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Eye-candy but dull history textbooks restrained by California's rules

A tenth grader's history of the world

During the 2005-2006 school year, 8250 tenth graders in the San Diego Unified School District were enrolled in World History 1 and 2. The students focused on world history in modern times, roughly from the 1700s to the present — ancient civilizations are covered in sixth grade, medieval and early modern times in seventh. (Students take U.S. history and geography in eighth grade and an elective in ninth.) The tenth graders listened to lectures, made class presentations, and cracked the textbook, where they saw, for example, a brightly colored map of "Napoleon's Russian Campaign, 1812," his advance arrowed in blue, his retreat arrowed in red. The majority of these students, 5651, or 69 percent, were enrolled in world history, while 2213, or 27 percent, took advanced world history. (Three hundred eighty-six tenth graders were in advanced-placement world history, where a passing grade may be transferable to college, depending on the school.) Each class had its own text. The book for world history was Modern World History, published by McDougal Littell in 2003. The book for advanced world history was Glencoe World History: Modern Times, published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. Both the Modern World History and the Glencoe World History texts are labeled California Edition, which means that the books conform to a set of content standards that California students must be instructed in and tested on. All materials for core curriculum K-12 classes must be aligned with the standards.

Both world history texts weigh five pounds, with pages totaling 750 and 830. Using a forklift to open their shiny covers, you're overwhelmed by the rush and ubiquity of graphics. You might imagine the kids' initial delight at seeing so much eye candy last September; but then, after they'd spent a day or more with the book, they were, no doubt, cringing at its chock-a-block facts and data -- somewhere, embedded in all that carnival layout, are the answers to the exams they must take. The heft of these door-stoppers comes from an unending parade of colored borders, captioned photos, narrative vignettes, sidebar columns, all in visual competition: yellow-highlighted keywords like "industrial revolution"; "Main Idea" statements for each section; boxes bannered as "Geography Skills," "Internet Activity," "Critical Thinking," and "You Decide: Exploring Global Issues"; quotations from Thomas Jefferson or Allah in the Quran, called "Voices From the Past"; bold headings, less bold subheadings, bigger-smaller fonts; wider-skinnier fonts; tip-box trivia and cartoon drawings; writing assignments; captioned photos; outlines, reviews, lists. On one page I counted nine colors, including hues of red: magenta, brick, and crimson. On another page was a "Featurette," comparing Roman hairstyles with the beehive of the 1960s. Teachers, of course, supplement the books with overheads and online projects, ancillary material publishers provide. The textbook focus, though, is squarely on the image-learners, the Music Television generation publishers target.

We'd like to think that one pedagogical key is to appeal to our kids via video, movies, computer programs, and lively illustrated textbooks. But these flossy volumes raise the question of how students learn history. Like most products sold to children and teens, textbooks are glitzy and overwrought. The visual clutter is lessened for the advanced students, the challenged and chosen ones with the highest reading ability. For instance, the book for advanced-placement world history is arrayed with some drawings and maps, but it emphasizes the writing -- long idea- and fact-rich paragraphs, unaided by bullet points or sidebars. The basic texts, by contrast, are so deliberately packaged to look fun that the actual content has been reduced or pushed out by the cool pictures and pretty format.

That kids aren't learning world history is more than just the promise and failure of a text's design. Many educators feel that kids are uninterested in the subject because the state system of textbook adoption as well as the content of the books, written to comply with adoption guidelines, has been corrupted by religious fundamentalists on the right and multiculturalists on the left. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education lobby, reports in its "Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption" that California's standards and the textbooks that follow them slavishly do "far more harm than good." Students in adoption states, the report notes, score poorly on national tests; the adopted books, via the state procurement system, are closed to free-market competition; "lively writing and top-flight scholarship are discouraged"; and, most worrisome, the content is "vulnerable to politically motivated censorship." "Every individual analyst and expert panel that has studied K-12 textbooks has concluded that they are sorely lacking and that the adoption process cries out for reform."

One way we know that the state-mandated content is not getting through to students in world history is their dismal scores on the California Standards Tests. In 2005, 8779 tenth graders took the world history test, 75 multiple-choice questions. Of the five levels (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and far below basic), a combined 43 percent scored below basic (17 percent) and far below basic (26 percent). By selected high schools, Garfield students scored 82 percent below and far below; Hoover, 56; Madison, 48; Morse, 45; and Point Loma, 41. What's worse is tenth-grade performance as measured against the district's "proficiency" goal, that is, scoring at or above proficient. When judged by this criterion, world history scores in the city schools show that in both 2004 and 2005 73 percent of tenth graders are not proficient.

High school history texts render nationalist expansion and political dynasties, which account for the "rise of civilization," in a dull and sanitized voice. Its dullness, surprisingly, is also imbued with a kind of authority. One San Diego high school teacher told me that students hate this "death march of history," in which every epoch succumbs to the code of textbook infallibility. Textbooks sound flat because they are restrained by state standards and expurgating editors from uncovering the why in historical discourse. Why ushers in debate, interpretation, controversy, the stuff real historians write about; why may lead to judgments about people, then and now, that pressure groups in America believe high school kids should not be exposed to. Thus, the books, ever accommodating, concentrate on the litany of events that publishers believe constitute history -- periods and empires described in religiously neutral and multiculturally equal terms. For the tenth grader, the textbook history of the world reflects an uncritical and censored range of facts and precepts. Perhaps these books and their version of the past have a lot to do with why nearly half of those who study world history, in San Diego high schools, at least, are failing the course.


What's explained in world history texts is based on the History-

Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools. In the 1970s, the state legislature and department of education began enacting these "social content standards," do's and don'ts, if you will, that all K-12 texts had to comply with. Since then, the standards have been refined and codified and are now legally binding for core classes. An example is the first of the 11 standards for tenth-grade world history: "Students relate the moral and ethical principles in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, in Judaism, and in Christianity to the development of Western political thought."

The California standards describe the material to be learned. The goal of all learning is for "students to become prepared to participate successfully in events of local, state, national, and international significance." How do teachers get to the goal in world history? One way is via a 234-page book, The History-Social Science Framework, from the California Department of Education. The framework guides teachers by listing the criteria that all instructional material must contain. Standards are exactly stated; the framework offers 25 criteria to help insure that the content of the text is aligned with the standards. Some of the criteria are strict. Lower-grade history classes, for instance, must explore the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850, and every grade level must study the "life and contributions of" César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr. For high school kids, some guidelines are more open: texts should examine "humanity's place in ecological systems"; be "based on the best recent scholarship"; and "give significant attention to the principles of morality, truth, justice, and patriotism and to a comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, inspiring an understanding of and a commitment to American ideals."

World history is segmented into three periods to be studied in three grades. Grade six focuses on the agricultural, technological, and political development of the first societies, with a concentration on political and religious leaders, art and culture, the role of women, and the foundation of Western ideas; India and China are studied, but the Hebrews, Greece, and Rome are central. Grade seven covers the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity, the civilizations of the Americas (Inca, Aztec, Mayan), China and Japan, the rise of Islam, as well as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. Grade ten picks up with the Enlightenment and moves to the founding of America, the political history on either side of the First and Second World Wars, and the War on Terrorism. Eras and empires are encapsulated, while the narrative emphasizes the "contributions" of religion and culture to humankind as well as Western-style democracy to emerging nations. The purpose of the state standards is to answer the question, "What should my child be learning?"

Each year, depending on a six- or eight-year cycle of textbook adoption, the district's instructional materials department requests books from publishers. (Texts for K-8 are chosen by state committees; texts for 9-12 are chosen by local committees.) In 2004, advanced world history, along with algebra, AP biology, AP physics, and other courses, were slated for new materials. Publishers are especially keen on 9-12 adoptions because, as "open territories," any product, theoretically, is in the running. However, according to Donna Marriott, San Diego Unified assistant director for literacy, bi-literacy, English learner support, and social studies, "Any curriculum that comes into the facility has to be accompanied by a standards map." A standards map is a grid that shows, by correlating page and standard, how the publisher has aligned his book with the standards. Only those publishers who have designed their books to match the standards have a chance. Of the 456 publishers the district contacted for world history adoption, 10 publishers, or two percent, sent books.

At the same time the ten books were arriving, Marriott asked former Clairemont High history teacher Patrick McElhaney to chair the advanced world history adoption committee. A pleasant if abstracted man, McElhaney, 39, spoke with me in his classroom at Point Loma High School. For a year, he worked at the district, overseeing the history curriculum, but is now back in the classroom. Wearing a dark blue shirt with a darker blue tie, the bearded McElhaney told me that he and Marriott advertised in fall 2004 through department chairs, school principals, and parent-teacher forums for people to join the committee. Committee chairs are required by the superintendent to request a ratio of "three-five parent/community participants" and "to have a cross section of people with diverse ethnicity from various parts of the city." According to the committee's report to the board, the committee chair "promoted involvement of parents and community members." Marriott assured me that they followed the requisite guidelines.

Ten teachers signed up, eight white and two African-American, but no parent or "community member" volunteered. McElhaney said that the teachers joined (each was paid for 20-30 hours of work) because "they want a good book." Were historians and scholars solicited? According to Marriott, "They were not singled out, though we would love to have them involved." Some adoption committees, in language arts or health, do attract parents, religious groups, even the occasional scholar. One committee member said that historians were not contacted by the district because she believes potential textbooks have already been analyzed by in-house historian-consultants during the writing process. Textbooks list these "consultants" or "contributors" or "reviewers" in their author section. The Modern World History had some 40 names, typically college and high school history and social studies teachers. Many were contacted and none responded; one textbook insider said that consultants are bound by confidentiality agreements and cannot speak.


