Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Textbook Quotas

In the "this is what's wrong with mainstream educational publishing" vein, the WSJ (You can see what I've been reading while under the weather, eh? Well what can I say, I was finding even Derbyshire's history of algebra to be rather dense for sick-time reading. And the other stuff I had in my stack was no more appealing.) offered a front page article on Saturday about the PC world of textbook photography. It seems that the major publishers (Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, etc.) have set up quotas to make sure that enough minority representation can be found on the pages of children's text books. Some of this involved cherry-picking what you discuss in text books:
As submitted to Texas for adoption in 2002, McGraw-Hill's "The American Republic Since 1877" included a profile and photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. But there was no mention or image of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. After a Texas activist who advocates for more patriotic textbooks complained, McGraw-Hill added a passage and photo about the Wrights. A company spokeswoman said the brothers had been left out inadvertently.

However, the rules also creep down to seemingly innocuous stuff like who appears in the concept (or filler, depending on how you look at it) illustrations in math and spelling books. McGraw-Hill apparently mandated that only 40% of people appearing in textbook illustrations be white. 20% should be African American. 30% Hispanic. 7% Asian. 3% American Indian. And 5% should be disabled.

Of course people with actual disabilities are difficult to get up to a photo studio to run through exercises in a mock classroom, so the textbooks apparently often fill in by putting able-bodied kids into wheelchairs or on crutches in order to meet quota. I have no idea what the figures are on this, but what percentage of those under 18 who are 'disabled' suffer from a malady which results in appearing exactly like a healthy kid, but being confined to a wheelchair? I'm thinking it's low. But then, I guess a wheelchair is a very easy disability to portray photographically.

Another whole set of guidelines regards avoiding stereotypes:
McGraw-Hill's 2004 guidelines for artwork and photos say Asians should not be portrayed "with glasses, bowl-shaped haircuts, or as intellectuals"; African-Americans should be shown "in positions of power, not just in service industries"; elderly people should be "active members of society," not "infirm"; and disabled people should be shown as independent rather than receiving help.

An older McGraw-Hill manual -- which a company spokeswoman says is "still relevant" as guidance -- discourages depicting Asian-American males as waiters, laundry owners or math students, or showing Mexican men wearing ponchos or wide-brimmed hats. African-Americans should not be portrayed in "crowded tenements on chaotic streets" or in "innocuous, dull, white picket fence neighborhoods," but in "all neighborhoods, including luxury apartments."

For a spread on world cultures, one major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village, on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent, according to an employee familiar with the situation. It was replaced with a photo of a West African girl wearing shoes and a gingham dress.

Well shoot, we wouldn't want to give a bunch of kids the idea that there's poverty in Africa, now would we.... And is it really going to cause massive trauma to Asian children if they see Asians portrayed as intellectuals?

Of course, the key sin of most of these mainstream textbooks is that they are committee written monstrosities with no character, no clear narrative and a disorganized hodge-podge of often irrelevant information provided by means of sidebars, highlights, examples and such forth, which actually take up most of the book rather than providing occasional diversions from the main text. But I can't think that all this helps any either.

As Steven Riddle points out in the comments, this foolishness on the part of the textbook publishers clearly doesn't come out of a vacuum. Although states do not officially have quotas, the people in charge of making textbook decisions for large states like Florida, Texas and California have criteria that include "images which reflect a diverse student body" and "breaking down stereotypes". The textbook companies (who know that the majority of their profits rely on pleasing these officials) simply set up quotas as a way of making sure that they always go 'above and beyond' in meeting these goals.

If there's any doubt they're just jumping through hoops, one of the things mentioned in the article was that 'diverse' images were far more often on the right hand page, because hurried state examiners often just flip through the pages to get a gernal impression, and thus only see the right hand pages.


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The chemistry textbook we used (briefly) for Offspring #1 was horrible in all sorts of ways, including the space devoted to pointlessly PC photos. One could make a parlor game out of guessing the excuses made in captions and sidebars for including the various non-chemically-relevant photos. The beginning of the chapter on trends of the periodic table had a huge photo of a group of people of different ethnicities, young and elderly, one disabled, smiling broadly at the reader. The caption: "It is important to understand periodic trends. What trends do you see among people in this photograph?"

