MILLCREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa. - Miranda Lyon was in seventh grade when she stumbled on the fateful homework question. Why, the textbook asked, does a person weigh less on a mountaintop than in a mine deep within the Earth?
Miranda, a straight-A student, was stumped. She asked her father for help.
What began as routine homework would become a four-year obsession for Howard Lyon, a hard lesson for a suburban Erie school district and a public relations nightmare for publishing giant Prentice Hall.
The small-town saga took on significance for students around the country, illuminating widespread flaws in the way U.S. textbooks are produced and selected.
The best-selling physical science textbook, it turned out, was wrong. And not only on the gravity question.
Among dozens of errors, the book confused "energy" with "force," two fundamental concepts of physics. It mixed up "velocity" and "acceleration," key terms that students already have trouble distinguishing.
The Periodic Table of the Elements - the bible of chemistry - presented gallium and cesium as liquids at room temperature when in fact they're solids. Soot in the air was incorrectly identified as a solution.
And so on.
Beyond the conceptual, the book made grammatical and factual blunders - giving the plural of "foot" as "foots," for instance, and picturing the Statue of Liberty with the torch in the wrong hand while describing the outer shell as bronze. It's copper.
Alerted by Howard Lyon, alarmed Millcreek school officials published a 34-page list of corrections and gave them to seventh-graders to carry around with their books.
"If a student took a test and had the same number of errors that this publisher had ... the student would fail the test," said Millcreek school board member Dennis Iaquinta. "My grade for them is an F, and they need summer school."
Company officials repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokeswoman said in a letter to The Sun that many of the complaints are off base.
"Among Mr. Lyon's alleged 'corrections' were alternative methods, answers, renderings, etc. which may be accurate but which did not mean that the methods or answers provided in the text were wrong or invalid," wrote Nancy J. Taylor, a spokeswoman for Simon & Schuster, which owned Prentice Hall until late November.
Prentice Hall's new owner, Pearson Education, said it stands by that response.
Today, four years later, Lyon is still at war - hounding the publisher to correct its mistakes, warning educators across the nation about the book.
"It's the classic American story of one person who believes in something doggedly trying to make it right," said Millcreek schools Superintendent Verel Salmon. "He has made his life center around this book."
Few people take on the role of textbook sleuth as Howard Lyon did. But the errors he unearthed in "Exploring Physical Science" are hardly unusual, textbook experts say.
"It is common nowadays to see schoolbooks that are packed, from cover to cover, with blatant factual and conceptual errors, with absurd statements that make no sense and with pieces of 'information' that obviously have been invented out of thin air," said William J. Bennetta, editor of a California newsletter that reviews middle and high school textbooks.
Of the 300 or so he has examined over the past 12 years, Bennetta said, "at least 75 percent have been so blatantly incompetent that I could say, with certainty, that the people who wrote them had no idea of what they were writing about."
Lyon's campaign takes on particular meaning as schools around the country prepare to spend record amounts of money on textbooks, buoyed by a healthy economy and greater attention to public education. Meanwhile, a frenzy of mergers in the $3 billion textbook industry has left fewer choices.
And although teachers try not to rely solely on them, textbooks remain the engine of American classrooms. In many schools, the curriculum centers on bulky tomes that lead teachers page by page from September to June.
Errors are only part of the story.
Publishers - facing fierce competition - routinely infuse books with an encyclopedic array of facts to please school districts nationwide. And they often duck controversial topics to avoid offending noisy special interest groups.
The result: Instead of focusing on key concepts and explaining them well, critics say, publishers produce books that are often bland, superficial, dumbed down, poorly written and overwhelming - ineffective tools for teaching children.
"We try to cover too much, and in an effort to cover so much we end up teaching nothing," said Hays B. Lantz Jr., science supervisor for Prince George's County schools.
Other industrialized nations have far more focused math and science curricula. In economic peer countries such as Japan and Germany, books are much thinner, treating fewer topics in greater depth.
