I had to laugh this morning when I saw a news report that officials at the New York City Department of Education are forbidding certain topics on their state-wide English, science, math, and social-studies exams, exams for which they are soliciting bids from testing companies to overhaul. Any company submitting proposals to the state must exclude references to such topics as dinosaurs, birthdays, Halloween, slavery, swimming pools (and other allusions to wealth, such as mp3 players, video games, etc.), certain forms of dance (ballet is okay), among others. And there’s junk food of course, which unfortunately wasn’t fully defined. This means that there is great editorial debate going on in conference rooms around the country as publishers try to discern exactly what constitutes junk food (I know; I’ve sat in on such meetings. Pretzels? Frozen yogurt? No one is ever quite sure. Cookies? Pies? Those always yield a consensus).
The list coming out of New York goes and on and on. And the reason I laughed at the news report is that, well, this is not necessarily new news. Publishers have known for decades that certain topics in educational materials—and not just on state tests--are taboo, in New York and in other states (such lists aren’t limited to New York). It was at least 20 years ago when I was asked to remove an art reference of a piggy bank (in a math problem about a kid saving money) in a product that was being heavily marketed in New York, the largest school system in the country. The rationale? “City kids won’t know what a piggy bank is.”
The reason for the list coming out of New York, according to one education official, is that these and other listed references have the potential to “evoke unpleasant emotions in students.” Unpleasant emotions in students? When was the last time a written reference to a dinosaur or a cupcake or an ipod left your child emotionally harmed? I suspect it’s more likely that the unpleasant emotions aren’t so much evoked in as projected upon students by much older voices---parents and others with personal agendas, as well as those with legal credentials who are always on the hunt for anything that has the eensiest potential to offend the smallest minority in the most insignificant way. The thing is, even if these things aren’t mentioned in a state test, students are still exposed to many of these topics on a daily basis beyond the classroom. So why are they affected so dramatically only when exposed to such topics on tests but not in everyday life?
New York officials state that there are instances where the exclusions aren’t “necessarily” merited in other materials beyond the state tests, yet they don’t differentiate where and when these murky lines begin or end, which topics have some “flexibility” and which do not, and in which kind of products over others. So make no mistake—this list impacts all curriculum currently being developed and written, not just state tests for New York. Textbooks and supplemental publishers aren’t going to take a chance on a whole series of books across multiple grades being rejected because a single sentence in one of the books includes a reference to a muffin. Not in a market as large as New York. And no publisher is going to publish two sets of books, one for New York and one for the rest of the country. Banned topics for New York tests means banned topics for all students.
Certainly some topics make sense to avoid—terrorism, divorce, disease. No one wants to upset the poor kids any more than they already are on testing day. But even a Jehovah’s Witness has to live in a world where most of the population celebrates birthdays, and an evangelical has to live in a world of museums that generally include things like, say, dinosaur fossils. Halloween? Is there a child alive who doesn’t either know about the existence of this holiday or participate in the celebration of it? Are there scores of students standing up en masse declaring, “I’m offended by this reference to paganism.” Or course not. Most don’t even know what paganism is. But those with agendas do. The more we try to sanitize education to appease a one-size-fits-all mentality, the more we’re going to create a one-size-fits-none curriculum which does nothing to advance what should be the goal—academics, not politics.
Most of the items on New York's list aren’t new to publishers. When it comes to junk food, we haven’t been able to use the words cake, cookie, cupcake, and ice cream for as long as I can remember. The only reason pizza is allowed—veggie with a wheat crust, please—is because it’s one of the best examples to use for “real world” math application with fractions. After all, how many foods are typically cut into 6 or more slices? Pies and cakes, yes, but remember, we can’t use them. Unless they’re vegan or gluten-free, I suppose, but who wants to read (or write) a math problem involving food with complex descriptors and health disclaimers?
We’ve also known about other exclusions, such as certain holidays, video games, luxury items, music, pop culture references, but the lines there are often fuzzy and topics often end up included or excluded at a single editor’s discretion. I’ve been forced to reject reading passages about the history of Santa Claus (the least religious aspect of Christmas) but not those about dreidel games, Kwanza, and Ramadan. There’s never much rationale beyond an editor's or publisher’s fear of having a product rejected. A product meeting I attended at a publishing house a few years ago included the revision specs of a reading series I’d developed years prior. One directive was that all Native American myths about the creation of the world had to be removed from the series. When I inquired about this, one of the editors on the revision team pointed out that many people are offended by these reading passages (regardless of the fact that they are myth and described as so in the books). “Who?” I asked. “Lots of folks,” came the reply. Again, I asked for clarification—was this a request coming out of certain state committees, was this marketing feedback, etc.? “I read an article somewhere that mentioned something about it,” was basically her explanation. And that was the end of the discussion. The VP of Product Development tabled it with no further exploration because she wasn’t willing to take the hint of a risk even though the facts were in question. In an instant, several rich, cultural passages were reduced to the trash heap because some editor thought she read something somewhere.
What else? Terrorism certainly isn’t a surprising exclusion, but slavery? There are no guidelines given, so the context of this reference is in question. Certainly some of the most historically significant topics, such as the Slave Papers or the writings of Frederick Douglass or the heroism of Harriett Tubman aren’t intended to be excluded from tests. Or are they? We don’t know. Because lists like the ones coming out of New York offer no definitive explanations or guidelines; they raise only more questions, inspire fear in editors responsible for decision-making, and create a general reluctance on the part of publishers to go near any topic remotely off-limits.
Dinosaurs was a curious exclusion on the New York list, I have to admit. One of the most consistent drumbeats for reading product is for publishers to create “high-interest” material to stimulate reluctant readers. As a product developer and writer, this becomes increasingly difficult as more topics are relegated to “lists.” What’s left to write about that kids can relate to, that kids have interest in, that allows for tapping prior knowledge and the application of real-life concepts when all sense of real-life is removed from the academic experience? Studies show that the topic of dinosaurs is a particular favorite of struggling male readers. But now, because of “the list”, that one’s gone. Poof. Vanished. Extinct. The reasoning? Dinosaurs might inspire debate about evolution, as if the existence of dinosaurs was a theory and not a reality. And this is from educators! Apparently science and theology cannot coexist, which, if I recall my history correctly, was the reason Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633.
Have we not moved beyond the 17th century?
The issue about slavery and dinosaurs begs another question: If these topics are banned in state tests, how long before these topics are lost or diluted in science and history texts? What other topics are in jeopardy? You may think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you, I’m not. This is how critical decisions about curriculum content are made when there are lists out there. Editors and publishers go beyond the list to anticipate what else might get the thumbs down from whoever is going to review the materials and make the ultimate decision to purchase. Because if the mention of a birthday is going to evoke something unpleasant, well, so might the mention of a Quinceañera or some other celebration. If dinosaurs are taboo, does that mean other archeological discoveries will be black listed? Are ancient Egyptians or the Mayan people in jeopardy? After all, there are some cultural rituals and beliefs that might offend. And if you can’t mention mp3 players or video games or home computers, what other everyday luxury items have the potential to cause emotional harm? Cars? Cell phones? The debate will be endless, the fallout widespread.
From an educational standpoint, we regress rather than progress when we fail to acknowledge the consequences of indiscriminate lists based on unfounded psychology and political correctness. Scientifically speaking, this doesn’t bode well for the evolution of the species. If we’re still allowed to speak in such terms, that is.