At the first meeting, McElhaney, a nonvoting member, trained the committee to evaluate books by using the state's rubric: the text must follow the standards, be readable, and have "depth of content." Within an hour the committee eliminated seven of the ten books -- they were not aligned to the standards. Although each district committee may choose its own 9-12 materials, state regulations narrow that choice severely. The committee cannot consider "materials that are contrary to or inconsistent with the standards, framework, and criteria." The adoption process is also bound by two Education Codes: 60119, which requires schools to have sufficient materials for every student, be standards-aligned, and be consistent with the curriculum frameworks, and 60422, which requires the state, when spending money on textbooks, to pay only for "standards-aligned instructional materials." A third restriction: California tenth graders are tested for knowledge based on the standards. Tom Adams, director of the Curriculum Frameworks Unit at the California Department of Education, told me that if a district decides to teach the world history curriculum outside of the state's framework, the district is putting "those students in a situation where they're taught one thing and they're being tested on another. What's being tested is based upon the standards." Point Loma High history teacher Simone Arias, who served on the committee, asserted that the committee "had no choice. The publishers publish the book to fit the framework. The standards and the state demand we follow them, so the book that comes closest to spelling them out wins."

Of the three making the cut, one was the text they adopted, the Glencoe World History, 2006 edition. The second, the nation's most popular high school history text, was from Prentice Hall, World History: Connections to Today: The Modern Era. The third book had already been approved for AP world history, World History: Comprehensive Volume, from Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing. "The problem was," McElhaney recalled, "we got the highest [reading] level" with the Thomson AP book and "the two lowest-level texts" with the Glencoe and the Prentice Hall. "There was no middle level."

Though McElhaney and the committee had no contact with any publisher during the adoption process, sales reps pepper him with sample copies, hoping he'll survey their products. McElhaney said he gladly shelves these freebies as classroom references. In the past, he said, publishers would distribute "pens and pads and bags" to teachers, although "book fairs," which the district used to allow, are no more. Only at the last committee meeting, in January 2005, could the sales reps pitch. Each had 20 minutes to persuade the committee of its product's benefits. Each brought in a "history expert" to testify to the text's accuracy. Ancillary materials like overheads, maps, and CD-ROMs were demonstrated. One committee member, Hoover High teacher Chris Steussy, remembered the presenters as "a bunch of used-car salesmen."

McElhaney reminded his committee "to be cognizant in their reading and evaluations" of gender representation, loaded language, and ethnic stereotypes. At home, members studied their copies and summarized their findings. At the next meeting, McElhaney said, "nobody brought up" content issues -- each text mirrored the standards. What was at issue? Readability. On the list of committee members that McElhaney showed me, seven of the ten teachers work at inner-city schools like Hoover and San Diego High. Since many of those students' first language is not English, the seven decided on the Glencoe, the easiest of the three.

Opposition to the Glencoe was stiff. Committee member Matt Pruden of Patrick Henry wrote that the Glencoe "is not exceptional; [it's] simplistic in its approach with little attention given to the female and minority voice -- very Eurocentric." He also wrote that if the district purchased the Glencoe -- he thought the book already in use was no worse than the new one -- it would be "a colossal waste of money during a time of severe budget limitations." Other members wanted to challenge the students. Simone Arias, who is a 25-year high school veteran and, 15 years ago, was a paid consultant for Prentice Hall, felt an advanced course should have, well, an advanced text, the Thomson book. Sandra Bartels of Clairemont High liked its "academic rigor." But the majority of the committee disagreed. Several believed the Thomson text was a college- not a high school-level book. With a layout less graphics- than text-driven, the book failed because, according to committee members' notes, there was "little use of varied fonts, colorful print or subtitles";

a "dearth of maps, sidebars, and special features" like "pie charts"; and "little support for English-language learners." One noted that it was "just simple text," meaning not visually stimulating. Madison High teacher Paul Anderson favored the Glencoe since it "has licensed easy-to-recognize media resources in National Geographic" and other TV channels. Steussy felt the Glencoe was superior because it had "many more ancillary materials -- fiction, documents, maps, just gobs of stuff. It was a better package overall."

Although Steussy voted for the Glencoe, he was candid about its limitations. World history texts, he said, "certainly don't seek out controversy. All the books we looked at do a pretty good job of summarizing the current state of historical understanding. That doesn't lend itself to any controversy." Students are also cognizant of textbook limitations. Steussy recalled one of his students asking him why the historical event recounted in the Steven Spielberg movie Amistad, about a trial of Africans who rebelled while on board a slave ship in the 1840s, wasn't in the book. Steussy answered the student with his own query: "I wonder how many other stories in history aren't there?" Perhaps the text publisher thinks the story of the Amistad is not important, he said, or that it doesn't fit in with the book's narrative. History, he reminded them, is interesting because of its conflicting narratives. Chief among Steussy's criticisms of the textbooks he's seen is that publishers haven't gotten around to seeing world history "as an actual world phenomenon. Many of these books may say 'Third Edition,' but I bet they've been around for decades." He noted the focus on war, nation-building, and the "march to democracy," which the standards espouse and the texts echo. Without doubt, he said, tenth-grade world history is biased toward the political. "There is no assessment" in these books "of cultural history, of social history, which is the new wave of academic historians. There is some sort of inertia, generation after generation, that pumps out stories of democracy and world wars." Even though texts spotlight nationalist politics and world war, the standards require books to soften any material that might upset young minds. So Steussy and McElhaney, by their own choice, use other sources, say, a chapter from All Quiet on the Western Front, to show war's horror, or a film like Amistad, to wring a human story out of slavery.

One of the ironies of choosing instructional material is that good teachers rely much more on classroom activities than on a book's explanations. McElhaney begins his semester with a unit on historiography: How do we study history, and what do we look for? He recounts the key terms of historical analysis: "bias, objectivity, context, primary sources, evidence, interpretation, types of history -- social, political, economic. How," he submits to his classes, "can you use these things to study history?" That list, he told me, is not in the Glencoe. As he goes, he creates assignments: write essays, do group projects, design Web pages. Assignments, he said, are necessary to get "regular-level kids motivated. They'll do it if they know someone is going to look at [what they do]. They will try harder. It may take more time. And maybe," he said, "they'll focus on some of the big questions." One thing's for sure. "They can't sit there. They won't listen. They don't like to read the textbook."

I wondered why, since he supplements the textbook so much, he needs one.

"They have to have a textbook. It's like an anchor." McElhaney said that no teacher should be responsible for assembling course material. What's more: "How can you teach without resources?" The textbook is a source. Besides, students "have to get used to reading textbooks. It's a reality in college."

McElhaney told me that his tenth graders love controversy, or what he calls the messiness of history. But there's no time to get messy. "How much time do you think" -- he scoffed -- "we devote to the Holocaust? A day or two. That's it." McElhaney cited a new district-made map that models a "progression of units," which support the "essential understandings, essential questions, and big ideas" of the standards. "Unit 1: How Did Modern Political Thought Develop? 5-6 weeks." "Unit 4: What Were the Causes and Effects of the Second World War? 6-7 weeks." He said that not much of history's messiness can take wing with such time restraints. To bore students, skim historical periods; to interest them, read a compelling narrative like Elie Wiesel's Night. But, to accomplish the latter, teachers must supply background and permit discussion. It's time consuming. And teachers themselves need to "stay on task." Over the school year, McElhaney noted, "The reality is, you've got to get to World War I by January.

"Most people don't know anything about what teachers go through," McElhaney added, his hands resting in his lap. He was tired, he said; he'd been up till midnight grading papers.

I asked how many students he has this semester. He didn't know. He stood up before the empty desks and point-counted each one. "Let's see, 32 times 5. That's how many students I have."


The readability of a tenth-grade world history text is one thing; what the book's content actually says is quite another. Any book adopted in California is subject to another set of guidelines, also enumerated in The History-Social Science Framework, which insist on positive presentations of religion, ethnicity, race, and gender.

A Korean-American student in the state, for example, must see the history of Korea, if it's shown in the text, in a positive light. Men and women, as well as minorities, must be proportionally represented in all periods whether the gender or the group had any significant effect or not. Illustrations must show the tall and the short, the heavy and the thin, the dark- and the light-complected, plus families headed by two parents, one parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- but no same-sex parents. Language must be gender-neutral ("mankind" is "humankind"), stereotypical roles are forbidden (according to critic Tamin Ansary, "No textbook can show African Americans playing sports, Asians using computers, or women taking care of children"), and persons with disabilities as well as older persons (always physically moving, never sedentary) must be included. Product placement is prohibited, though violations are flagrant: most sidebar articles in the Glencoe World History text are "branded" by National Geographic (a nonprofit) while the text's atlases feature the seal of Rand McNally (a commercial entity). Diet talk must reflect good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. In this hypersensitive environment, bowdlerization -- to expurgate prudishly -- occurs before the book gets to the printer. One proactive editor changed the title of an original kids' story, "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream," to "A Perfect Day"; he did so because state guidelines say that junk food "encourages obesity." Never mind that the kids have eaten tons of sweets already: textbook ice cream will kill you.

The most active ingredient in the writing of history for textbooks is presentism. Presentism looks at the past through the lens of our standards of morality and social equality. An example: to represent women in the Renaissance, text writers will state that "some women were shop owners." Though scant evidence exists to support this claim, it has become part of Renaissance life so that women will feel good today about a time when women had few rights. Presentism chiefly affects how textbooks regard religious belief, ethnic heritage, and women's rights in history. It says that we must apply contemporary standards of social justice to past epochs in order to right past wrongs. What's more, since all aggrieved groups and revered beliefs in history must be seen in today's positive light, we must feel a kind of unadulterated sympathy for the past and its people.

How did that emphasis get in the book? Multicultural and religious groups have, in the past two decades, pressured the state of California and the textbook publishers to include only those things that the groups want -- a victim-based and emotionally laden history, short on fact and long on wailing -- in the standards and in the texts. What they want is compressed into the phrase "positive representation," no matter how bland, biased, or justified by present need. All civilizations were great and glorious; that is today's unchallenged textbook mantra. Consequently, students get a view of the world that has been filtered through our static political context, not the evolving contexts of history.

In today's view of what the past should be, textbooks censor and simplify the history of religious belief and the nationalist struggles of the 20th Century the most. First, to religion. Diane Ravitch has written in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn that the textbooks' "treatment of religion is consistently deferential, even reverential; they seldom discuss the role of religious belief as a source of conflict. In their eagerness to show respect to all religions, the texts soft-pedal religious hatreds and the religious roots of many wars in history."