U.S. textbooks and teaching, by contrast, are "a mile wide and an inch deep," according to a major international study, "A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education."
The gap in quality is so great that Baltimore's Abell Foundation, searching recently for a superior math textbook for gifted students, ended up with an English-language textbook from Singapore.
"We were told by the best mathematicians in the country that the U.S. does not produce a textbook of the caliber we were looking for," said Kate Walsh, an education official at the foundation.
Like many of its American counterparts, the book used in Millcreek is hefty - 818 pages - and is crammed with activities, color and eye-catching graphics. From early on, the book sold well in school districts nationwide.
But Lyon wasn't the only one finding errors. The Textbook Letter - published by a California watchdog group - printed a review in fall 1995 headlined "Educators Should Avoid This Book Like the Plague."
"To use no textbook at all would be a far better choice than to use this one," wrote Lawrence S. Lerner, a physics professor at California State University in Long Beach.
Ordinarily, a textbook controversy in a place like Millcreek wouldn't raise an executive eyebrow at a mammoth company like Prentice Hall. The school district's 7,500 students barely register on the publishing industry's sales radar.
But this middle-class suburb - a jumble of strip shopping malls and split-level homes that gives way to leafy neighborhoods by Lake Erie - has let out a roar many times its size. This little town has Howard Lyon.
To the publishing company, "he's just the nattering flea on the back of the elephant," said Salmon, the superintendent. "But this flea may turn out to be venomous."
Accuracy was presumed
When a dozen Millcreek teachers set out to pick a new seventh-grade physical science book in the spring of 1994, fact-checking wasn't on their agenda. After all, the books under consideration were produced by reputable publishers - Prentice Hall, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill and Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
What sold the teachers on the Prentice Hall book were the supplemental materials - the lab exercises, laser discs and tests - that supported Millcreek's emphasis on hands-on science.
"It never dawned on me to question the authenticity of scientific concepts - that there would be mistakes in a book," said R. Alan Zito, supervisor of secondary schools at the time.
The trouble started in late September 1994, when Miranda Lyon was baffled.
Sitting in the TV room of her family's rancher, the seventh-grader came across a question she had no idea how to answer: Why would a person weigh more in a mine than on a mountaintop?
A typical seventh-grader might skip the problem and move on. Miranda wasn't typical. She won most of the school math contests and spelling bees. She wrote exceptionally well. She didn't like to leave questions dangling.
"Dad, please give me a hand with this question on gravity," she called out. "I can't understand this book."
Dad, of course, wasn't a typical parent. A friendly fellow with a salt-and-pepper beard who talks in the rapid-fire manner of Robin Williams, Lyon is a musician, a longtime violinist with the Erie Philharmonic who spent 20 years building church organ consoles and now teaches elementary school music.
But he's also a science nerd.
When he was a boy in Middleburgh, N.Y., he and his father, a physician, used to blow things up in the basement. Unlike much of the nonscientific population, he actually remembers the theorems he learned in high school.
At Michigan State University, he studied physics and math before switching to music. And he throws around scientific terms the way the rest of us talk about the weather.
More to the point, Lyon, 58, is programmed for crusades. Several years ago, haunted by questions about the authenticity of Handel's violin sonatas, he spent a year researching them, just to satisfy his own curiosity. In the 1970s, he decided he'd play the violin in 50 churches in one year, and he methodically nailed his goal.
So when Lyon checked the Encyclopaedia Britannica and couldn't solve the gravity quandary, naturally he didn't give up.
He suspected that the question made an incorrect assumption: that gravity increases as an object travels downward into the Earth. And he knew the question was unanswerable because it didn't give enough information to make the required calculation.
"I said, 'Hey, Miranda, we found a freak here. Let's write to the publisher.' "
The letter he wrote Oct. 16, 1994, was polite: "My daughter and I think there may be an error in her science book. ..."
But when they heard nothing for six weeks, Lyon grew more peeved by the day.
