Local Control Of Textbooks Threatened

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A bill that will be introduced in the state legislature next month would deny local school districts the right to choose their own textbooks. Instead, a 10-member task force would draw up a list of textbooks that would be used by all students throughout the state.

For the better part of a decade, I worked for major textbook publishers creating educational videos and other teaching tools to accompany new textbooks. In that capacity, I became very familiar with the forces that drive textbook content and emphasis.

One of, if not the greatest force, was aligning a textbook's content to the standards and learning guidelines established by those states that required every student to use the same textbook in a given subject area.

While about 20 states have standardized their textbooks, it was California and Texas -- the two largest and therefore most profitable states -- that drove content for the major textbook publishers. Having your book adopted by either of those two states often meant the difference between making and losing money on that textbook.

I remember one incident in particular where the content of a middle school science textbook was changed to reflect antiquated views in Texas regarding evolution. The master science teacher, who was in charge of content for both the book and videos, actually lived in Texas.

I watched as she struggled to align what she knew to be scientifically accurate with the values and beliefs of people whose viewpoints were based on something different.

The rationale behind the move to create a similar situation in Arizona is that stricter regulation of what students learn will improve their test scores on standardized tests.

Senator Robert Blendu (R-Litchfield Park), who is introducing the bill, says it's crazy to have two different versions of the same thing and cites United States history as an example.

Besides Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who supports Blendu's bill, it's hard to find an educator who agrees.

The Arizona Education Association, which represents teachers, opposes standardized textbooks. AEA Vice President John Wright emphasizes that diverse student populations require flexibility.

Most parents also object to the idea, pointing out that they should have input into what textbooks their children read, and that the move might give legislators even more opportunities to mess up Arizona's schools.

The parents and educators who oppose standardizing textbooks are right.

In an increasingly homogenized world, the transfer of knowledge is one last holdout for diversity. Master teachers should not be forced to compromise what they know to be true for the sale of textbooks, and students should have the right to hear all sides of an issue and make up their own minds. That's what the learning process is all about.

But maybe most important is the loss of local control inherent in such a bill. When the day comes that state government is dictating what Rim country children will and won't learn, we will have lost something very fundamental to democracy -- grassroots participation based on the belief that we, the people, are capable of deciding what's best for us.

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