Students often begin tenth grade by reviewing what their books say about religious prophets. For example, in the Glencoe -- the text being read by advanced world history's 2213 students -- the section's prefatory "Main Idea" is that "Christianity was able to spread rapidly through the Roman imperial network, while both Roman and Christian values influenced the West." The text describes Jesus' life and that "his message was simple. He told his fellow Jews that he did not plan to harm their traditional religions." "According to Jesus, what was important was not [a person's] strict adherence to the letter of the law but the transformation of the inner person." And later, "After the death of Jesus, his followers proclaimed that he had risen from death and had appeared to them." In Modern World History -- the book being read by world history's 5651 students -- the "Main Idea" is, "Judaism and Christianity taught individual worth, ethical standards, and the need to fight injustice." Under "Why It Matters Now," we learn, "These ideals continue to be important to democracy today." The text recounts, "According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was born around 6 to 4 B.C....His preaching contained many ideas from Jewish tradition, such as monotheism and the principles of the Ten Commandments. Jesus emphasized God's personal relationship to each human being." And later, "According to Jesus' followers, he rose from the dead three days later and ascended into heaven. His followers believed he was the Messiah, or savior."

In the Glencoe, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, "is often called the Prophet." We hear about his birth, that he was "intelligent and hardworking and became a capable merchant. He married a widow, had children, and seemed to have a happy and comfortable life." We also hear that "according to tradition, one night in 610, while Muhammad was deep in meditation, an angelic voice called out: 'Recite!' A frightened Muhammad replied, 'What shall I recite?' and the voice responded, 'In the name of thy Lord the Creator, who created mankind from a clot of blood, recite!' The voice then began to speak about the nature of God." Muhammad "memorized everything the voice revealed and began to preach these words to others."

Such capsule biographies seem innocuous. But consider the issue of attribution. To cite "evidence" of religious origins, Jesus' and Muhammad's words are quoted ("according to Jesus"), they come from their disciples ("his followers proclaimed"), or they fit under the big tent ("according to tradition"). The problem is, when a text reports that a religion has been revealed by God, accepted on faith, and reported as tradition, a religion's claim and historical fact are at odds. This is not an argument against teaching about religious traditions, which the Supreme Court has guaranteed is constitutionally protected. Rather, it is a question of teaching historical scholarship about a religion's origin rather than, as the textbooks do, merely declaring what the faiths say. A belief in the "truth" of a prophet's words is not the same as saying such words are historically true. Scholars know the difference between the actual occurrence of the Holocaust, whose truth is found in eyewitness accounts, photographs, records, and the Nuremberg tribunal, and supernatural events related in a venerated text. The former is true by evidence; the latter is true by devotion. Textbooks cite no archeological evidence as to where "scripture" comes from; creation stories are never called myths, except those of the Native Americans, who, in textbook-land, lived in "harmony with the Great Spirit." Claims and elisions can be outrageous: one world history book, without revealing its source, touts the political power held by Iroquois women and avoids mentioning the Iroquois's love of torturing captive Hurons, a fact easily checked. By state standard, a textbook author is free, even encouraged, to dance around historical accuracy. And yet quotations attributed to prophets are nestled into world history as if they were fact. Put differently, how do sixth, seventh, and tenth graders know the difference between fact and legend when all traditions are given equal status in the march of history?

According to the state's criterion for religious subject matter, materials must "remain neutral...do not include derogatory language about a religion or use examples from sacred texts or other religious literature that are derogatory." By state standard, it would be derogatory or an adverse assertion to dispute, let alone say, that whatever a religion or a people or a gender claims as its tradition may not be true. Nowhere is this rule applied as strictly as it is with Islam. In a post-9/11 culture, California standards, school curricula, and textbook content have airbrushed Islam's image. As a result, one finds few textbook references to Islam's history of violence and intolerance. This is not to say that textbooks let only Islam's imperialism off the hook; very little critical is said about any empire or faith. The American Textbook Council, however, argues that the standards for teaching about religion are being egregiously used by publishers to "misrepresent Islam past and present: they contain fallacies and untruths about jihad, sharia, slavery, status of Muslim women, terrorism, and tolerance." Why is it, the Fordham report on textbook adoption asks, that Mali's significance as a center for the "Islamic slave trade...[is] papered over"? (A similar glaring bit of revisionism is to temper Aztec human sacrifice as a "requirement to ensure that the sun rises each day.") If religious dynasties do no harm, then students may learn that the problems of the world, insofar as they learn about them at all, stem only from the secular realm.

Another aspect of depicting religious traditions is the blatant political agenda. When a religion grows -- or, as textbooks prefer, "spreads" -- faith is always a democratizing force. Such is the historical "appeal" of Christianity and Islam. In the Glencoe, we hear that "like Christianity, Islam was open to every person, and this encouraged a greater sense of equality in society." Is this true? Are Christianity and Islam "open"? Does social equality come about when people join a religion? Has the history of Christianity, or of any religion, shown that its putative inclusivity has furthered social equality? This democratic-cozy claim is made because the history standards mandate that texts picture religion accomplishing good wherever it goes. We read statements like this: Islam "united the Middle East. Arab armies marched westward across North Africa and eastward into Mesopotamia and Persia, creating a new empire."

Most educated people recognize that with empire, iniquities and accomplishments are intertwined. Yet both Modern World History and the Glencoe gloss over the darkness. For a religion to have "imposed equality" on people by war, or by proselytizing, would be negative. In fact, in these particular texts, only two negatives come up. First, in Modern World History, the "age of exploration" was "driven by a desire for wealth and Christian converts." And second, from the same book's section on "Modern Terrorism," Islam and Christianity "have viewed each other with hostility since at least the time of the Crusades" as a reason for present-day conflict. A "desire for" converts and a hostile "view" of the "other" hardly characterizes the aggression of religious fundamentalists. An alternative guidepost, which places religion at the center of nationalist expansion in history, comes from the National Center for History in the Schools: "Religions united peoples of diverse political and ethnic identities. Religions also, often enough, divided groups into hostile camps and gave legitimacy to war or social repression." Admitting the conflict may invite rather than stanch the discussion.

Finally, textbooks rarely mention the historical importance of skepticism and non-religion. Such humanistic fields have little independent life in science or art; typically, they are propped up as antagonists to religious belief: doubt has none of the moral value that faith has. Modern World History defines skepticism -- "the idea that nothing can ever be known for certain" -- and places it in the context of French religious wars of the 1500s, when skeptics expressed "doubt toward churches that claimed to have the only correct set of doctrines." In 750 pages, there is a 6-page and a 3-page section on the scientific revolution in two epochs. The same revolution, by contrast, is depicted in the Glencoe (one and a half pages out of 830) as religious-like: pasteurization, for example, led many to a "growing faith in science. This faith, in turn, undermined the religious faith of many people," which led to "secularization," an "indifference to or rejection of religion in the affairs of the world." In the next paragraph, the great secular rejecter appears: Darwin and his "theory of evolution." The Big Idea is: faith and science must struggle. That they might co-exist, without one undermining the other, goes unremarked.


In the tenth-grade textbook portrayal of nationalist conflicts, we find one political leader, Adolph Hitler, who can be critically painted because he's a secular menace. In Modern World History, we learn that "after leaving prison in 1924, Hitler revived the Nazi party. Most Germans ignored him and his angry message until the Depression ended the nation's brief postwar recovery. When American loans stopped, the German economy collapsed. Factories ground to a halt and banks closed. Nearly six million people, about 30 percent of Germany's workforce, were unemployed in 1932. Civil unrest broke out. Frightened and confused, Germans now turned to Hitler, hoping for security and firm leadership." A photo accompanies this discussion: brown-shirted men and boys arm-saluting the Führer, who "skillfully used mass rallies to generate enthusiasm."

In this rendition, Hitler's practices are not motivated by Nazism, which, like Russian and Chinese communism, is an ideology of hatred or control. To render Nazi idolatry, the textbook describes Germans who don't hate Jews and deviants but are merely expressing "enthusiasm" for security. Then, there's the leap in one paragraph from the German people ignoring Hitler to turning to him, a euphemism for brainwashing. There is no comparison that the same set of underlying social problems existed in America: our economy collapsed, factories went under, banks closed; our unemployment was also 30 percent. We were frightened and confused, but we didn't "turn" to a dictator. Would students know from this history the difference between why Nazism grew in Germany and the New Deal grew here?

The Glencoe does a somewhat better job of explaining Hitler's charisma and Nazi indoctrination in the 1930s -- a complex psychological question that requires some discussion. An excerpt: "Hitler promised to create a new Germany. His appeals to national pride, national honor, and traditional militarism struck an emotional chord in his listeners.

After attending one of Hitler's rallies, a schoolteacher in Hamburg said, 'When the speech was over, there was roaring enthusiasm and applause...How many look up to him with touching faith as their helper, their saviour, their deliverer from unbearable distress.' " The personal testimony gives the passage greater weight, even though the text still couches such egregious devotion as "enthusiasm." In succeeding paragraphs, we hear about Hitler's means: scapegoating Jews; controlling Parliament; appealing to industrialists and aristocrats; public works projects and Nazi party rallies. Through it, we get some sense of Hitler as a proselytizer and madman.

It is true that these textbooks show leaders who inspire excessive "enthusiasm" to a cause as dangerous: this is the lesson of history. And, it is the individual, especially the nationalist zealot in the 20th Century, who corrupts us, not his ideology: this is also the lesson of history. But what's missing is a simple explanation that history is composed of people who instill religious-like fervor in the masses, for good and bad ends. Understanding ideology is crucial to understanding history, but ideology is left out. How can students learn about history if a text cannot say anything bad about what people believe? Do teachers make these distinctions in the classroom? The books don't. Can students recognize the variant strains of ideological thinking? The books don't.