Every time he opened the book, another questionable statement jumped out.
He pored over encyclopedias and textbooks. He called and wrote to university professors, the American Chemical Society, Scientific American magazine, an expert in steam engines, a General Electric engineer, a metallurgist, an actuary, an antique auto dealer, a nurse, his electrician, a driver education teacher, scuba divers, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Stephen Hawking - the Cambridge University professor who holds the chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He tried to reach Carl Sagan before he died.
When a question about tire air pressure didn't look right - erroneously suggesting that the pressure should be checked after a car has been moving and the tires are warm - Lyon read car manuals and consulted his longtime mechanics, Dave and Sam.
When a drawing of a color spectrum made by a prism looked peculiar, Lyon ran it by his eye doctor and a lab technician at Bausch & Lomb. Then he bought a prism and did the experiment himself, proving that the book had presented the colors in reverse order.
When a caption labeling aspirin a synthetic polymer seemed suspicious, he contacted chemistry teachers, an industrial chemist, his pharmacist and Bayer Corp. Just as he thought, the book was wrong.
About two months after the initial discovery, a letter came from Prentice Hall acknowledging the error on gravity.
"We pride ourselves in being able to weave some of the delight and wonder of science into our examples, questions and photographs," wrote Christine Caputo, Prentice Hall's science project editor.
"Unfortunately, it seems that in this case we were a little overzealous and instead of bringing in a real-world example, we introduced an error. ... I will make sure that this problem is corrected in future editions of this textbook."
By that time, Lyon said, he had tallied 28 mistakes; by Christmas, 85 and counting. He alerted school officials.
"This was no longer funny," he said.
Battles over the quality of textbooks have raged for decades, with plenty of finger-pointing all around.
Some educators blame a publishing industry more concerned with profits than academic merit. Publishers say they're giving the consumers - mainly teachers - what they want.
Others point to a flawed system of producing and selecting books that works against scholarship, a system designed to please everyone and offend no one.
"There are an awful lot of well-meaning people putting in a tremendous amount of time that results in a product that isn't very good," said Marilyn Chambliss, a University of Maryland professor and co-author of a recent book about what makes a worthy textbook.
In many cases, a textbook is born when one (or more) of the big states that approve books centrally, such as California, Texas or Florida, creates a long list of demands as it prepares to replace its books.
Twenty-one states have such a system, in which the state approves particular books, and then school districts choose from that list. In the remaining states, among them Maryland and Pennsylvania, school districts choose their own books.
The textbook publisher hires a band of authors, often including big-name professors and teachers from strategically important states. But these "authors" don't always write the book.
Often, they have a more limited role, drawing up an outline or reviewing the completed manuscript.
Sometimes, they don't even do that much: The publisher is mostly paying for their names.
"They want the name so it looks legitimate, but they want to write it," said Bill Honig, former state superintendent of California schools.
Howard Lyon discovered the so-called "phantom author" phenomenon while conducting his inquiry. Hunting for the source of the errors in Miranda's book, he tracked down the people cited as the authors. To his surprise, the first one listed, Anthea Maton, said she'd never heard of the book.
On reflection, Maton assumes that her name was used because she'd worked on a series of books published by Prentice Hall several years earlier; much of the material was repeated in the 1995 textbook. Though she had worked on the design, test questions and teacher's guide for that earlier series, she said she had almost nothing to do with writing the text.
"They weren't even nice enough to send me a copy of the book with my name on it," Maton said. "What a nerve."
At big publishing companies, the writing is typically done by committee, parceled out to in-house writers, free-lancers or writers who work for an independent contractor. They sometimes have limited knowledge of their subject.
"The authors of school science textbooks are seldom expert in science, and the publisher chooses to pretend that they are rather than to get experts to either write the books or edit books written by others," said Arnold Strassenburg, a retired physics professor who has studied textbooks in projects to improve science education.
Working under pressure
Often, the writers and editors are working under tremendous time pressure as publishers rush to meet state deadlines. That, in part, is how sloppy mistakes get into print.
