California -- a state with clout -- speaks up on textbook quality

As the most populous state in the Union, California has a booming voice when it comes to the content of public school textbooks. That voice reverberated recently, as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig and the state Board of Education took a firm stand for stronger material in science books, rejecting a number of proposed texts. Their targets were such subjects as evolution, human reproduction, and ethics in science.

Francie Alexander, head of California's office of curriculum framework and textbook development, points out that the action on science content was just an opening skirmish in a battle to strengthen content in all basic fields -- including math, reading, and social studies.

The process by which California arrives at its approved list of textbooks for Grades K-8 is an involved one, embracing suggestions from the educational field and comment from the public. Ms. Alexander explains that there are essentially three parts to it. First, checking the ``social content'' -- for example, how ethnic groups are represented. This is done by citizens' panels appointed by the state board.

Second, assessing the educational quality of a text with the assistance of various experts enlisted by the state.

Third, review by the public.

The last step, public review, is accomplished through 30 ``instructional materials display centers'' scattered throughout the state. Anyone is free to visit a center, peruse the materials, and make his comments or objections known.

Objections are handled by the Department of Education. Citizens can appeal the matter all the way to the state Board of Education if they choose.

The textbook review and approval machinery grinds into action when the state begins to draw up what are called ``curriculum frameworks.'' These are outlines of desired content in a given subject area.

``They send a message to the publishers,'' says Alexander. The idea, she explains, is to give them adequate time to respond to the state's wishes.

Each major subject area is reviewed by the state every six years. The science review, nearly complete (there are still some proposed changes awaiting pubic comment), will be followed by a fresh look at the math texts. Down the road is the state's reading program.

The education department would like to see major changes in reading textbooks, Alexander says -- away from ``skill and drill and toward reading.'' The goal is to give ``students things that will make them want to read,'' with high-quality literature throughout the texts.

With these alterations in mind, the state plans to get its ``frameworks'' out especially early, to give publishers four years of lead time, says Alexander. With a smile she recalls a statement attributed to a publishing executive -- that getting the textbook industry to change is like turning a dinosaur around on a dime.

Change, she emphasizes, means more than cosmetics -- more than a few bits from E. B. White's ``Charlotte's Web'' in a reading text, or a mention of Abigail Adams in a history text. Under Mr. Honig, the state is looking for a stronger literary quality throughout texts.

Other longtime observers of textbook evolution -- some would say stagnation -- in California, would add to the call for stronger content a call for better integration of fundamental theories of learning. Delores Cook, a curriculum consultant with the Sacramento County Office of Education, points to such textbook failings as presenting too much material all at once and unclear graphics.

Ms. Cook says that publishers, by and large, don't address these issues.

Whatever the changes worked into textbooks, says Alexander, teachers themselves will remain the key to strengthening education. But they need the ``best possible tools.'' A former teacher herself, she says that some of the sharpest suggestions for improvements in texts come from classroom instructors. ``We tell them we need their help.

``We're looking at our product -- the curriculum for the state's public school students -- anew,'' she says. In her view, this amounts to taking up a responsibility that in the past was too often ``abdicated'' -- left to the publishers. ``It's an extraordinarily hopeful time.''

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