of the hot-blooded ideology reflected in the current standards draft will get translated into test questions or included in the manner that board social conservatives might prefer. Many of the standards that drew the most heat on the board seemed to call for value judgments — judgments not easily or even desirably turned into test questions.

Consider the civil rights standard, proposed by conservative firebrand Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, that sought to praise Martin Luther King and denigrate more “adversarial” civil rights figures: “analyze the effectiveness of the adversarial approach taken by some civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers, versus the philosophically persuasive tone of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, and his letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

It’s not like that will translate into a test question reading: “Martin Luther King’s approach was more productive than that of the Black Panthers. True or false?” Standards that start with verbs like “explain” and “analyze” — including many of the most controversial — can’t easily be written into multiple-choice test questions, the only kind that appear on state social studies exams, Zyskowski said. And for that reason, they often get thrown out entirely, judged not “critical.”...

Eric Foner, a historian and professor at Columbia University, wrote one of the most popular U.S. History textbooks in the country, Give me Liberty! It’s used mostly in colleges, but also in many high schools, often in Advanced Placement courses. Foner recently appeared on the Colbert Report’s satirical take on Texas history standards. In an interview later, he called many of the changes “absurd.”

“No self-respecting historian would change their version of U.S. History just because the Texas school board says so,” he said.

But that’s the thing: Most history textbooks are not written by historians, self-respecting or otherwise. Foner's book, a cohesive narrative researched and written by one scholar, is the exception. Most elementary and secondary texts are written by committees of a dozen or more writers, hired hands who don’t own their work, and can’t object to any changes multiple publishing house editors make in order to appease whichever politicians or bureaucrats control the millions being spent. They are cooked quickly and to order, pressed together from hundreds of standards that reflect, in many ways, the lowest common denominator of thousands of opinions. They are, in short, the chicken nuggets of the literary world.

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