The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Textbooks: an overlooked piece of the reform puzzle

According to industry research, between 80-90% of teachers rely on the textbook as a fundamental instructional tool. So what happens to learning when those textbooks are, as a rule, terrible?

MSNBC.com explores this issue as part of a special report titled "Can America Compete?" in the article "A textbook case of failure." From the article:

If America’s textbooks were systematically graded, Wang and other scholars say, they would fail abysmally.

American textbooks are both grotesquely bloated (so much so that some state legislatures are considering mandating lighter books to save students from back injuries) and light as a feather intellectually, flitting briefly over too many topics without examining any of them in detail. Worse, too many of them are pedagogically dishonest, so thoroughly massaged to mollify competing political and identity-group interests as to paint a startlingly misleading picture of America and its history.

Textbooks have become so bland and watered-down that they are “a scandal and an outrage,” the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank in Washington, charged in a scathing report issued a year and a half ago.

“They are sanitized to avoid offending anyone who might complain at textbook adoption hearings in big states, they are poorly written, they are burdened with irrelevant and unedifying content, and they reach for the lowest common denominator,” Diane Ravitch, a senior official in the Education Department during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, wrote in the report’s introduction.

“As a result of all this, they undermine learning instead of building and encouraging it,” she added.


The problem, according to the article, is that textbooks are hugely expensive to produce, which means that they must find a ready market upon publication. In order to be acceptable to the market, they must be approved by committees in each state - and, since California and Texas make up 1/3 of the market, the committees in those two states hold tremendous sway over what is produced. And the power held by those committees is being directed by activists with a political, not educational, agenda.

Also from the article:

In Texas, the Board of Education is dominated by political conservatives who are heavily lobbied by conservative activists, among them the evangelical group Focus on the Family and the husband-and-wife team of Mel and Norma Gabler, whose tireless campaigning for religiously centered teaching materials has made them among the most influential forces in the production of American textbooks.

Texas’ textbooks, which are often adopted by other states that have few alternatives, have included board-ordered passages mandating politically conservative definitions of marriage, abortion and same-sex relationships and instructing students that pregnancies are best prevented by “respecting yourself” and getting “plenty of rest.” They have eliminated any mention of condoms, even though Texas leads the nation in teenage pregnancies.

In California, by contrast, the controlling forces are “social content standards” that insist that the state’s textbooks — even those in math and the sciences — portray ethnic groups, women, the elderly, the disabled and religious groups in precise proportionality to their representation in the population.

Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley, now part of textbook giant Pearson Prentice Hall, developed a 161-page manual titled “Multicultural Guidelines” in 1996 just to navigate the process in California. As summarized in the Fordham Institute report, the manual says company textbooks:

must include illustrations of tall and short people, heavy and thin individuals, people with disabilities, and families headed by two parents, by one parent, by grandparents, by aunts/uncles, and by other adults. When writing about the development of the U.S. Constitution, authors are directed to cite the dubious claim that it was patterned “partially after the League of Five Nations — a union formed by five Iroquois nations.”


Education is a complex system, and the changes we are focusing on in a relatively few areas will absolutely fail if the rest of the system is not addressed simultaneously. What happens if you improve teacher training/education and then stick teachers with these textbooks as their foundational instructional tool? Can a better-qualified teacher get better results if these are the types of materials s/he has to work with?

I've been thinking a lot about systems theory - will post more on it soon - but it's so clear that with instructional tools like these, targeted education reform efforts will trip and fall before they ever make it out of the gate.

1 Comments:

  • I troll eBay, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and used textbook sites to supplement our homeschool curriculum.

    I won't buy any text produced for PS consumption if it was printed after 1979. Even geography, even history.

    I'll end up teaching my son upper level history with my college textbooks (which aren't nearly as bad) and through newspapers. The end of the 20th & the beginning of the 21st centuries will end up being taught as "current events"

    By Unique, at 10:58 PM  

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