Describing the U.S. attack on Hiroshima during World War II, Globe Fearon's "United States History" says the first atom bomb was "a single, fat, odd-looking bomb called The Thin Man."
Actually, the bomb was called "Little Boy." "The Thin Man" is a Dashiell Hammett book that was made into a movie.
In a well-publicized fiasco in Texas several years ago, thousands of errors were found in new history books. Among them: the assertion that President Harry S. Truman ended the Korean War by dropping the bomb; that Gen. Douglas MacArthur led the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s - he was confused with Sen. Joseph McCarthy - and that Napoleon won at Waterloo.
Errors are embarrassing, of course, but publishers have learned that controversy can be even worse.
"Their nightmare is that some fringe group will rise up in wrath and get a lot of press and block an adoption," said Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, author of "A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco."
There's logic to the fear. Textbooks have come under attack from all directions: fundamentalist Christians protesting suspected references to the occult; school boards criticizing health books' treatment of sexual issues (Texas got publishers to remove "erogenous zone" and AIDS hot line numbers); nutritionists having fits over the mention of junk food (they prompted nervous publishers to delete references to chili burgers, pizza and ice cream in junior high anthologies).
In the mid-1980s, a Tennessee housewife set off a national media spectacle and court trial dubbed "Scopes II" over reading books that parents claimed were anti-Christian and influenced by Satan, feminism and telepathy.
More recently, a group concerned with family life charged that social science textbooks focus on issues such as divorce and domestic violence rather than the joys of matrimony. And critics in Utah complained that a history book unfairly painted the state's founders as greedy capitalists who defiled their land.
Concerns about bias are legitimate issues for publishers and school districts. But too often, other content issues are overlooked. Books typically are selected by committees - mostly teachers, sometimes administrators and parents - whose members have little training in how to scrutinize textbooks and little time to analyze them.
What sells? In large part, color, splashy graphics, transparencies, CD-ROMs, wall charts, resource kits, laser discs and videotapes - the extras that make a teacher's life easier and also drive up the cost of books. (A typical high school science textbook costs about $50.)
The result is that too often school districts spend millions on unsuitable books. That almost happened in Baltimore last year. A selection committee favored a reading series that the school superintendent and board later decided did not emphasize explicit phonics for grades kindergarten to two.
"When you put committees together, lots of times they don't take the time to read through everything," said Robert E. Schiller, the former interim city schools chief. "Much of it comes down to how it's packaged, ease of use, comfort level. ... They didn't necessarily look at the research base, what's best for kids."
That same sort of cursory review got Millcreek into trouble, said Donald
Douglass, the principal of Miranda Lyon's middle school.
"The typical school district looks at half a dozen books on the desk and thumbs through them," he said. "They don't do a real nuts-and-bolts, rigorous analysis."
After a while, it was no longer just Howard Lyon, lone parent, vs. Prentice Hall, publishing behemoth. Millcreek confirmed many of Lyon's findings, and the town wanted a remedy.
Company executives paraded to Millcreek, trying to smooth things over. There was talk of fixing the books. But the way Millcreek school leaders now see it, that's all it was. Talk.
School officials received new page drafts to review. But still, they said, there were problems.
"You talk about excuses - the most creative school kid never came up with excuses like that for playing hooky," said superintendent Salmon. "I mean, the delivery truck was in an accident, stuff was lost. ...
"They've got their teams of editors and their big powerful organization, and it doesn't work. I honestly don't believe they are capable of producing an error-free book."
Said Zito, the secondary school supervisor: "It was all damage control."
The company did correct many of the errors in subsequent printings of the book, such as those involving gravity, the periodic table and tire pressure. But a number of mistakes were repeated in a new edition, said Strassenburg, who recently retired from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and reviewed the book for The Sun.
Though Lyon sometimes nit-picked on grammatical mistakes, Strassenburg said, Lyon found numerous serious scientific errors, and almost all his complaints were legitimate.