California state guidelines stress that when adopting a world history text the book "should present history as an exciting and fascinating story"; students should be able to read the material "with interest...and pleasure"; "the text should engage the imagination of the reader"; and the "writing should be vivid and dramatic without sacrificing accuracy." Leaving aside the questions of accuracy and bias, the narrative in world history texts is rarely exciting, seldom pleasurable to read, and never imaginatively written. Nor do these texts take the time to explain, as we've seen, the manipulative power of ideology. Instead, they rush to their true goal: a neon-colored review box that reminds students of what's really important: "Vocabulary," "People and Events," "Places," and "Reviewing Big Ideas." The historical narrative in the Glencoe, more so than the Modern World History (one reason why the Glencoe was tapped), builds some interest. But soon the drama stops. Summaries intrude, appearing alongside pictures and tip boxes. The standards-based finger wags, "Here's what will be on the test." Though a good teacher -- and San Diego schools have hundreds of them -- may insist that students think critically about history, most texts don't build a rigging of historical interpretation as a mainsail. The standards-based mainsail pushes the ship from one epoch to the next, one political dynasty "spreading" itself over another. Waves of fact keep lapping at the shore: four causes of the Great Depression, five pillars of Islam, six planks of Federalism. To what end?


Four multinational companies make up the textbook cartel: Harcourt; Pearson Education (imprint, Prentice Hall); McGraw-Hill (imprint, Glencoe); and Houghton Mifflin (imprint, McDougal Littell). The Big Four, as they're known, have grown via consolidation: what was once an industry in which dozens of small publishers competed with innovative texts is now like petroleum or media -- a few sellers sell to a few buyers who control a captive mass market. Of the $4.3 billion trade in textbooks, the Big Four account for 70 percent of all K-12 sales. So concentrated are they that the American School Board Journal has dubbed their wares the "de facto national curriculum." The Big Four serve the Big Three adoption states: California, Texas, and Florida. As the biggest of the Big Three clients, California's six million students account for $400 million annual sales, 11 percent of the market. If it's read in California, Texas, or Florida, it's likely to be read everywhere. In an all-or-nothing market, only capital-intensive publishers compete. Still, production stakes are huge. Scott Hill, a former executive director of the state Academic Standards Commission, said that to create a book whose graphics and text conforms to the California standards costs between $20 and $30 million.

Centralizing and censoring knowledge and aiming it at children smacks of a corporate violation of the public trust. Such a trespass incenses William J. Bennetta, the fiercest textbook critic in America. An editor and member of the California Academy of Sciences, Bennetta runs the Textbook League, one of two national clearinghouses that review texts. For 20 years he's been opposing what he calls textbook "absurdities and stupidities." I asked him about the authors of textbooks. Who are they? It's not always clear who they are, he said. Books are wrought by committee -- sales reps, market researchers, history and social studies teachers, editorial directors, content censors, with maybe a historian as overseer. It's an assembly line of specialty inputs whose end product has no single author's voice. Bennetta said that once texts are in production, "We have no way of knowing whether these books go through any rigorous review process by the publishers. Edited to death, yes. But reviewed for historical accuracy? Hardly. It's a fraud. What these companies do is load their books up with the names of people [stated as authors] who had nothing to do with writing it, didn't review the book, never saw the book. If you contact these people, you'll find they had nothing to do with it." What the publishers won't tell you is that "lots of marketing people reviewed it to make sure it complied with what their market research has shown will sell." Bennetta laughed at how he's seen teachers recruited for focus groups, who are paid a modest stipend and plied with carrot sticks and dip before voting on the best layouts.

Bennetta battles what he calls textbook lies: deliberate falsehoods, "which are put in books because they are politically correct" and "telling lies with absolutely true statements." To make true statements into lies is "part of the schoolbook-writing art," he said. "Suppose you read in a history book that when slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the New World, ten percent of them died on the way. That sounds pretty rough? What if I tell you this? When people crossed North America, on their way to Oregon in the 1830s and 1840s, ten percent of them died on the way. What if I told you that when convicts and soldiers and others were loaded into ships for long ocean voyages, at least ten percent of them died on the way. Now the original statement about the slaves begins to look different, doesn't it? But if you leave out any kind of information that gives context, then you have created an absolutely false impression, which is politically palatable. Everybody's taught to weep and wail about the ten percent of the slaves who died. But when you were shipping people by sea over long distances in the 1700s, that was typical -- and it was in no way particular to the case of the slave ships."

Bennetta advocates that adoption committees should hire professional historians with particular specialties to review the books. Adoption decisions should not be left to committee members themselves, not to interested "community members," not even to parents. Why?

"What do parents know about history? They can't be relied on to know anything" about what their kids are learning in school. Statistically, anyone who puts himself onto a committee for textbook adoption may or may not have a knowledge of history. Teachers, like parents, he said, "are members of the public at large; they don't know history better than anyone else." Bennetta cited Diane Ravitch's 1997 speech to the National Council for History Education, in which she stated her findings that 55 percent of history teachers have neither a bachelor's degree (nor a minor) in history, let alone an advanced degree. Most have degrees in education. She asked, "How can teachers teach what they have not studied? How can students learn challenging subject matter from teachers who have not chosen to study what they are teaching?" Bennetta echoed Ravitch. "To imagine that these people can pick out a history book is as absurd as going to a bus stop and picking somebody to select a history book. Either a person is a historian and is qualified to make judgments about a given body of work that purports to be historical information, a person who specializes in that body, that place or period -- or he's not. Dressing him up and hanging a sign around his neck that says 'History Teacher' -- what does that do? That doesn't change what's inside his head. 'Professional historian' means something." (Of the advanced world history adoption committee, at least five of the ten have history degrees.)

To fix what's broken, Bennetta wants historians actually to write textbooks; Ravitch believes we should dump all standards and let adoption committees -- with historians at the helm -- decide which books are best. Both critics insist that textbooks be reviewed after they're published. And yet, with no free market and no evaluative forum for the publishers' products, the text-and-standards delivery system appears unalterable. High Tech High history teacher Mark Aguirre agreed with this assessment when I spoke with him recently. In April 2005, Aguirre served on a committee, the Instructional Materials Adoption Panel, with 90 other teachers, evaluating new texts for sixth-grade world history. All K-8 history and social science books are undergoing a new adoption cycle this year. In Sacramento, Aguirre and others had a hard time with how Islam and the Hebrews were presented: "There was a lot of pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth; we couldn't agree on the way it should be done. The texts are very careful, of course. It doesn't matter who's writing them. There were so many different ways they could have been written -- you're never going to make everybody happy. The problem with history is the problem with perspective. Since you have to make sure you don't offend anybody, pretty soon you have a pretty vanilla version of what history is." Despite the disagreements, the bottom line is, textbooks have to follow the standards. "It says very clearly in the scoring guide we used, 'If the book misses a standard, you must reject the book.' " The Sacramento confab was open to publishers. They sat in the back, Aguirre said, "listening vigorously." They were there to find out exactly what the state wants in its textbooks.

A lack of controversy, a surfeit of graphics, carefully diced content -- "It's a mess," Aguirre said. "My complaint is that the text itself is not interesting. It's a list of dates and names and accomplishments. There's no why. Everything is presented in a way that sounds preordained. There was never any doubt that it was going to happen. I remember my mom telling me that she was shocked in 1940 that the Nazis were going to take over the world. There are moments like that in history, and the textbooks don't acknowledge them."

In 2001, Aguirre moved from Scripps High School to the innovative charter school High Tech High. "I couldn't do what I do here at Scripps." At Scripps, he could see the "back-to-basics writing on the wall: all they are learning is the dates and the names, the 50 state capitals, blah, blah, blah. I don't value that. It seems to me that the schools are 50 years behind." Aguirre said the textbooks he used at Scripps aped the back-to-basics approach; beholden to that process, the books "sucked the life right out of history." Moreover, he said, kids are aware of the book's primary focus -- the "high-stakes test." Textbooks now print standards side by side with the lessons; students know they have to pass the standards-based test to graduate.

"Our philosophy at High Tech High is not so much what information can kids memorize but what can they do with it once they get it." Aguirre spends his time teaching history by letting students "create the context" for whatever they're learning. "I have the freedom to choose literature, use primary sources -- I make history come alive. The kids have to do 10- to 15-minute presentations three times a year, they're making documentaries, they're putting on plays. It's common sense. I don't want to get political but I will. What we're doing with the standards is protecting the status quo. We're not leveling the playing field for minorities. The ones who are successful at La Jolla, at Kearny, at Scripps Ranch are the ones who have the goods. The ones who've got computers at home, the ones whose parents can afford tutors for their SAT tests. What we're doing at High Tech High -- the kids blossom. I try to picture what they're doing at the other schools. They're just sitting there like -- it's scary to me. We've created a monster."


Is the dismal performance of San Diego high school kids in world history -- a 43 percent failure rate and a below-proficiency level of 73 percent -- an indication of how bad the textbooks are? Why is it that with the state's resources, with the adoption committees picking the best book, with committed teachers in the classroom, with millions of dollars spent on standards-aligned books -- kids still score so poorly? I asked literacy director Donna Marriott what she thought.

Marriott said low test scores are not the fault of textbooks. "We put the best product we can in kids' hands." She admitted that "any world history text is a difficult read for kids. They're dense, fact-laden books. The content is hard, and it requires prior knowledge. The courses in world history are incoherent, that is, they're laid out nonsequentially -- by tenth grade, they haven't had social studies for a year or two. There's a big delay." Marriott said that the district has decided that the way to improve test scores is to improve teachers. "We have a plan of action in place," she told me. "This year, we are offering more professional development for our world history teachers. Trainings. Providing them with a curriculum map and a pacing guide. Our curriculum map pulls out the big ideas so teachers don't get immersed in the minutiae -- the facts, the events, the dates, the boundaries. Our theory of action is that if teachers teach the big ideas of the discipline, they're going to get better results." As for the kids, she said, the district is implementing "an end-of-semester exam and an end-of-course exam," which means two more tests per year. That, she said, should push them to be more proficient in history.

William J. Bennetta said that the idea that helping teachers with curriculum and giving tests more frequently to students will, taken together, somehow make kids history-smart is ludicrous. "Who cares," he said, "whether kids are doing well or poorly at memorizing falsehoods and reciting nonsense? Kids should be tested on the right material, not these lousy textbooks."

