California rejected a reading series for gender bias until The Little Engine That Could was given a sex-change operation.

Such absurdities fill Diane Ravitch's (search) new book, The Language Police, which is about the removal from school books and test questions of anything that might be offensive to anyone on the planet.

Historical accuracy often conflicts with political correctness, writes Merle Rubin in the Los Angeles Times (requires registration). A "bias and sensitivity" panel removed a test essay about patchwork quilts made by 19th-century frontier women: "The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew, and who were concerned about preparing for marriage."

Another story about two young African-American girls, one an athlete, the other a math whiz, who help each other learn new skills, was red-flagged for stereotyping blacks as athletic (even though one of the girls was not an athlete but a "mathlete").

A passage on the uses and nutritional values of peanuts was rejected because some students are allergic to peanuts. Stranger still, a story about a heroic blind youth who climbed to the top of Mt. McKinley was rejected, not only because of its implicit suggestion that blind people might have a harder time than people with sight, but also because it was alleged to contain "regional bias": According to the panel's bizarre way of thinking, students who lived in non-mountainous areas would theoretically be at a "disadvantage" in comprehending a story about mountain climbing. Stories set in deserts, cold climates, tropical climates or by the seaside, Ravitch learned, are similarly verboten as test topics, since not all students have had personal experience of these regions.

Owls are out. Navajos don't like them. So is Mt. Rushmore, in case a Lakota (search) student might be offended. Dinosaurs suggest evolution, which offends creationists. Dolphins are regionalist: Not every student lives near the sea.

The New York Times (registration required) points out other banned words, including "brotherhood," "fraternity," "snowman" and "polo."

Mentions of cakes, candy, doughnuts, French fries and coffee should be dropped in favor of references to more healthful foods like cooked beans, yogurt and enriched whole-grain breads.

No wonder students struggle to understand what they read: Elie Wiesel (search) scrubbed of references to Jews and God doesn't make sense. No wonder they lack historical and geographical perspective.

In Britain, trainee teachers were told "brainstorm" is offensive to epileptics. Epileptics, responding to a survey, said they were offended by the notion that they'd be offended.

Meanwhile, all-female Smith College (search) is removing "she" and "her" from its constitution to avoid offending the transgendered.

Lindsay Watson, who recently ended her term as Student Government Association president, said she introduced the initiative as a way to attract a wider range of students to student government.

Watson said she was thinking particularly of students who identify themselves as transgendered, and therefore may be uncomfortable using female pronouns to describe themselves.

"One of the things I spent some time looking into is what is discouraging people from getting involved (in student government)," said Watson. "This was something that screamed really loudly."

So to speak.

Teenager of Troy

Lesson plans to accompany a fourth-rate TV-movie entitled Helen of Troy refer to Britney Spears, but not to Homer (search). Not even Homer Simpson, much less the guy who wrote The Iliad (search).

At Education Intelligence Agency, Mike Antonucci is irked. He notes that USA Network's Helen was panned by critics, who wrote of a telenovela "sanitized with spray cans of Cheez-Wiz" (Los Angeles Daily News), and "Malibu Barbie of Troy" (Albuquerque Tribune).

Yet the ostensibly educational Cable in the Classroom (search) created six Helen-related lesson plans for high school students, all chock-full of "critical thinking skills." One lesson plan praised the TV movie for adding "dimension" to Helen's character. Three whole dimensions, and none of them "femme fatale."

Antonucci writes:

In other words, Homer, whose work has survived three thousand years, was deficient in character development — a deficiency corrected by Helen of Troy screenwriter Ronni Kern, whose body of work includes an episode of Baywatch and the film A Change of Seasons, which won the 1980 Razzie award for Worst Screenplay. ...

People who have actually seen the film may find this [dimension] claim puzzling, since USA's Helen "will drop toga quicker than you can yell, 'Yo, wench!'", in the words of one critic.

None of the lesson plans requires any reading. None of them even mentions Homer or The Iliad. Instead, laced throughout the lesson plans are references to Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, King of the Hill (a cartoon series) and the rock band Rush. A writing prompt asks: "Of the fictional characters that you have read about or seen in a movie, which one most reminds you of you?"

'Cause it's always all about you.

'I' Is for 'Illiterate'

High school students who read at the second- and third-grade level are being taught basic reading skills — finally — thanks to state graduation exams, reports the Contra Costa (California) Times. But even successful students don't read well enough to do high school work, and yet there seems to be a tacit assumption that they should all go on to college.

High school English teachers may have students with reading levels ranging from first grade to collegiate in the same class, making it close to impossible to teach each student at his or her own level.

In Lisa Storer's senior college prep English class at Richmond High, students went through as many as seven drafts to write a passable essay on Hamlet. ...

Even a student with a fourth-grade reading level eventually managed to write a simple five-paragraph essay with a thesis sentence, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. But colleges expect far more sophisticated work.

Parents should ask what their children's reading levels are, because grades can mask a deeper problem, Storer said.

There are a lot of deeper problems here, starting with the false equality of heterogeneous classes.

B-E-E

Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, gets a rave review from Slate's David Edelstein. The film focuses on eight children, including the daughter of illegal aliens who speak little English, two children of Indian immigrants, a black girl from Washington, D.C., a lonely nerd from rural Missouri and a go-it-alone girl whose mother says she can't pronounce the words her daughter is learning.

In Tampa, the regional win by the daughter of Indian immigrants is celebrated on a Hooters sign: "Congradu tions Nupur."

Letters

Jack Dixon writes:

You have put your finger on the dirty little secret in education: Discipline. Or rather the lack thereof, which does more to sabotage classroom learning than any other influence.

Most of the industrialized world demonstrates better students in competition and their classrooms are usually larger, their teachers paid relatively less, etc.

I performed my own experiment to prove this. As a former engineer who qualified for a temporary three-year teaching certificate, I answered the call for a high school mathematics teacher.

Understanding that they needed someone for the job almost desperately, I tried a little discipline. The only effective tool left was sending the disruptive student to the dean, which I did, up to a dozen each out of the classes of 30-plus.

While no one told me I could not do this, I did get a couple of hints from other teachers that I was only supposed to use this for "emergencies."

After a little over a week of this, I was down to zero problems in one class, and only a few in the other two, and my first teacher-parent meeting went very positively.

This was too late, however, as the next day I was called into the principal's office and summarily fired.

The only reason he would give was that I need to take some "education courses," and he had me escorted off school grounds by an armed guard.

Most ironic is the school motto "Make a Difference." I don't think so.

J. Mansoor writes:

On Fox News, a woman from the California Department of Education who purportedly possesses the wisdom to determine what should or should not be contained in textbooks could not tell the difference between "gambit" and "gamut" when discussing the spectrum for guideline changes.

Just another example of foolish people with no real intellect tampering with culture and history in ways that will be irreversibly damaging to the knowledge of future generations.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

Respond to the Writer