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Some educators take issue with textbooks

From Casey Wian

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(CNN) -- You won't find textbooks in eighth-grade history teacher Brent Heath's classroom.

Heath, who teaches at De Anza Middle School in Ontario, California, uses historical fiction, the Internet, the Library of Congress and even music to teach students.

"It's the exact same content. It's being taught in a different way," he said.

Heath is not alone in his dissatisfaction with school textbooks. Jack Farrell still has textbooks in his high school English classes at Newbury Park High School in Newbury Park, California, but he doesn't like the slick, state-approved books he must use.

"Because it's attractive to the eye the way TV might be, the way the Internet might be, you think the student's going to be pulled into it," he said. "But in point of fact, it's very hard to negotiate logically."

Text boxes and charts designed to make information accessible often do not translate into the real world, Farrell said.

Too often, teachers say, the real world is absent from school textbooks -- from racial quotas on illustrations to sanitizing rough language in literary classics. Critics say textbooks designed not to offend also don't do much to inform.

"The books get dumber and dumber. Dumber in what they say and dumber in the sense of delivering less and less content," said William Bennetta, president of The Textbook League, an organization that reviews schoolbooks.

The content of textbooks is often influenced by forces that have little to do with educational merit. Special interest groups from both the left and the right exert tremendous pressure on states, school districts and textbook publishers.

Publishers say they're just meeting the demands of big customers like California, Texas and other states with formal approval processes that dictate content.

"Textbooks in our public schools are provided free of charge to all students. That means they're purchased with taxpayer dollars. And so the process is open for citizen input, and that's both a blessing and in some instances perhaps a curse," said Steve Driesler, executive director of the School Division of the Association of American Publishers.

According to Diane Ravitch, author of "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn," four big companies control about 75 percent of the American textbook market. Ravitch attributes the distortion in the marketplace to the states' role in buying the books.

She would like to see less involvement from the states so that "small publishers have a chance to compete."

"When you realize that your history books and your science books and your literature books are not the result of experts sitting down and making it a wise decision, but of political pressure groups coming to the state textbook hearings, this is wrong," Ravitch said.

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