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Why Textbooks Stink
By Kathy Ceceri

Texas School Board Political Cartoon

In a November/December 2004 article in Edutopia magazine called The Muddle Machine, writer Tamim Ansary confirmed what everybody who’s ever opened a lousy science, math, history or English textbook has suspected for a long time – the answer to the question “Who writes these things?” is “No one.”

Ansary, author of 38 nonfiction books for children, was an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for nine years before going on to write for Houghton Mifflin, McDougall Littell, Prentice Hall, and many other textbook publishers. And according to his insider’s view, the process used to create the books schools rely on looks more like a sausage factory than a scholarly collaboration.

Regardless of the prestigious names and credentials which often appear on the title page of most textbooks, in standard practice textbooks are written by teams of in-house writers (or, more recently, outside “development houses”) who use as the basis of their product not the latest findings by experts in the field but – other textbooks. As Ansary describes, the “chum” is then updated by the application of whatever hot new teaching philosophy is coming down the pike, tweaked by an editor to make it sound as if it were penned by a single consciousness, and only then adorned with the name of the researcher or professor who is dubbed “the author.”

(Sometimes the “author” isn’t even aware his name’s been connected with a textbook. In October, 2000 Forbes magazine related how textbook publishing company Scott Foresman told California school officials that Dr. Stan Metzenberg, a biologist and proponent of improving science teaching in the state, had reviewed their lesson plans when, in fact, he never even saw them.)

The most bizarre story Ansary tells is about a freelance editor who once sent him a chapter from her client's three major competitors, and asked him to do what the other companies had done, only better.

“I had to laugh,” he writes, because “I had written (for other development houses) all three of the lessons I was competing with.”

Thanks to the way textbook publishers cannibalize themselves and each other, oversimplifications and blatant mis-statements are not only passed down from edition to edition, they’re also spread like a bad cold from one publisher’s textbook to another, until dubious “facts” become so widespread they earn the status of “conventional wisdom.” That’s the reason why professionals in math, science, history and other subjects who are asked or decide on their own to review all the latest textbooks available find that they are all about the same. They are.

Bully for Brontosaurus book

In his book Bully for Brontosaurus, Harvard science professor and evolution expert Stephen Jay Gould had a chapter called “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone.” In 1987, browsing through what were then the latest science textbooks on display at a convention of high school science teachers, Gould discovered that in every book that covered evolution, the same topics were presented in the same order, sometimes using illustrations so similar they barely avoided copyright infringement. When they talked about the fossil record, the example almost always used was the evolution of horse from Eohippus to modern thoroughbred. Time and again the little “dawn horse” was described as being the size of a fox terrier. Doing a little research of his own, Gould found the that size of the extinct creature had originally been compared to that of a fox, mutating to a fox terrier by 1904. And that image stuck, even though by 1986 experts believed the average size of Eohippus was 55 pounds, closer to a collie than a terrier.

The problem of poorly-produced textbooks certainly isn’t new. In 1964, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was asked by the state of California to look at how well the latest math textbooks addressed the way math related to science. He was not impressed.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman book

“The reason was,” as he later wrote in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, “that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.”

Lies My Teacher Told Me book

And no subject seems to be immune. When sociologist James Loewen spent two years at the Smithsonian Institution surveying leading high school textbooks of American history, he found what he called an embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation. While high school students routinely rank history as their least favorite class, he wrote in his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, for those who willingly studied it, the more classes they took, the stupider they became. Much of Loewen’s criticism had to do with the textbooks’ political leanings, but he also noted that despite an average length of 888 pages, many of the books skimped on actual quotes. For instance, a 16-paragraph discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates talked about the politicians’ clothes, their physical appearance and their voices without including a single sentence spoken during the debates themselves.

One common complaint about textbooks today is that, despite their heft, they’re often lightweight in content. A February 2001 article in Prism, the journal of the American Society for Engineering Education, talked about middle-school science textbooks filled with dry facts and arcane vocabulary laid out on pages that are, by contrast, dizzyingly overloaded with sidebars, boxes, and highlighted text that make them almost impossible to follow. The article notes that not one middle school science textbooks reviewed in 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science was considered satisfactory.

Of course, professional educators and researchers are not the only ones complaining about textbooks. Parents and citizens groups regularly call for changes in textbooks reflecting particular political or religious views, and many times, they succeed. One hundred years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, opposing sides are still waging the evolution-creation fight. (Gould, who often testified on behalf of teaching evolution, wondered why his son’s high school biology textbook invited students to “investigate other theories” when he never saw similar invitations to, for instance, check out levitation as an alternative to the theory of gravity.) In November 2004, CBS News reported a group of parents were suing a school district in Georgia which had added stickers that said "Evolution is a theory, not a fact,” to biology textbooks at the earlier insistence of other parents. The same story noted that the State Board of Education in Texas exerted pressure on publishers to change the wording in their health textbooks to specify that marriage was a lifelong union between a man and woman, an issue of debate in many parts of the country.

Texas Textbook Cartoon

As textbook editor Ansary noted in his essay, to publishers “Texas is truly the tail that wags the dog.” Only books that pass the state board’s muster can be sold there, and the state spends more than any other on its textbooks. Because Texas (and to a lesser extent California and Florida) are so important to publishers, and because corporate mergers have left the industry with basically four big players, publishers aim to please the board and the activists that influence it, and pretty much ignore what schools elsewhere might want.

It’s an old saw that good teachers can overcome bad textbooks, and textbook critics have a few suggestions. For history, Loewen suggests teachers bring more than one textbook into the classroom, to compare and contrast different versions of events. He also recommends finding original materials like speeches and important documents online or in the teacher’s editions. Well-researched imaginative literature is another way to get students involved in history.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and author of The Language Police, which talks about how test and textbook publishers, particularly in history and English, let pressure groups restrict what students learn, includes a 30-page “sampler of classic literature” suggesting books that teachers and parents can use to fill in the gaps left by textbook that are censored and dumbed-down. Ravitch also asserts that making sure teachers are knowledgeable in the subjects they teach would mean less reliance on bad textbooks.

Ansary would like to see states get rid of the textbook adoption process altogether, and let teachers pull together their own classroom resources instead relying on a single text. He envisions teachers supplementing a mini-encyclopedia reference core with related fiction and nonfiction books, board games, software and hands-on materials like maps or models that would make the subject come alive (similar to the way many homeschoolers design their own curricula without textbooks). Ansary believes that letting schools pick and choose the elements of from different, smaller publishers would encourage competition by smaller companies and increase diversity, instead of stifling it.

A History of Us books

According to a series by author Janet Raloff on middle school science textbooks in the magazine Science News, small publishers are in fact starting to offer textbook alternatives, including curriculum packages that containing experiment kits, explanatory booklets, and other nontraditional materials. The Story of Science by Joy Hakim, who wrote A History of US (basis of a PBS program), is one such alternative: a series of books that interweaves creation myths, history, physics, and mathematics to present a seamless, multifaceted view of the foundation of modern science. Hands-on materials that complement the books are available.

In the meantime, an article by Rebecca Jones, senior editor of the American School Board Journal (a publication of the National School Boards Association), urges school districts to hold on to old, meatier textbooks rather than trading them in for flashy but less substantial newer models. Jones also supports the idea of turning to other countries like Singapore, whose students outperform American kids on tests, for textbooks with clout.

There may not be an easy solution to the problem of lousy textbooks, but parents can at least make sure their children know there are better ways to learn.

© 2004 Kathryn Ceceri

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