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During the 2005-2006 school year, 8250 tenth graders in the San Diego Unified School District were enrolled in World History 1 and 2. The students focused on world history in modern times, roughly from the 1700s to the present — ancient civilizations are covered in sixth grade, medieval and early modern times in seventh. (Students take U.S. history and geography in eighth grade and an elective in ninth.) The tenth graders listened to lectures, made class presentations, and cracked the textbook, where they saw, for example, a brightly colored map of "Napoleon's Russian Campaign, 1812," his advance arrowed in blue, his retreat arrowed in red. The majority of these students, 5651, or 69 percent, were enrolled in world history, while 2213, or 27 percent, took advanced world history. (Three hundred eighty-six tenth graders were in advanced-placement world history, where a passing grade may be transferable to college, depending on the school.) Each class had its own text. The book for world history was Modern World History, published by McDougal Littell in 2003. The book for advanced world history was Glencoe World History: Modern Times, published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. Both the Modern World History and the Glencoe World History texts are labeled California Edition, which means that the books conform to a set of content standards that California students must be instructed in and tested on. All materials for core curriculum K-12 classes must be aligned with the standards.

Both world history texts weigh five pounds, with pages totaling 750 and 830. Using a forklift to open their shiny covers, you're overwhelmed by the rush and ubiquity of graphics. You might imagine the kids' initial delight at seeing so much eye candy last September; but then, after they'd spent a day or more with the book, they were, no doubt, cringing at its chock-a-block facts and data -- somewhere, embedded in all that carnival layout, are the answers to the exams they must take. The heft of these door-stoppers comes from an unending parade of colored borders, captioned photos, narrative vignettes, sidebar columns, all in visual competition: yellow-highlighted keywords like "industrial revolution"; "Main Idea" statements for each section; boxes bannered as "Geography Skills," "Internet Activity," "Critical Thinking," and "You Decide: Exploring Global Issues"; quotations from Thomas Jefferson or Allah in the Quran, called "Voices From the Past"; bold headings, less bold subheadings, bigger-smaller fonts; wider-skinnier fonts; tip-box trivia and cartoon drawings; writing assignments; captioned photos; outlines, reviews, lists. On one page I counted nine colors, including hues of red: magenta, brick, and crimson. On another page was a "Featurette," comparing Roman hairstyles with the beehive of the 1960s. Teachers, of course, supplement the books with overheads and online projects, ancillary material publishers provide. The textbook focus, though, is squarely on the image-learners, the Music Television generation publishers target.

We'd like to think that one pedagogical key is to appeal to our kids via video, movies, computer programs, and lively illustrated textbooks. But these flossy volumes raise the question of how students learn history. Like most products sold to children and teens, textbooks are glitzy and overwrought. The visual clutter is lessened for the advanced students, the challenged and chosen ones with the highest reading ability. For instance, the book for advanced-placement world history is arrayed with some drawings and maps, but it emphasizes the writing -- long idea- and fact-rich paragraphs, unaided by bullet points or sidebars. The basic texts, by contrast, are so deliberately packaged to look fun that the actual content has been reduced or pushed out by the cool pictures and pretty format.

That kids aren't learning world history is more than just the promise and failure of a text's design. Many educators feel that kids are uninterested in the subject because the state system of textbook adoption as well as the content of the books, written to comply with adoption guidelines, has been corrupted by religious fundamentalists on the right and multiculturalists on the left. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education lobby, reports in its "Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption" that California's standards and the textbooks that follow them slavishly do "far more harm than good." Students in adoption states, the report notes, score poorly on national tests; the adopted books, via the state procurement system, are closed to free-market competition; "lively writing and top-flight scholarship are discouraged"; and, most worrisome, the content is "vulnerable to politically motivated censorship." "Every individual analyst and expert panel that has studied K-12 textbooks has concluded that they are sorely lacking and that the adoption process cries out for reform."

One way we know that the state-mandated content is not getting through to students in world history is their dismal scores on the California Standards Tests. In 2005, 8779 tenth graders took the world history test, 75 multiple-choice questions. Of the five levels (advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, and far below basic), a combined 43 percent scored below basic (17 percent) and far below basic (26 percent). By selected high schools, Garfield students scored 82 percent below and far below; Hoover, 56; Madison, 48; Morse, 45; and Point Loma, 41. What's worse is tenth-grade performance as measured against the district's "proficiency" goal, that is, scoring at or above proficient. When judged by this criterion, world history scores in the city schools show that in both 2004 and 2005 73 percent of tenth graders are not proficient.

High school history texts render nationalist expansion and political dynasties, which account for the "rise of civilization," in a dull and sanitized voice. Its dullness, surprisingly, is also imbued with a kind of authority. One San Diego high school teacher told me that students hate this "death march of history," in which every epoch succumbs to the code of textbook infallibility. Textbooks sound flat because they are restrained by state standards and expurgating editors from uncovering the why in historical discourse. Why ushers in debate, interpretation, controversy, the stuff real historians write about; why may lead to judgments about people, then and now, that pressure groups in America believe high school kids should not be exposed to. Thus, the books, ever accommodating, concentrate on the litany of events that publishers believe constitute history -- periods and empires described in religiously neutral and multiculturally equal terms. For the tenth grader, the textbook history of the world reflects an uncritical and censored range of facts and precepts. Perhaps these books and their version of the past have a lot to do with why nearly half of those who study world history, in San Diego high schools, at least, are failing the course.


What's explained in world history texts is based on the History-

Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools. In the 1970s, the state legislature and department of education began enacting these "social content standards," do's and don'ts, if you will, that all K-12 texts had to comply with. Since then, the standards have been refined and codified and are now legally binding for core classes. An example is the first of the 11 standards for tenth-grade world history: "Students relate the moral and ethical principles in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, in Judaism, and in Christianity to the development of Western political thought."

The California standards describe the material to be learned. The goal of all learning is for "students to become prepared to participate successfully in events of local, state, national, and international significance." How do teachers get to the goal in world history? One way is via a 234-page book, The History-Social Science Framework, from the California Department of Education. The framework guides teachers by listing the criteria that all instructional material must contain. Standards are exactly stated; the framework offers 25 criteria to help insure that the content of the text is aligned with the standards. Some of the criteria are strict. Lower-grade history classes, for instance, must explore the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850, and every grade level must study the "life and contributions of" César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr. For high school kids, some guidelines are more open: texts should examine "humanity's place in ecological systems"; be "based on the best recent scholarship"; and "give significant attention to the principles of morality, truth, justice, and patriotism and to a comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, inspiring an understanding of and a commitment to American ideals."

World history is segmented into three periods to be studied in three grades. Grade six focuses on the agricultural, technological, and political development of the first societies, with a concentration on political and religious leaders, art and culture, the role of women, and the foundation of Western ideas; India and China are studied, but the Hebrews, Greece, and Rome are central. Grade seven covers the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity, the civilizations of the Americas (Inca, Aztec, Mayan), China and Japan, the rise of Islam, as well as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. Grade ten picks up with the Enlightenment and moves to the founding of America, the political history on either side of the First and Second World Wars, and the War on Terrorism. Eras and empires are encapsulated, while the narrative emphasizes the "contributions" of religion and culture to humankind as well as Western-style democracy to emerging nations. The purpose of the state standards is to answer the question, "What should my child be learning?"

Each year, depending on a six- or eight-year cycle of textbook adoption, the district's instructional materials department requests books from publishers. (Texts for K-8 are chosen by state committees; texts for 9-12 are chosen by local committees.) In 2004, advanced world history, along with algebra, AP biology, AP physics, and other courses, were slated for new materials. Publishers are especially keen on 9-12 adoptions because, as "open territories," any product, theoretically, is in the running. However, according to Donna Marriott, San Diego Unified assistant director for literacy, bi-literacy, English learner support, and social studies, "Any curriculum that comes into the facility has to be accompanied by a standards map." A standards map is a grid that shows, by correlating page and standard, how the publisher has aligned his book with the standards. Only those publishers who have designed their books to match the standards have a chance. Of the 456 publishers the district contacted for world history adoption, 10 publishers, or two percent, sent books.

At the same time the ten books were arriving, Marriott asked former Clairemont High history teacher Patrick McElhaney to chair the advanced world history adoption committee. A pleasant if abstracted man, McElhaney, 39, spoke with me in his classroom at Point Loma High School. For a year, he worked at the district, overseeing the history curriculum, but is now back in the classroom. Wearing a dark blue shirt with a darker blue tie, the bearded McElhaney told me that he and Marriott advertised in fall 2004 through department chairs, school principals, and parent-teacher forums for people to join the committee. Committee chairs are required by the superintendent to request a ratio of "three-five parent/community participants" and "to have a cross section of people with diverse ethnicity from various parts of the city." According to the committee's report to the board, the committee chair "promoted involvement of parents and community members." Marriott assured me that they followed the requisite guidelines.

Ten teachers signed up, eight white and two African-American, but no parent or "community member" volunteered. McElhaney said that the teachers joined (each was paid for 20-30 hours of work) because "they want a good book." Were historians and scholars solicited? According to Marriott, "They were not singled out, though we would love to have them involved." Some adoption committees, in language arts or health, do attract parents, religious groups, even the occasional scholar. One committee member said that historians were not contacted by the district because she believes potential textbooks have already been analyzed by in-house historian-consultants during the writing process. Textbooks list these "consultants" or "contributors" or "reviewers" in their author section. The Modern World History had some 40 names, typically college and high school history and social studies teachers. Many were contacted and none responded; one textbook insider said that consultants are bound by confidentiality agreements and cannot speak.


