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Sunday, March 3, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dumbed-Down Texts Too Easy, Too Simple, Too Boring, Critics Say

Seattle Times Snohomish County Bureau

Long before schoolchildren learned to read with Dick and Jane books, stories by Benjamin Franklin and Nathaniel Hawthorne were excerpted in the McGuffey Reader. The stories often imparted moral lessons. And they were not easy reads.

"They used a lot of uncommon words. The assumption was kids would look them up in the dictionary," says Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant education secretary.

That assumption has gone the way of the Model T. Textbooks today, many experts agree, are far easier to read, with simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, than they once were. They are not written as well and are less interesting.

In other words, textbooks have been "dumbed down." The result, according to a wide-ranging group including teachers, textbook salesmen, education researchers and government officials, is a more poorly educated student population.

Sue Fischer, president of the Association of Washington Educators of Talented and Gifted, says that during the past 15 years, the reading level of textbooks has dropped by two grade levels. That is, what used to be third-grade material is now fifth-grade material.

"The sentences are shorter, vocabulary is easier, description is lacking. They're little short facts," says Fischer, an elementary-school teacher in Eastern Washington.

"The impoverished vocabulary makes it difficult for students to realize, `Why am I learning this?' " says Ravitch, now a senior research fellow at New York University. "You tend to get `this happened, that happened.' But it doesn't tell you why."

"Absolutely they've been dumbed down," says Glenn Gordon, a Seattle sales representative for textbook publisher Harcourt General Inc.

"I think what we've heard a lot of throughout the country is that there needed to be an image of American students doing well. In order for us to show them as being smarter, let's dummy down what we're teaching them. You'll appear to be smarter, even though you're not."

But, he adds, the trend is beginning to swing the other way. Textbooks are making a comeback, Gordon says, as education reform focuses on standards and assessments, and teachers want "more direction and standardization."

Along with that, Gordon says, textbooks are beginning to improve in writing and complexity - and are sometimes proving too difficult. Some teachers using the new texts have reported "only a quarter of their students can handle it, because it's no longer dummied down."

John Arbuckle, who teaches at Mill Creek Elementary School in the Everett School District, doesn't use the social-studies textbook, which he says is "old, outdated and boring, and much too easy for my students."

One of the first to point out a problem was Harvard University Professor Jeanne Chall, who had been commissioned to study textbooks by the Educational Testing Service, which was trying to determine why SAT scores were dropping. Chall's 1979 study determined textbooks had become progressively easier since the 1920s.

Five years ago, she repeated her earlier study and found that textbooks were easier still, despite the publicity and hand-wringing after the original version became public.

At the turn of the century, textbooks were too difficult for many of the increasing numbers of students pouring into public schools. Educators made adjustments so the books could be more easily understood.

But the trend continued downward. "The point is, like everything else, you don't know where to stop," Chall says.

While Chall says no one knows exactly the appropriate degree of difficulty in textbooks, several studies have indicated that too-easy textbooks have a negative effect on children's learning - and are an indicator of the entire curriculum.

"If the children do better when the textbooks are harder, why do they keep them easier?" Chall asks. She answers: "It's easier to teach easier."

The decline can be blamed on numerous sources, Ravitch says, including television - which takes up time that could be spent reading.

Perhaps equally responsible, she says, has been a prevailing educational theory that the best thing teachers can do for children is to boost their self-esteem.

"What textbooks respond to is the desire of school officials for kids to feel good about themselves. They don't want to challenge them too much," Ravitch says.

In Washington, textbooks are chosen by individual districts, or, in larger districts, individual schools. The state plays no role in textbook selection or review.

However, Duncan MacQuarrie, director of curriculum and assessment for the state superintendent of public instruction, says that the state's emphasis on education reform could mean a "more rational" basis for textbook selection because as decisions are made on what children should know, textbooks would be chosen only if they provided it.

Despite the current freedom for local districts, though, there's not a lot of choice. Most textbooks are geared to what will sell in California, Florida and, most of all, Texas, which adopts textbooks statewide and represents the largest market share.

Arbuckle says one of his biggest gripes about the textbooks in his school is their blandness.

"What they have been doing is heading away from controversial issues. If they have to soft-pedal the issues, it's not exciting to the kids," Arbuckle says.

His social-studies textbook mentioned the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in one paragraph, for instance. Consigning significant events to one paragraph is another common fault with textbooks, critics say.

Arbuckle used other materials to supplement the text and brought in a man who'd been interned to speak to the class.

But in many classrooms, textbooks are the dominant tool, according to Ravitch.

Some students like that.

Mohana Kumar, a junior at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines, says her teachers often rely on textbooks.

But Kumar says she prefers using a textbook. Classes in which teachers exclusively use other materials seem scattershot, she says, and she didn't like having to rely solely on the teachers' judgment of what students should read on a given subject.

"A textbook gives students a base," Kumar says. "And the good ones suggest further reading."

-------------------------- Examples of easier reading --------------------------

Here are examples from three U.S. history textbooks published from 1975 to 1985. The 1975 book consistently uses more difficult language and expresses more sophisticated concepts than the two newer books.

-- On the Constitutional Convention:

The American Adventure, 1975, published by Allyn and Bacon Inc.

In May 1787, delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of the Confederation . . .

Three-quarters of the delegates had served in Congress, several were leading judges of state courts, others were or had been governors of their states, some were outstanding lawyers, others were successful merchants, many had a college education and several were signers of the Declaration of Independence. Known today as the Founding Fathers, these men laid a foundation for effective national government.

America Is, 1982, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

The convention in Philadelphia opened May 25, 1787, when enough delegates arrived to begin work. The meetings were held in the state house, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Attending the convention were 55 delegates, elected by the legislatures of 12 states . . . Most of the convention members were young and came from the landowning upper classes. More than half were college trained.

America Its People and Values, 1985, Harcourt Brace Janovich Publishers

In the sweltering summer of 1787 delegates from 12 states gathered in Philadelphia. There they struggled to create a new plan of government. After many weeks of debate and compromise, they finally completed the Constitution of the United States. This document provided the nation with a strong foundation of laws.

-- On slavery:

The American Adventure, 1975, published by Allyn and Bacon Inc.

The issue had at least three aspects: The moral, social or racial and the economic. The moral aspect was this: in nearly every part of western civilization, there was growing condemnation of slavery.

America Is, 1982, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

Southern whites called it the "peculiar institution." They did not mean they thought slavery was strange or odd but simply a way of life unique to the South.

America Its People and Values, 1985, Harcourt Brace Janovich Publishers

The issue of slavery was not new. Congress had been struggling over this question for almost 100 years. A crisis had always been avoided through compromise.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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