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School texts with too much agenda

Interview / Sandra Stotsky

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 1999


If you're wondering why so many kids read poorly, take a close look at a fourth-grade reading text. Better still, study the teacher's manual to see how readings are to be discussed in class.

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What you'll find are many stories that are simplistic, preachy, or boring, says Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

You'll also discover a strong social agenda: Victims are in, white men are out - especially white men who achieve things. Selections such as "Mary Poppins" are to be used to discuss the difficulty of finding child care in a single-parent family. And the good classroom question begins with: "How do you feel...?"

Most parents don't know that many reading classes have become social studies with an attitude, Dr. Stotsky says, and the educators who drove this shift aren't looking at its consequences.

Her new book, "Losing Our Language" (Free Press), aims to give parents a basis for questioning experts, whether teachers, school-board officials, or publishers. Its subtitle sets the agenda: "How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children's Ability to Read, Write, and Reason."

"Kids are being deprived, and their parents don't know it," she says in an interview. "Even school boards aren't aware of the entire ideology.... You'd have to read the research literature and the teacher guides, and most people don't know how to do this."

Early textbooks included a rich and controlled vocabulary, complex sentences, and engaging themes - elephants in green suits, kings and princesses, adventure, the poetry of word play.

But by the 1980s, new criteria were driving choices. Education consultants argued that poor children would learn to read better if stories included characters that looked like them. Textbook publishers scrambled to accommodate the new orthodoxy. Questions such as, "Is Group X adequately represented in your reader?" replaced issues of literary and academic quality, Stotsky charges. "People do not know what is in education journals these days," she says. "What I put in my book is actually mild."

Some examples:

*At a 1980 Texas textbook hearing, feminists challenged a publisher's claims to have produced a reader that was 50 percent female by noting that if you count animals, males still outnumber females.

*A training videotape in Oregon urges school districts to look at copyrights of children's literature to see if they were written at a time of cultural insensitivities.

*A 1995 draft of the reading curriculum in Massachusetts urged children to compare how their use of a street phrase such as "I might could go to the store" conveys a subtly different meaning from "I might be able to go to the store."

What began as a needed effort to get more diversity into readers has settled into dogma and "linguistic mischief," Stotsky says.