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The [Sunday] Papers

Americans of all political stripes can agree, I'm sure, that a school system that still teaches students using contemporary history books from the 1980s, describing Ronald Reagan as our current president, the Soviet Union as our chief rival, and the power of computers a future phenomenon yet realized, is a school system that is not only failing, but failing preposterously.

And yet, that is the world we are living in, according to a Chicago Tribune report detailing the use of aging textbooks not only in the worst Chicago schools, but in affluent and rural schools alike in Illinois and across the country.

Over three months of reporting, the paper surveyed 50 school districts across the state and interviewed 100 teachers, students, parents, curriculum experts, and other officials across the country.

Among its findings, the paper says that nearly 80 percent of districts it surveyed are using outdated textbooks in English, math, social studies, or science. (A textbook that is at least 8 years old is considered out-of-date.) About 22 percent of districts have books at least 15 years old, the paper says.

Perhaps there is hope for a political solution in the paper's findings that the problem cuts across class and geographic lines. Even affluent schools are having a hard time keeping its books current. And it's certainly not just an urban problem: One of the more egregious examples the paper found came from downstate North Clay Community High School in Clay County, an agricultural area using agriculture business books dating back to 1968.

After a first reading, I was going to criticize one aspect of the Tribune's report: It's seeming lack of placing blame (or to put it more politely, seeking accountability). Who is responsible? The state board of education? A legislative committee? The governor?

After a second reading, I'm not sure that's an entirely fair criticism. The paper shows that a lot of folks are to blame--maybe not as aggressively as I'd like the paper to show, but the picture we get is that state officials are asleep at the switch, school districts are operating under enormous financial pressures, and citizens aren't willing to pay higher taxes, in effect, for up-to-date books. The funding of text books derives from each of these sources.

Still, I'm a little troubled that all we hear from Jesse Ruiz, the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, is that he "said he didn't hear any complaints about textbooks in hearings earlier this year."

And that we don't hear from the governor or his budget people. Or any legislative leaders. Or Chicago Schools chief Arne Duncan (we do hear briefly from his budget director) or even Mayor Richard M. Daley, given all the credit the mayor has received over the years for school reform and his efforts at boosting city reading programs.

Still, the report's list of textbook grievances is impressive and shocking, and perhaps meant to illustrate that the problem has grown beyond the reach of any particular political body. And perhaps leaving the commentary mostly to students and teachers was by design.

Part two of this two-part report comes Monday; that will be about parents "feeling the pinch" of textbook costs. But I have a feeling the political fallout will spur enough follow-up stories to affix accountability where it ought to be affixed and to move on to exploring solutions, particularly amidst a gubernatorial campaign.

So an A-.

Profit motive: "Parents are being squeezed to buy their children's books, a practice unheard of in most states," the Tribune says. "In fact, Illinois collects more revenue from book fees and sales in public schools than any other state, federal data show. Some districts also mark up books sold to students by as much as 25 percent, a practice that is raising concerns among state officials."

It's so Illinois, isn't it? I eagerly await tales of mob infiltration and sweetheart contracts granted as political favors to make their way into this story.

West Winging: I have no doubt plenty of school districts, perhaps even the one in Chicago, are riddled with waste and inefficiency. But I get a kick out of those who send their kids to gleaming and successful (public) suburban schools who argue that money is not the answer to our education woes. (I agree only in that the answer is not just more money for schools, but more money in the pockets of poor people living in, let's say, education-impeding environments.)

A big chunk of money seems to have been the answer, though, to building a $600 million football stadium for a private corporation called the Chicago Bears and the half-billion dollars and rising cost of waste-, inefficency-, and corruption-riddled Millennium Park. Why can't we make the same commitment to flooding our schools with money and stop nibbling around the edges?

I'm reminded of a Sam Seaborn soliloquoy in the early-going of The West Wing: "Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic changes. Schools should be palaces; the competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense."

Easter Egg
John Kass has a problem with the godless media, but I think he's seeing things backwards, from a defensive crouch. The thesis of Kass's column today is that "doubt sells." And so USA Today writes about the upcoming DaVinci Code movie (based on a book informed by "feminist politics," he sneers, though I'm not quite sure where, say, equal pay for equal work comes into play); the media is agog about the newly-discovered Gospel of Judas (old, discarded news to him); and the recent Newsweek cover story "How Jesus Became the Christ" is merely a cynical circulation device.

I think the media sells faith, and rather blindly, not doubt. Atheists, or even agnostics, are barely represented in the press. Cults are skewered for exhibiting many of the same methods--though compressed in time--as traditionally organized religions. Satanists are never included in the mix--and I'm not joking. Why shouldn't they be? Their beliefs aren't valid?

There is an agreed-upon set of religious beliefs the media deems viable, and even the most bizarre aspects of those beliefs are not challenged.

It's not doubt that sells. It's unquestioned religious faith that sells (and gets promoted by newspaper columnists; why not give Rob Sherman or some other skeptic equal time?). And that Newsweek story? Written by managing editor Jon Meacham, dubbed Parson Meacham by media critic Bob Somerby. "Yes, religious kooks are back on the march, all throughout the American press corps, even as husbands and hacks are sent out to tell the rubes something different," Somerby wrote a year ago. "And their pious parson is Newsweek's Jon Meacham, who's always ready with a sermon or three."

History Books
Neil Steinberg in the Sun-Times today: "[Moussaoui]--and let's all say this together out loud, shall we?--is a native FRENCHMAN, born in FRANCE, of Moroccan parents.

. . .

"To see the lunatic hatred of Moussaoui and to compare it to the expansive humanity of Whitman, the poet of the American soul, is to be reassured . . . We are winning--in fact, have already won. That's why they hate us so much, though the hate--as hate inevitably does--only pulls them down faster.

Howard Zinn in the Sun-Times today: "Now that most Americans no longer believe in the war, now that they no longer trust George Bush and his administration, now that the evidence of deception has become overwhelming (so overwhelming that even the major media, always late, have begun to register indignation), we might ask: How come so many people were so easily fooled?

. . .

"We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.

. . .

"But if we know some history, if we know how many times presidents have made similar declarations [of war] to the country, and how they turned out to be lies, we will not be fooled."

One of these men is smarter than the other.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Historically smarter than other tip lines.


Posted on April 17, 2006

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BOOKS - Stan Lee, Flawed Hero.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Chicagoetry: I Am Iron Man.

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