"He has earned my respect, both for recognizing the errors and for doing something about them," said Strassenburg, noting that the number of mistakes, while "objectionably large," is typical of science textbooks.
Strassenburg also faulted the Millcreek teachers for tolerating the errors. Often, he said, the teachers' response was, "We will teach it correctly in class." That attitude, Strassenburg cautioned, seriously overvalues the teacher's role and undervalues the importance of an accurate textbook.
In its letter to The Sun, the company says it strives for excellence, works hard to present complex information in language that's understandable to students and enlists top academics to produce its books and experts to verify accuracy.
As for "Exploring Physical Science," spokeswoman Taylor wrote: "Teachers all over the country have been very satisfied with its presentation of complex material for sixth through ninth grade students." She added that first editions of books go through a "fact checking review" and corrections are made in subsequent printings.
Millcreek officials say they've stopped talking to the publisher. And the publisher, on advice from its lawyers, long ago stopped responding to Lyon's letters. Lyon, however, sees no reason to stop anything.
Though Miranda has moved on from seventh-grade science, her father hasn't.
Year after year, he has kept the campaign alive, graduating from an Underwood Touchmaster 5 manual typewriter to a garage-sale Apple IIC computer to a Gateway 2000.
"A lot of times it was, 'That's nice, Daddy, but I'm in another book now,' " laughed Miranda, now a tall, articulate 17-year-old, on her way home from ballet class one recent evening.
Some people think her father's nutty. Most agree he's obsessed. On "manic" weeks, he says, he has dedicated up to 20 hours to this cause, and he has spent untold amounts of money on paper, postage and phone bills warning educators around the nation about the flawed book.
His files have taken over his bedroom, which is a study in his various quirks and passions: two aeolian harps and a handful of mahogany thumb flutes he built, an otoscope from his father, math and science textbooks his relatives have written, several Prentice Hall science books and a reprint of a 1767 Britannica.
His career and family have often come second.
"I have lesson plans I haven't done," he acknowledged. "I'm snowed under."
His wife, Mary Ann Saylor, doesn't want to hear another word about the book; she recently forbade her husband and two visitors to discuss it in the house. Lyon cheerfully packed up his paperwork and took it elsewhere.
But school leaders see Lyon as a hero. Thanks to him, they say, a tiny school district has a voice.
"If we are seeing a narrowing of the number of textbook publishers, it's even more critical that someone stand up and say something is wrong," said Douglass, principal of the middle school Miranda attended.
"If there are only five or six choices, they better be good ones."
More than four years into his campaign, Lyon still talks for hours - in arcane detail - about everything he found wrong in his daughter's textbook. Only when pressed does he stop and explain, in plain English, why his crusade is worth the trouble, why the idea of mistakes in a science book, of all places, amounts to heresy.
"It's demonstrably wrong," he said. "We're talking science. I can't explain to you why I like one song better than another.
"But science is science. ... It's the precision of it that makes it work."
Every time Lyon opened the book, a questionable statement jumped out
Howard Lyon found a number of errors in his daughter's 1995 edition of "Exploring Physical Science." Arnold Strassenburg, a retired physics professor who has studied science textbooks, confirmed many of the mistakes in assessing the book for The Sun. Among the errors:
Weight and gravity:
The question posed by the caption makes an incorrect assumption: that gravity increases as an object travels downward into the Earth. And the question is unanswerable because it doesn't give enough information to make the required calculation.
This exercise incorrectly suggests that air pressure in tires be checked after driving. In fact, the pressure should be checked when the tires are cold, before driving.
Wrong hand, wrong material:
An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty with the torch in her left hand when it should be in the right. The book also describes the outer shell of the statue as bronze. In fact, it's copper.
A drawing of the spectrum made by a prism is incorrect because the order of colors is reversed.
The graphs incorrectly show that as water turns to ice its temperature drops continuously. In fact, while water is at the point of freezing, the temperature remains constant.