Undumbing school textbooks

THE path of the reformer is never smooth, as proved recently by California's textbook selection process. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig determined three years ago that something had to be done about the sad state of the basic readers, math, and history books students were being subjected to.

The books were bland, boring - in a phrase, ``dumbed down'' - and Mr. Honig, with a reformer's fervor, went about changing that. He and his staff devised ``frameworks,'' which set criteria for what textbooks ought to be. They set up a system of statewide review panels to pore over prospective texts and see how they stacked up against the frameworks. The panels' recommendations went on to the state's curriculum commission.

Sounds good. But we're talking bureaucracy and politics. Competing philosophies of reading instruction came into play - phonics versus the new ``whole language'' approach. Legislators got into the act with complaints from local school districts that wanted to stick with the texts they thought worked, regardless of the curriculum commission's decisions. Rejected publishers raised some valid complaints about the way the selections were handled.

The issue finally simmered down when the state Board of Education made a final decision on which texts to accept. A number of compromises, rightful adjustments, or both were included in their decision. But the controversy could brew anew next year when social studies and history texts are up for examination.

For all the bumps along the way, no one can argue with Honig's original intent. There's a consensus that the books needed upgrading, and that the state's children will benefit from what's been done. And since California is the country's largest textbook market, its choices could well affect what schoolchildren in other states read (although questions have come up about how committed some publishers are to the kinds of changes they made to meet California's criteria). Still, one wonders about the process.

Instead of state officials deciding which books can be bought with crucial state funds, perhaps local districts should be given more discretion. Teachers and principals, after all, should have the best grasp of what their students need. Certainly the state should establish its frameworks and make its recommendations, but it could do so without taking unto itself the power of fiat. That approach tends to concentrate all the commercial, philosophical, and emotional interests in one highly politicized arena.

But even if the Californians decide to stick by current methods, we salute their efforts in this sometimes overlooked part of the education reform field. In the age of the VCR, acquainting kids with bona fide literature - from ``The Little Engine That Could'' to ``Huck Finn'' - is no mean accomplishment.

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