At the first meeting, McElhaney, a nonvoting member, trained the committee to evaluate books by using the state's rubric: the text must follow the standards, be readable, and have "depth of content." Within an hour the committee eliminated seven of the ten books -- they were not aligned to the standards. Although each district committee may choose its own 9-12 materials, state regulations narrow that choice severely. The committee cannot consider "materials that are contrary to or inconsistent with the standards, framework, and criteria." The adoption process is also bound by two Education Codes: 60119, which requires schools to have sufficient materials for every student, be standards-aligned, and be consistent with the curriculum frameworks, and 60422, which requires the state, when spending money on textbooks, to pay only for "standards-aligned instructional materials." A third restriction: California tenth graders are tested for knowledge based on the standards. Tom Adams, director of the Curriculum Frameworks Unit at the California Department of Education, told me that if a district decides to teach the world history curriculum outside of the state's framework, the district is putting "those students in a situation where they're taught one thing and they're being tested on another. What's being tested is based upon the standards." Point Loma High history teacher Simone Arias, who served on the committee, asserted that the committee "had no choice. The publishers publish the book to fit the framework. The standards and the state demand we follow them, so the book that comes closest to spelling them out wins."

Of the three making the cut, one was the text they adopted, the Glencoe World History, 2006 edition. The second, the nation's most popular high school history text, was from Prentice Hall, World History: Connections to Today: The Modern Era. The third book had already been approved for AP world history, World History: Comprehensive Volume, from Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing. "The problem was," McElhaney recalled, "we got the highest [reading] level" with the Thomson AP book and "the two lowest-level texts" with the Glencoe and the Prentice Hall. "There was no middle level."

Though McElhaney and the committee had no contact with any publisher during the adoption process, sales reps pepper him with sample copies, hoping he'll survey their products. McElhaney said he gladly shelves these freebies as classroom references. In the past, he said, publishers would distribute "pens and pads and bags" to teachers, although "book fairs," which the district used to allow, are no more. Only at the last committee meeting, in January 2005, could the sales reps pitch. Each had 20 minutes to persuade the committee of its product's benefits. Each brought in a "history expert" to testify to the text's accuracy. Ancillary materials like overheads, maps, and CD-ROMs were demonstrated. One committee member, Hoover High teacher Chris Steussy, remembered the presenters as "a bunch of used-car salesmen."

McElhaney reminded his committee "to be cognizant in their reading and evaluations" of gender representation, loaded language, and ethnic stereotypes. At home, members studied their copies and summarized their findings. At the next meeting, McElhaney said, "nobody brought up" content issues -- each text mirrored the standards. What was at issue? Readability. On the list of committee members that McElhaney showed me, seven of the ten teachers work at inner-city schools like Hoover and San Diego High. Since many of those students' first language is not English, the seven decided on the Glencoe, the easiest of the three.

Opposition to the Glencoe was stiff. Committee member Matt Pruden of Patrick Henry wrote that the Glencoe "is not exceptional; [it's] simplistic in its approach with little attention given to the female and minority voice -- very Eurocentric." He also wrote that if the district purchased the Glencoe -- he thought the book already in use was no worse than the new one -- it would be "a colossal waste of money during a time of severe budget limitations." Other members wanted to challenge the students. Simone Arias, who is a 25-year high school veteran and, 15 years ago, was a paid consultant for Prentice Hall, felt an advanced course should have, well, an advanced text, the Thomson book. Sandra Bartels of Clairemont High liked its "academic rigor." But the majority of the committee disagreed. Several believed the Thomson text was a college- not a high school-level book. With a layout less graphics- than text-driven, the book failed because, according to committee members' notes, there was "little use of varied fonts, colorful print or subtitles";

a "dearth of maps, sidebars, and special features" like "pie charts"; and "little support for English-language learners." One noted that it was "just simple text," meaning not visually stimulating. Madison High teacher Paul Anderson favored the Glencoe since it "has licensed easy-to-recognize media resources in National Geographic" and other TV channels. Steussy felt the Glencoe was superior because it had "many more ancillary materials -- fiction, documents, maps, just gobs of stuff. It was a better package overall."

Although Steussy voted for the Glencoe, he was candid about its limitations. World history texts, he said, "certainly don't seek out controversy. All the books we looked at do a pretty good job of summarizing the current state of historical understanding. That doesn't lend itself to any controversy." Students are also cognizant of textbook limitations. Steussy recalled one of his students asking him why the historical event recounted in the Steven Spielberg movie Amistad, about a trial of Africans who rebelled while on board a slave ship in the 1840s, wasn't in the book. Steussy answered the student with his own query: "I wonder how many other stories in history aren't there?" Perhaps the text publisher thinks the story of the Amistad is not important, he said, or that it doesn't fit in with the book's narrative. History, he reminded them, is interesting because of its conflicting narratives. Chief among Steussy's criticisms of the textbooks he's seen is that publishers haven't gotten around to seeing world history "as an actual world phenomenon. Many of these books may say 'Third Edition,' but I bet they've been around for decades." He noted the focus on war, nation-building, and the "march to democracy," which the standards espouse and the texts echo. Without doubt, he said, tenth-grade world history is biased toward the political. "There is no assessment" in these books "of cultural history, of social history, which is the new wave of academic historians. There is some sort of inertia, generation after generation, that pumps out stories of democracy and world wars." Even though texts spotlight nationalist politics and world war, the standards require books to soften any material that might upset young minds. So Steussy and McElhaney, by their own choice, use other sources, say, a chapter from All Quiet on the Western Front, to show war's horror, or a film like Amistad, to wring a human story out of slavery.

One of the ironies of choosing instructional material is that good teachers rely much more on classroom activities than on a book's explanations. McElhaney begins his semester with a unit on historiography: How do we study history, and what do we look for? He recounts the key terms of historical analysis: "bias, objectivity, context, primary sources, evidence, interpretation, types of history -- social, political, economic. How," he submits to his classes, "can you use these things to study history?" That list, he told me, is not in the Glencoe. As he goes, he creates assignments: write essays, do group projects, design Web pages. Assignments, he said, are necessary to get "regular-level kids motivated. They'll do it if they know someone is going to look at [what they do]. They will try harder. It may take more time. And maybe," he said, "they'll focus on some of the big questions." One thing's for sure. "They can't sit there. They won't listen. They don't like to read the textbook."

I wondered why, since he supplements the textbook so much, he needs one.

"They have to have a textbook. It's like an anchor." McElhaney said that no teacher should be responsible for assembling course material. What's more: "How can you teach without resources?" The textbook is a source. Besides, students "have to get used to reading textbooks. It's a reality in college."

McElhaney told me that his tenth graders love controversy, or what he calls the messiness of history. But there's no time to get messy. "How much time do you think" -- he scoffed -- "we devote to the Holocaust? A day or two. That's it." McElhaney cited a new district-made map that models a "progression of units," which support the "essential understandings, essential questions, and big ideas" of the standards. "Unit 1: How Did Modern Political Thought Develop? 5-6 weeks." "Unit 4: What Were the Causes and Effects of the Second World War? 6-7 weeks." He said that not much of history's messiness can take wing with such time restraints. To bore students, skim historical periods; to interest them, read a compelling narrative like Elie Wiesel's Night. But, to accomplish the latter, teachers must supply background and permit discussion. It's time consuming. And teachers themselves need to "stay on task." Over the school year, McElhaney noted, "The reality is, you've got to get to World War I by January.

"Most people don't know anything about what teachers go through," McElhaney added, his hands resting in his lap. He was tired, he said; he'd been up till midnight grading papers.

I asked how many students he has this semester. He didn't know. He stood up before the empty desks and point-counted each one. "Let's see, 32 times 5. That's how many students I have."


The readability of a tenth-grade world history text is one thing; what the book's content actually says is quite another. Any book adopted in California is subject to another set of guidelines, also enumerated in The History-Social Science Framework, which insist on positive presentations of religion, ethnicity, race, and gender.

A Korean-American student in the state, for example, must see the history of Korea, if it's shown in the text, in a positive light. Men and women, as well as minorities, must be proportionally represented in all periods whether the gender or the group had any significant effect or not. Illustrations must show the tall and the short, the heavy and the thin, the dark- and the light-complected, plus families headed by two parents, one parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- but no same-sex parents. Language must be gender-neutral ("mankind" is "humankind"), stereotypical roles are forbidden (according to critic Tamin Ansary, "No textbook can show African Americans playing sports, Asians using computers, or women taking care of children"), and persons with disabilities as well as older persons (always physically moving, never sedentary) must be included. Product placement is prohibited, though violations are flagrant: most sidebar articles in the Glencoe World History text are "branded" by National Geographic (a nonprofit) while the text's atlases feature the seal of Rand McNally (a commercial entity). Diet talk must reflect good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. In this hypersensitive environment, bowdlerization -- to expurgate prudishly -- occurs before the book gets to the printer. One proactive editor changed the title of an original kids' story, "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream," to "A Perfect Day"; he did so because state guidelines say that junk food "encourages obesity." Never mind that the kids have eaten tons of sweets already: textbook ice cream will kill you.

The most active ingredient in the writing of history for textbooks is presentism. Presentism looks at the past through the lens of our standards of morality and social equality. An example: to represent women in the Renaissance, text writers will state that "some women were shop owners." Though scant evidence exists to support this claim, it has become part of Renaissance life so that women will feel good today about a time when women had few rights. Presentism chiefly affects how textbooks regard religious belief, ethnic heritage, and women's rights in history. It says that we must apply contemporary standards of social justice to past epochs in order to right past wrongs. What's more, since all aggrieved groups and revered beliefs in history must be seen in today's positive light, we must feel a kind of unadulterated sympathy for the past and its people.

How did that emphasis get in the book? Multicultural and religious groups have, in the past two decades, pressured the state of California and the textbook publishers to include only those things that the groups want -- a victim-based and emotionally laden history, short on fact and long on wailing -- in the standards and in the texts. What they want is compressed into the phrase "positive representation," no matter how bland, biased, or justified by present need. All civilizations were great and glorious; that is today's unchallenged textbook mantra. Consequently, students get a view of the world that has been filtered through our static political context, not the evolving contexts of history.

In today's view of what the past should be, textbooks censor and simplify the history of religious belief and the nationalist struggles of the 20th Century the most. First, to religion. Diane Ravitch has written in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn that the textbooks' "treatment of religion is consistently deferential, even reverential; they seldom discuss the role of religious belief as a source of conflict. In their eagerness to show respect to all religions, the texts soft-pedal religious hatreds and the religious roots of many wars in history."

