School texts with too much agenda

Interview / Sandra Stotsky

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.

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.

To cite one example from a 1996 Houghton Mifflin Grade 6 reader: "Tahcawin had packed the parfleche cases with clothing and food and strapped them to a travois made of two trailing poles with a skin net stretched between them. Another travois lay on the ground ready for the new tipi."

Stotsky objects to the many "useless proper nouns" that may acquaint children with a culture but don't expand the vocabulary sixth-graders need to progress. "The intellectual cost of passages like these is very high indeed," she writes.

In addition, new readings are not up to the standards of the children's classics they replace, she charges. "Works created to appeal to a child's imagination and sense of adventure have been replaced by selections such as "They Will Tear Up the Earth" that demonize white society, highlight the groups to be seen as its victims, and fuel their emotions not their minds," she writes. Such "pseudo-literature" most harms poor students, who never master standard English, she adds.

"Losing Our Language" targets the most extreme multicultural miscues. Only in the last pages does it provide evidence that this "anti-intellectual" tide may be turning. Stotsky, for example, co-chaired the committee that revised the 1995 Massachusetts reading curriculum draft, one of the clearest in the country. Publishers are now responding to stronger state standards that emphasize phonics and vocabulary.

Stotsky is a veteran of reading wars. She grew up in the shadow of the state teacher's college founded by Horace Mann in Bridgewater, Mass. Many of the town's mills and factories had closed down, but the schools were exciting, she says. She taught in a three-room schoolhouse in the 1950s, and was drawn into the reading wars when she read Jeanne Chall's "Learning to Read: The Great Debate."

When her fifth child began kindergarten, she applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Both in graduate school and later, as editor of research for the National Council of Teachers of English, she was struck by how unwilling most education-school professors were to challenge the multicultural orthodoxy.

"Given the controversy that multiculturalism has occasioned in the national media and at the college level, the unwillingness of teacher educators to examine its basic assumptions with the same critical eye they bring to other educational philosophies must be regarded as an unflattering comment on their professionalism," she writes.

But her main concern is to rouse parents. "Perhaps the largest and most serious hole in the educational universe of K-12 has been the almost complete absence of organized pressure groups consisting of parents with straightforward academic concerns, and not moral grievances of any kind," she writes. "They also need to arm themselves with as much information as they can obtain about the textbooks now in use in their schools and be prepared to face name calling and attempts to discredit their motives. They should not respond in kind."

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