Throwing the Book at Publishers

The state Board of Education has wisely supported its textbook-review panel in insisting that publishers fully explore evolution in junior high school textbooks. The immediate decision was significant both for its resistance to pressure from those who want to see controversial questions glossed over and for its nationwide effect on the quality of textbooks. California, which accounts for a $100-million annual share of the textbook market, has in effect said that it won’t settle for books that talk down to students.

The state board rejected every proposed seventh- and eighth-grade science textbook and gave publishers until February to revise them if they want them adopted for use in California schools. The unanimous vote by the state board was especially praiseworthy because it involved human reproduction as well as evolution--both subjects that regularly are made controversial by groups that favor either ignorance or their own particular interpretation of scientific data.

Publishers now have been cautioned that the California textbook market will be closed to them if they fail to meet rigorous standards of content in these important areas. This was no surprise. Bob Douglas, a school administrator from Plumas County who headed the science review panel, said that publishers were sent guidelines three years ago on what was expected.

The initial decision by the panel of school officials and teachers came as part of the state’s regular review of textbooks that occurs every seven years for every field. This year was science’s year. State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig has indicated that science will be just the first field for which the state tightens its requirements. “It’s not just science books,” he said. “It’s history, literature. We’re raising the ante.”

The state review panels and the state board are performing a national service as they continue to insist that textbooks not dodge touchy topics, whether in science or American history. Textbooks should stimulate intellectual curiosity, not deaden academic interest. When they are improved, all education benefits. California’s decisions become the decisions for many smaller states as well.