It's in the book, and it's wrong

Errors: U.S. publishers routinely produce attractive textbooks that are shallow and riddled with factual mistakes.

January 31, 1999|By Marego Athans and Gary Cohn | Marego Athans and Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

MILLCREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa. - Miranda Lyon was in seventh grade when she stumbled on the fateful homework question. Why, the textbook asked, does a person weigh less on a mountaintop than in a mine deep within the Earth?

Miranda, a straight-A student, was stumped. She asked her father for help.

What began as routine homework would become a four-year obsession for Howard Lyon, a hard lesson for a suburban Erie school district and a public relations nightmare for publishing giant Prentice Hall.

The small-town saga took on significance for students around the country, illuminating widespread flaws in the way U.S. textbooks are produced and selected.

The best-selling physical science textbook, it turned out, was wrong. And not only on the gravity question.

Among dozens of errors, the book confused ``energy'' with ``force,'' two fundamental concepts of physics. It mixed up ``velocity'' and ``acceleration,'' key terms that students already have trouble distinguishing.

The Periodic Table of the Elements - the bible of chemistry - presented gallium and cesium as liquids at room temperature when in fact they're solids. Soot in the air was incorrectly identified as a solution.

And so on.

Beyond the conceptual, the book made grammatical and factual blunders - giving the plural of ``foot'' as ``foots,'' for instance, and picturing the Statue of Liberty with the torch in the wrong hand while describing the outer shell as bronze. It's copper.

Alerted by Howard Lyon, alarmed Millcreek school officials published a 34-page list of corrections and gave them to seventh-graders to carry around with their books.

``If a student took a test and had the same number of errors that this publisher had ... the student would fail the test,'' said Millcreek school board member Dennis Iaquinta. ``My grade for them is an F, and they need summer school.''

Company officials repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokeswoman said in a letter to The Sun that many of the complaints are off base.

``Among Mr. Lyon's alleged 'corrections' were alternative methods, answers, renderings, etc. which may be accurate but which did not mean that the methods or answers provided in the text were wrong or invalid,'' wrote Nancy J. Taylor, a spokeswoman for Simon & Schuster, which owned Prentice Hall until late November.

Prentice Hall's new owner, Pearson Education, said it stands by that response.

Today, four years later, Lyon is still at war - hounding the publisher to correct its mistakes, warning educators across the nation about the book.

``It's the classic American story of one person who believes in something doggedly trying to make it right,'' said Millcreek schools Superintendent Verel Salmon. ``He has made his life center around this book.''

Enthusiastic sleuth

Few people take on the role of textbook sleuth as Howard Lyon did. But the errors he unearthed in ``Exploring Physical Science'' are hardly unusual, textbook experts say.

``It is common nowadays to see schoolbooks that are packed, from cover to cover, with blatant factual and conceptual errors, with absurd statements that make no sense and with pieces of 'information' that obviously have been invented out of thin air,'' said William J. Bennetta, editor of a California newsletter that reviews middle and high school textbooks.

Of the 300 or so he has examined over the past 12 years, Bennetta said, ``at least 75 percent have been so blatantly incompetent that I could say, with certainty, that the people who wrote them had no idea of what they were writing about.''

Lyon's campaign takes on particular meaning as schools around the country prepare to spend record amounts of money on textbooks, buoyed by a healthy economy and greater attention to public education. Meanwhile, a frenzy of mergers in the $3 billion textbook industry has left fewer choices.

And although teachers try not to rely solely on them, textbooks remain the engine of American classrooms. In many schools, the curriculum centers on bulky tomes that lead teachers page by page from September to June.

Errors are only part of the story.

Publishers - facing fierce competition - routinely infuse books with an encyclopedic array of facts to please school districts nationwide. And they often duck controversial topics to avoid offending noisy special interest groups.

The result: Instead of focusing on key concepts and explaining them well, critics say, publishers produce books that are often bland, superficial, dumbed down, poorly written and overwhelming - ineffective tools for teaching children.

``We try to cover too much, and in an effort to cover so much we end up teaching nothing,'' said Hays B. Lantz Jr., science supervisor for Prince George's County schools.

Other industrialized nations have far more focused math and science curricula. In economic peer countries such as Japan and Germany, books are much thinner, treating fewer topics in greater depth.

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