Students often begin tenth grade by reviewing what their books say about religious prophets. For example, in the Glencoe -- the text being read by advanced world history's 2213 students -- the section's prefatory "Main Idea" is that "Christianity was able to spread rapidly through the Roman imperial network, while both Roman and Christian values influenced the West." The text describes Jesus' life and that "his message was simple. He told his fellow Jews that he did not plan to harm their traditional religions." "According to Jesus, what was important was not [a person's] strict adherence to the letter of the law but the transformation of the inner person." And later, "After the death of Jesus, his followers proclaimed that he had risen from death and had appeared to them." In Modern World History -- the book being read by world history's 5651 students -- the "Main Idea" is, "Judaism and Christianity taught individual worth, ethical standards, and the need to fight injustice." Under "Why It Matters Now," we learn, "These ideals continue to be important to democracy today." The text recounts, "According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth was born around 6 to 4 B.C....His preaching contained many ideas from Jewish tradition, such as monotheism and the principles of the Ten Commandments. Jesus emphasized God's personal relationship to each human being." And later, "According to Jesus' followers, he rose from the dead three days later and ascended into heaven. His followers believed he was the Messiah, or savior."

In the Glencoe, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, "is often called the Prophet." We hear about his birth, that he was "intelligent and hardworking and became a capable merchant. He married a widow, had children, and seemed to have a happy and comfortable life." We also hear that "according to tradition, one night in 610, while Muhammad was deep in meditation, an angelic voice called out: 'Recite!' A frightened Muhammad replied, 'What shall I recite?' and the voice responded, 'In the name of thy Lord the Creator, who created mankind from a clot of blood, recite!' The voice then began to speak about the nature of God." Muhammad "memorized everything the voice revealed and began to preach these words to others."

Such capsule biographies seem innocuous. But consider the issue of attribution. To cite "evidence" of religious origins, Jesus' and Muhammad's words are quoted ("according to Jesus"), they come from their disciples ("his followers proclaimed"), or they fit under the big tent ("according to tradition"). The problem is, when a text reports that a religion has been revealed by God, accepted on faith, and reported as tradition, a religion's claim and historical fact are at odds. This is not an argument against teaching about religious traditions, which the Supreme Court has guaranteed is constitutionally protected. Rather, it is a question of teaching historical scholarship about a religion's origin rather than, as the textbooks do, merely declaring what the faiths say. A belief in the "truth" of a prophet's words is not the same as saying such words are historically true. Scholars know the difference between the actual occurrence of the Holocaust, whose truth is found in eyewitness accounts, photographs, records, and the Nuremberg tribunal, and supernatural events related in a venerated text. The former is true by evidence; the latter is true by devotion. Textbooks cite no archeological evidence as to where "scripture" comes from; creation stories are never called myths, except those of the Native Americans, who, in textbook-land, lived in "harmony with the Great Spirit." Claims and elisions can be outrageous: one world history book, without revealing its source, touts the political power held by Iroquois women and avoids mentioning the Iroquois's love of torturing captive Hurons, a fact easily checked. By state standard, a textbook author is free, even encouraged, to dance around historical accuracy. And yet quotations attributed to prophets are nestled into world history as if they were fact. Put differently, how do sixth, seventh, and tenth graders know the difference between fact and legend when all traditions are given equal status in the march of history?

According to the state's criterion for religious subject matter, materials must "remain neutral...do not include derogatory language about a religion or use examples from sacred texts or other religious literature that are derogatory." By state standard, it would be derogatory or an adverse assertion to dispute, let alone say, that whatever a religion or a people or a gender claims as its tradition may not be true. Nowhere is this rule applied as strictly as it is with Islam. In a post-9/11 culture, California standards, school curricula, and textbook content have airbrushed Islam's image. As a result, one finds few textbook references to Islam's history of violence and intolerance. This is not to say that textbooks let only Islam's imperialism off the hook; very little critical is said about any empire or faith. The American Textbook Council, however, argues that the standards for teaching about religion are being egregiously used by publishers to "misrepresent Islam past and present: they contain fallacies and untruths about jihad, sharia, slavery, status of Muslim women, terrorism, and tolerance." Why is it, the Fordham report on textbook adoption asks, that Mali's significance as a center for the "Islamic slave trade...[is] papered over"? (A similar glaring bit of revisionism is to temper Aztec human sacrifice as a "requirement to ensure that the sun rises each day.") If religious dynasties do no harm, then students may learn that the problems of the world, insofar as they learn about them at all, stem only from the secular realm.

Another aspect of depicting religious traditions is the blatant political agenda. When a religion grows -- or, as textbooks prefer, "spreads" -- faith is always a democratizing force. Such is the historical "appeal" of Christianity and Islam. In the Glencoe, we hear that "like Christianity, Islam was open to every person, and this encouraged a greater sense of equality in society." Is this true? Are Christianity and Islam "open"? Does social equality come about when people join a religion? Has the history of Christianity, or of any religion, shown that its putative inclusivity has furthered social equality? This democratic-cozy claim is made because the history standards mandate that texts picture religion accomplishing good wherever it goes. We read statements like this: Islam "united the Middle East. Arab armies marched westward across North Africa and eastward into Mesopotamia and Persia, creating a new empire."

Most educated people recognize that with empire, iniquities and accomplishments are intertwined. Yet both Modern World History and the Glencoe gloss over the darkness. For a religion to have "imposed equality" on people by war, or by proselytizing, would be negative. In fact, in these particular texts, only two negatives come up. First, in Modern World History, the "age of exploration" was "driven by a desire for wealth and Christian converts." And second, from the same book's section on "Modern Terrorism," Islam and Christianity "have viewed each other with hostility since at least the time of the Crusades" as a reason for present-day conflict. A "desire for" converts and a hostile "view" of the "other" hardly characterizes the aggression of religious fundamentalists. An alternative guidepost, which places religion at the center of nationalist expansion in history, comes from the National Center for History in the Schools: "Religions united peoples of diverse political and ethnic identities. Religions also, often enough, divided groups into hostile camps and gave legitimacy to war or social repression." Admitting the conflict may invite rather than stanch the discussion.

Finally, textbooks rarely mention the historical importance of skepticism and non-religion. Such humanistic fields have little independent life in science or art; typically, they are propped up as antagonists to religious belief: doubt has none of the moral value that faith has. Modern World History defines skepticism -- "the idea that nothing can ever be known for certain" -- and places it in the context of French religious wars of the 1500s, when skeptics expressed "doubt toward churches that claimed to have the only correct set of doctrines." In 750 pages, there is a 6-page and a 3-page section on the scientific revolution in two epochs. The same revolution, by contrast, is depicted in the Glencoe (one and a half pages out of 830) as religious-like: pasteurization, for example, led many to a "growing faith in science. This faith, in turn, undermined the religious faith of many people," which led to "secularization," an "indifference to or rejection of religion in the affairs of the world." In the next paragraph, the great secular rejecter appears: Darwin and his "theory of evolution." The Big Idea is: faith and science must struggle. That they might co-exist, without one undermining the other, goes unremarked.


In the tenth-grade textbook portrayal of nationalist conflicts, we find one political leader, Adolph Hitler, who can be critically painted because he's a secular menace. In Modern World History, we learn that "after leaving prison in 1924, Hitler revived the Nazi party. Most Germans ignored him and his angry message until the Depression ended the nation's brief postwar recovery. When American loans stopped, the German economy collapsed. Factories ground to a halt and banks closed. Nearly six million people, about 30 percent of Germany's workforce, were unemployed in 1932. Civil unrest broke out. Frightened and confused, Germans now turned to Hitler, hoping for security and firm leadership." A photo accompanies this discussion: brown-shirted men and boys arm-saluting the Führer, who "skillfully used mass rallies to generate enthusiasm."

In this rendition, Hitler's practices are not motivated by Nazism, which, like Russian and Chinese communism, is an ideology of hatred or control. To render Nazi idolatry, the textbook describes Germans who don't hate Jews and deviants but are merely expressing "enthusiasm" for security. Then, there's the leap in one paragraph from the German people ignoring Hitler to turning to him, a euphemism for brainwashing. There is no comparison that the same set of underlying social problems existed in America: our economy collapsed, factories went under, banks closed; our unemployment was also 30 percent. We were frightened and confused, but we didn't "turn" to a dictator. Would students know from this history the difference between why Nazism grew in Germany and the New Deal grew here?

The Glencoe does a somewhat better job of explaining Hitler's charisma and Nazi indoctrination in the 1930s -- a complex psychological question that requires some discussion. An excerpt: "Hitler promised to create a new Germany. His appeals to national pride, national honor, and traditional militarism struck an emotional chord in his listeners.

After attending one of Hitler's rallies, a schoolteacher in Hamburg said, 'When the speech was over, there was roaring enthusiasm and applause...How many look up to him with touching faith as their helper, their saviour, their deliverer from unbearable distress.' " The personal testimony gives the passage greater weight, even though the text still couches such egregious devotion as "enthusiasm." In succeeding paragraphs, we hear about Hitler's means: scapegoating Jews; controlling Parliament; appealing to industrialists and aristocrats; public works projects and Nazi party rallies. Through it, we get some sense of Hitler as a proselytizer and madman.

It is true that these textbooks show leaders who inspire excessive "enthusiasm" to a cause as dangerous: this is the lesson of history. And, it is the individual, especially the nationalist zealot in the 20th Century, who corrupts us, not his ideology: this is also the lesson of history. But what's missing is a simple explanation that history is composed of people who instill religious-like fervor in the masses, for good and bad ends. Understanding ideology is crucial to understanding history, but ideology is left out. How can students learn about history if a text cannot say anything bad about what people believe? Do teachers make these distinctions in the classroom? The books don't. Can students recognize the variant strains of ideological thinking? The books don't.

