Schools check, charge for mistakes

Scrutiny: Several states reject flawed books or fine publishers for failing to correct them, but a new approach to reform is needed.

January 31, 1999|By Marego Athans and Gary Cohn

Around the country, some states are taking steps to prevent flawed textbooks from getting into the classroom.

Concerned about errors in textbooks, California recently established panels of experts to check for accuracy.

``We just did it in history, and it worked wonderfully,'' said Cathy Barkett, a textbook administrator with the California Department of Education. Seven scholars reviewed textbooks and caught a number of inaccuracies, which the publishers corrected.

In Texas, nine publishers were fined a total of $60,500 in November for failing to correct factual errors. For future violators, education officials are considering increasing the fines, which range from $500 to $10,000 per error.

``We would like to make sure the rules for penalties help to guarantee that the books go out into the schools error-free,'' said Robert Leos of the Texas Education Agency.

In Alabama last month, the state school board rejected more than two dozen history and social studies books for statewide adoption, in large part because of factual errors. An advisory panel had spent six months reviewing the books.

``I probably looked through 300 to 400 [books], and 10 percent had egregious errors,'' said Susan Haughton, a member of the review panel.

William J. Bennetta, the editor of a California textbook newsletter, said the Alabama decision was unusual - but still, just a beginning. That ``has to happen a lot of other places before we see meaningful overhaul of the schoolbook business,'' Bennetta said.

Others say true reform must involve more than eliminating errors. Instead of presenting thick books stuffed with often gratuitous information, as many U.S. textbooks are, experts say publishers should focus on priority topics.

One effort in that direction is Project 2061, a reform of math and science education by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The project has developed methods for educators to assess whether textbooks effectively teach crucial skills.

Project 2061 is also producing consumer guides that include detailed analyses of textbooks. This month, it released an assessment of 12 middle school math books. None of the most widely used textbooks got high ratings. A similar guide to middle school science books is due later this year.

Many believe the best way to improve textbooks is to adopt a national curriculum and national tests. Publishers then could tailor textbooks to address those priorities.

But while other countries have national curricula, the idea runs counter to the U.S. tradition of local control of schools. There's disagreement about what those standards should be and who should set them. The Clinton administration, for example, has pushed for voluntary national tests in reading and math, but with little success.

Some reformers believe that states must fill the void. ``We have to get tough ... and place very high demands on textbook publishers to be serious about using the research to develop textbooks,'' Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington.

Otherwise, he said, ``we will lose more generations of students while we wait for nirvana to arrive.''

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