Another photo was of the Taj Mahal, which you see is made of limestone, which contains calcium, which is, it seems, an element to be found on the periodic table. The note in the teacher's manual suggested students might want to research Indian culture.

After four badly explained chapters that confused parents as much as child, we junked the books and got an intro chemistry-for-liberal-arts-majors college chem text. It has clear explanations and diagrams; not a cultural photograph to be found.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I probably should allow this to go by without comment, but I cannot.

The chief sinner is not the textbook companies, which, left to themselves would do much of what you think is right, but the textbook adoption procedures during which every Person with an opinion is allowed to criticize the textbooks for whatever failings they deem appropriate. In adoption states, like Texas, Florida, and California, there are state-mandated rules about representation, sometimes to the point of specifying how many, what kinds, and what kinds of roles you may portray people in. For example, one textbook company in the recent past was cited in a couple of states for a photography that showed mother and daughter baking cookies. They were told to change the picture to dad and daughter or mother and son.

Please be aware of the pressure textbook publishers are under through state mandated rules and laws before becoming too virulent in your criticisms. Believe me, I rankle under these rules every day of my life and fight the absurdities you discuss when people suggest finding a Female, Asian, scientist who discovered Newton's laws before he did. I pointed out that even were it so, even if that should show up somewhere, it is utterly irrelevant as it had no effect on the genesis of Western Science whatsoever.

However, textbook companies respond to their customers--which, unfortunately are not the students, their parents, or often even the teachers--more often than not their audience is a group of legislators with a slew of laws to back them up. And there is very little way to be able to fight against those odds.

If you want textbooks to change, start by lobbying your state for reasonable standards and reasonable regulations regarding textbooks. Get involved before the state hearings to inform the state laws that produce the ridiculous nonsense you have outlined here. It's really the only way to make things better. Criticizing the textbook companies may be satisfying but it will never fix the problem because the vector is not the companies but the state legislatures that control the adoption process.



Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Another example of excess zeal was the case where one publisher was sited in a state for the famous picture of Truman holding up a Chicago Tribune with the words "Dewey Wins!" on the front page. This was seen as an example of advertising, and the publisher was brought up on "legal compliance" faults and nearly rejected because they had not airbrushed out all of the advertising--as though residents of this state were suddenly going to rush out and buy a notoriously incompetent newspaper!

Additional citations include things like showing a glass of milk but not having the container nearby to show that it is low-fat or no-fat, showing sweets of any sort--I could go on for weeks as to the way various states and groups within states bring pressure to bear that shape the textbooks into things no one really wants to do. But thats already been covered by Diane Ravitch in a work called The Language Police. Ms. Ravitch spent a good deal of time on the inside and describes with fair acuity what goes on there as a result of the many groups working to "get a fair shake."

And let's never forget the ever-delightful Portland Baseline Essays that taught us that Plato and Socrates both attended the university of Timbuctoo where they were given a foot up on their philosophical reflections. Nor that Cleopatra, despite being one of the Greek Monarchs of Egypt was, in fact, by virtue of being in Africa, a person of color. The list goes on and on and on and on. . .

Dorian Speed said...

I generally hate textbooks and attempted to supplement them so extensively as a classroom teacher that they were almost unnecessary.

But I guess I don't get what the problem is with making sure that there are more than just white people in the pictures. When I taught in an "at-risk environment," my students did notice the photos and would comment on them.

Anonymous said...

Ha. I even had that in my religious ed. semi-heretical book, oh I've forgotten the name, but by Mark Link, S.J. Of course the pictures were people sitting there looking "happy" or "peaceful" or, blech, "filled with the Spirit." Or there were people of several races, sitting on some fence in the middle of nowhere, talking and looking "spiritual." They were probably talking about how we should get together with Protestants, (who are heretics and apostates), and see if they can help us understand the
"people of God" better. Blech.
I say, down with Protestantism, heretics, bad textbooks, Islam, apostates, and false ecumenism.