California state guidelines stress that when adopting a world history text the book "should present history as an exciting and fascinating story"; students should be able to read the material "with interest...and pleasure"; "the text should engage the imagination of the reader"; and the "writing should be vivid and dramatic without sacrificing accuracy." Leaving aside the questions of accuracy and bias, the narrative in world history texts is rarely exciting, seldom pleasurable to read, and never imaginatively written. Nor do these texts take the time to explain, as we've seen, the manipulative power of ideology. Instead, they rush to their true goal: a neon-colored review box that reminds students of what's really important: "Vocabulary," "People and Events," "Places," and "Reviewing Big Ideas." The historical narrative in the Glencoe, more so than the Modern World History (one reason why the Glencoe was tapped), builds some interest. But soon the drama stops. Summaries intrude, appearing alongside pictures and tip boxes. The standards-based finger wags, "Here's what will be on the test." Though a good teacher -- and San Diego schools have hundreds of them -- may insist that students think critically about history, most texts don't build a rigging of historical interpretation as a mainsail. The standards-based mainsail pushes the ship from one epoch to the next, one political dynasty "spreading" itself over another. Waves of fact keep lapping at the shore: four causes of the Great Depression, five pillars of Islam, six planks of Federalism. To what end?


Four multinational companies make up the textbook cartel: Harcourt; Pearson Education (imprint, Prentice Hall); McGraw-Hill (imprint, Glencoe); and Houghton Mifflin (imprint, McDougal Littell). The Big Four, as they're known, have grown via consolidation: what was once an industry in which dozens of small publishers competed with innovative texts is now like petroleum or media -- a few sellers sell to a few buyers who control a captive mass market. Of the $4.3 billion trade in textbooks, the Big Four account for 70 percent of all K-12 sales. So concentrated are they that the American School Board Journal has dubbed their wares the "de facto national curriculum." The Big Four serve the Big Three adoption states: California, Texas, and Florida. As the biggest of the Big Three clients, California's six million students account for $400 million annual sales, 11 percent of the market. If it's read in California, Texas, or Florida, it's likely to be read everywhere. In an all-or-nothing market, only capital-intensive publishers compete. Still, production stakes are huge. Scott Hill, a former executive director of the state Academic Standards Commission, said that to create a book whose graphics and text conforms to the California standards costs between $20 and $30 million.

Centralizing and censoring knowledge and aiming it at children smacks of a corporate violation of the public trust. Such a trespass incenses William J. Bennetta, the fiercest textbook critic in America. An editor and member of the California Academy of Sciences, Bennetta runs the Textbook League, one of two national clearinghouses that review texts. For 20 years he's been opposing what he calls textbook "absurdities and stupidities." I asked him about the authors of textbooks. Who are they? It's not always clear who they are, he said. Books are wrought by committee -- sales reps, market researchers, history and social studies teachers, editorial directors, content censors, with maybe a historian as overseer. It's an assembly line of specialty inputs whose end product has no single author's voice. Bennetta said that once texts are in production, "We have no way of knowing whether these books go through any rigorous review process by the publishers. Edited to death, yes. But reviewed for historical accuracy? Hardly. It's a fraud. What these companies do is load their books up with the names of people [stated as authors] who had nothing to do with writing it, didn't review the book, never saw the book. If you contact these people, you'll find they had nothing to do with it." What the publishers won't tell you is that "lots of marketing people reviewed it to make sure it complied with what their market research has shown will sell." Bennetta laughed at how he's seen teachers recruited for focus groups, who are paid a modest stipend and plied with carrot sticks and dip before voting on the best layouts.

Bennetta battles what he calls textbook lies: deliberate falsehoods, "which are put in books because they are politically correct" and "telling lies with absolutely true statements." To make true statements into lies is "part of the schoolbook-writing art," he said. "Suppose you read in a history book that when slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the New World, ten percent of them died on the way. That sounds pretty rough? What if I tell you this? When people crossed North America, on their way to Oregon in the 1830s and 1840s, ten percent of them died on the way. What if I told you that when convicts and soldiers and others were loaded into ships for long ocean voyages, at least ten percent of them died on the way. Now the original statement about the slaves begins to look different, doesn't it? But if you leave out any kind of information that gives context, then you have created an absolutely false impression, which is politically palatable. Everybody's taught to weep and wail about the ten percent of the slaves who died. But when you were shipping people by sea over long distances in the 1700s, that was typical -- and it was in no way particular to the case of the slave ships."

Bennetta advocates that adoption committees should hire professional historians with particular specialties to review the books. Adoption decisions should not be left to committee members themselves, not to interested "community members," not even to parents. Why?

"What do parents know about history? They can't be relied on to know anything" about what their kids are learning in school. Statistically, anyone who puts himself onto a committee for textbook adoption may or may not have a knowledge of history. Teachers, like parents, he said, "are members of the public at large; they don't know history better than anyone else." Bennetta cited Diane Ravitch's 1997 speech to the National Council for History Education, in which she stated her findings that 55 percent of history teachers have neither a bachelor's degree (nor a minor) in history, let alone an advanced degree. Most have degrees in education. She asked, "How can teachers teach what they have not studied? How can students learn challenging subject matter from teachers who have not chosen to study what they are teaching?" Bennetta echoed Ravitch. "To imagine that these people can pick out a history book is as absurd as going to a bus stop and picking somebody to select a history book. Either a person is a historian and is qualified to make judgments about a given body of work that purports to be historical information, a person who specializes in that body, that place or period -- or he's not. Dressing him up and hanging a sign around his neck that says 'History Teacher' -- what does that do? That doesn't change what's inside his head. 'Professional historian' means something." (Of the advanced world history adoption committee, at least five of the ten have history degrees.)

To fix what's broken, Bennetta wants historians actually to write textbooks; Ravitch believes we should dump all standards and let adoption committees -- with historians at the helm -- decide which books are best. Both critics insist that textbooks be reviewed after they're published. And yet, with no free market and no evaluative forum for the publishers' products, the text-and-standards delivery system appears unalterable. High Tech High history teacher Mark Aguirre agreed with this assessment when I spoke with him recently. In April 2005, Aguirre served on a committee, the Instructional Materials Adoption Panel, with 90 other teachers, evaluating new texts for sixth-grade world history. All K-8 history and social science books are undergoing a new adoption cycle this year. In Sacramento, Aguirre and others had a hard time with how Islam and the Hebrews were presented: "There was a lot of pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth; we couldn't agree on the way it should be done. The texts are very careful, of course. It doesn't matter who's writing them. There were so many different ways they could have been written -- you're never going to make everybody happy. The problem with history is the problem with perspective. Since you have to make sure you don't offend anybody, pretty soon you have a pretty vanilla version of what history is." Despite the disagreements, the bottom line is, textbooks have to follow the standards. "It says very clearly in the scoring guide we used, 'If the book misses a standard, you must reject the book.' " The Sacramento confab was open to publishers. They sat in the back, Aguirre said, "listening vigorously." They were there to find out exactly what the state wants in its textbooks.

A lack of controversy, a surfeit of graphics, carefully diced content -- "It's a mess," Aguirre said. "My complaint is that the text itself is not interesting. It's a list of dates and names and accomplishments. There's no why. Everything is presented in a way that sounds preordained. There was never any doubt that it was going to happen. I remember my mom telling me that she was shocked in 1940 that the Nazis were going to take over the world. There are moments like that in history, and the textbooks don't acknowledge them."

In 2001, Aguirre moved from Scripps High School to the innovative charter school High Tech High. "I couldn't do what I do here at Scripps." At Scripps, he could see the "back-to-basics writing on the wall: all they are learning is the dates and the names, the 50 state capitals, blah, blah, blah. I don't value that. It seems to me that the schools are 50 years behind." Aguirre said the textbooks he used at Scripps aped the back-to-basics approach; beholden to that process, the books "sucked the life right out of history." Moreover, he said, kids are aware of the book's primary focus -- the "high-stakes test." Textbooks now print standards side by side with the lessons; students know they have to pass the standards-based test to graduate.

"Our philosophy at High Tech High is not so much what information can kids memorize but what can they do with it once they get it." Aguirre spends his time teaching history by letting students "create the context" for whatever they're learning. "I have the freedom to choose literature, use primary sources -- I make history come alive. The kids have to do 10- to 15-minute presentations three times a year, they're making documentaries, they're putting on plays. It's common sense. I don't want to get political but I will. What we're doing with the standards is protecting the status quo. We're not leveling the playing field for minorities. The ones who are successful at La Jolla, at Kearny, at Scripps Ranch are the ones who have the goods. The ones who've got computers at home, the ones whose parents can afford tutors for their SAT tests. What we're doing at High Tech High -- the kids blossom. I try to picture what they're doing at the other schools. They're just sitting there like -- it's scary to me. We've created a monster."


Is the dismal performance of San Diego high school kids in world history -- a 43 percent failure rate and a below-proficiency level of 73 percent -- an indication of how bad the textbooks are? Why is it that with the state's resources, with the adoption committees picking the best book, with committed teachers in the classroom, with millions of dollars spent on standards-aligned books -- kids still score so poorly? I asked literacy director Donna Marriott what she thought.

Marriott said low test scores are not the fault of textbooks. "We put the best product we can in kids' hands." She admitted that "any world history text is a difficult read for kids. They're dense, fact-laden books. The content is hard, and it requires prior knowledge. The courses in world history are incoherent, that is, they're laid out nonsequentially -- by tenth grade, they haven't had social studies for a year or two. There's a big delay." Marriott said that the district has decided that the way to improve test scores is to improve teachers. "We have a plan of action in place," she told me. "This year, we are offering more professional development for our world history teachers. Trainings. Providing them with a curriculum map and a pacing guide. Our curriculum map pulls out the big ideas so teachers don't get immersed in the minutiae -- the facts, the events, the dates, the boundaries. Our theory of action is that if teachers teach the big ideas of the discipline, they're going to get better results." As for the kids, she said, the district is implementing "an end-of-semester exam and an end-of-course exam," which means two more tests per year. That, she said, should push them to be more proficient in history.

William J. Bennetta said that the idea that helping teachers with curriculum and giving tests more frequently to students will, taken together, somehow make kids history-smart is ludicrous. "Who cares," he said, "whether kids are doing well or poorly at memorizing falsehoods and reciting nonsense? Kids should be tested on the right material, not these lousy textbooks."

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