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If You Are Not Criticized, You May Not Be Doing Much

I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who coined that glorious little truth. And here is a variation on the theme. The Wall Street Journal in weekend editions uncovers a widespread and growing practice in the textbook publishing industry of using quotas to determine which children may appear in their textbooks. Now, immediately, there will be folks saying that that’s just fine. As one superintendent quoted in Daniel Golden’s article (no link, sorry) says: “It’s a real benefit for minority children to be able to see their own ethnicity in a position of responsibility or in a historical perspective.”

This is so. But the article digs deeper, and finds, variously, politically correct nonsense and quota usage the effects of which border on miseducation. Here is an except:

To facilitate state approval and school-district purchasing of their texts, publishers set numerical targets for showing minorities and the disabled. In recent years, the quest to meet these targets has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.

Although publishers describe these numbers as guidelines, many people familiar with educational publishing say they are strict quotas that must be adhered to. Moreover, in filling these quotas, publishers screen out a wide range of images they deem stereotypical, from Asian math students to barefoot African children.

Some educators complain that, at best, the efforts reflect political correctness gone awry — and, at worst, that publishers are putting politics, and sales, ahead of student learning. […]

States weed out images that might be deemed objectionable… To forestall such trouble, 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. […]

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.

Some textbooks shortchange depictions of important historical figures. 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.

Although publishers don’t have numerical targets for religious affiliation, they’re wary of slighting any faith. Rubin Pfeffer, a former executive with Pearson Education, says its marketing department vetoed a cover illustration for a 2005 first-grade reader of a pig walking down the street, on the basis that it might offend Jews or Muslims who don’t eat pork. Pearson spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel says a beaver was substituted on the cover, but the inside pages featured a “beautifully illustrated” pig. […]

Ms. Borden says racial counts are often based on look rather than lineage. For instance, she says, publishers may substitute a Chicano for a Native American from the Southwest, because they “look very similar.”

Marjorie Cotera, studio manager for Texas photographer Robert Daemmrich, who takes photos for textbooks, says “facial features” of some Asians resemble Native Indian tribes from Mexico. “There are some times where you can flip-flop.” On the other hand, Ms. Cotera says, blond and blue-eyed Hispanics “might not work” toward that group’s quota because their background would not be apparent to readers.

The lesson, so to speak, is that textbook buyers for public schools are, truly, in the habit of thumbing-through sample books looking for which one has the fewest white children. (Later in the story, we learn that publishers have written policies that minority photos should be especially prominent on the right-hand pages, so that books pass the thumb test.) Consequently, publishers are learning to adjust their content so that pictures outweigh text and important historical figures which do not add to the race quota are excised. It seems like an awfully poor way to go about constructing an elementary school textbook.

In other words, in order not to be criticized by the PC-police, publishers of learning books are not doing much teaching.


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