Monday, March 19, 2012

Textbook Dependence

There's been lots of talk lately on textbooks (or maybe not so lately--I've been avoiding writing). First, Beverlee Jobrack's Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms was published. Next, the edu-world was all aflutter over Apple's entrance into the textbooks market. Finally, veteran textbook author and publisher Annie Keeghan offered some not-so-pretty insights into the aging, hulking industry textbooks have become.

I haven't gotten a chance to read Jobrack's work, but luckily Education Week curriculum journalist Erik Robelen and by the Fordham Institute's curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee did.

I agree with Jobrack's premise as stated by Robelen that in discussions of education reform:
improving the curriculum—what actually gets taught in classrooms—is all too often left off the table. And the author, who provides an insider perspective on the world of developing and selecting curricular materials, contends that this neglect is a key obstacle to increased student learning.
Now I can't refute Jobrack's contentions, but I can speak to my opinion on textbooks, which is that they may well be inaccurate and I can only imagine that they are just slapping new labels on old content. (And this is why textbooks on i-pads will not be "revolutionary.") I also can mostly speak as a social studies teacher. When I taught strict ESOL, I didn't use one textbook in particular but various books and resources depending on what I was teaching. That was true of social studies, too, but I did lean on the textbooks more. But I think the problem with textbooks is two-fold:

1) Especially in subjects such as social studies, textbooks are over-emphasized. Sure, textbooks are useful. Especially when I teach social studies, I use them as reference books and encyclopedias. I like to have two or three sets of textbooks in the class--to check different sources but also so that students of varying reading levels can access the content. Otherwise, I have students read historical fiction and non-textbook non-fiction books, and I use articles and readings that I come across on relevant topics--from the newspaper, from periodicals. What I like about using these is that they usually reflect in some way current scholarship in certain matters, and they are what I want my students eventually to be able to read and make sense of outside of school, independently. Part of what I'm teaching students is that yes, there are facts in social studies and history, but there is also how you put together the facts, interpret them, and which facts are accepted and which are controversial and why. This leads me to the problem that. . .

2) teachers, especially at the secondary level, don't often know enough about the subjects they teach to know if the textbook is wrong or to come up with readings beyond it. When you know very little about a subject you will be teaching, if for example if you are assigned at the last minute to teach World History (as I have been), when you know much more about US History, there's going to be a lot to learn in a brief amount of time and the textbook will get leaned on more and questioned less. I won't be able to fact-check an entire textbook and nor should I have to--that's the publisher's job. And, unfortunately, these days it seems like textbooks need even more scrutiny.

Porter-Magee is right on when she says you can't just have a great curriculum and expect teachers who don't know what they're doing to implement it well. Pedagogy matters; quality of instruction matters. Nor should we just make "teacher-proof" curriculum. Where I might disagree or question Porter-Magee is when she talks about emphasizing data-driven instruction:
And so any discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.
Implementation and assessment are vital but before they even get to the classroom (and continuing as they're there), teachers, especially at the secondary level, should be much better educated (and yes I think they should also be better trained) in the subjects they teach. Teachers should rely less on textbooks and more on other books, texts, and other sources of information. Teachers should be able to spot and to point out inacccuracies. They should help students notice diverging viewpoints or conflicting information in different sources and they should facilitate discussions about these different perspectives--their genesis and how to evaluate them. Far from making textbooks and curricula teacher-proof, teachers should be able to make sense of and judgments about the curriculum and texts they're teaching and to teach their students to do the same.

To attract people that knowledgeable and educated, we have to at least provide much better working conditions, greater professional autonomy, and better pay, but I guess I already covered that in another post.


  1. I'm convinced textbooks are a huge racket. As my dad likes to say, Euclidean geometry has not changed in 1800 years, and yet somehow textbook companies manage to come out with new versions every two or three years. Some of this is genuine advances in presentation, but most of the time it's just a way of hiding behind "new teaching methods" to get more money out of students.

    The textbook industry has also gotten a lot of college professors hooked by offering them software that immediately produces tests and quizzes and automatically grades them - of course the catch being that everything is multiple choice, which is the ultimate in educational fast food. There are plenty of public-access textbooks in subjects like introductory physics (another subject that hasn't changed much in four hundred years) but professors are so turned on by all these bells and whistles that they keep signing up for the corporate textbooks. This of course just dumps costs onto students, who are already struggling under student loans.

    I'm glad people are talking about this.

  2. If you think about it, there are two models of education.

    The first is where the teacher teaches the class.

    The second is where the teacher teaches the textbook.

    In the first model, the teacher is presumed to know what needs to be taught. The teacher is the teacher because he or she is an expert.

    In the second model, the teacher is presumed to know *how* to teach, needing only the right "software" plugged into his or her platform.

    In this second model, we get the textbook-as-course.

    The second model is what we find most often in high schools and junior high schools across the country, because the first requires two things that are in very, very short supply: qualified experts in various subjects, and trust.

    We might be able, through a mixture of recruiting and technology advances, to remedy the first shortage.

    But trust... there's no simple fix for that.

  3. @brianpablo: I think most would agree that textbooks are a racket. I guess some are more concerned with that than others. Thanks for reading--I hope you'll comment again.

  4. @Michael: You've boiled down my post beautifully. We need more of the first model: People like you, my friend.

  5. Hi Rachel. I just noticed this post. Here are some interesting and related findings from Stanford's Ed School:

    What is especially interesting to me about these findings is that the non-standard methods of history instruction, emphasizing primary sources and no textbook, were not only richer and more geared towards developing complex "critical thinking" skills but... also improved students' recall of historical facts, such as dates and names!

    OK, it's one study. And I grant that this kind of method might work better for high school history classes than, say, second grade reading or math where you actually need to do some drilling. Still, to me this kind of research gets at what is so infuriating to me about the standardized test drilling that seems to have taken over a lot of schools. One might almost think that a rich, meaningful, engaging curriculum where students are encouraged to be problem-solvers rather than merely memorize would not only be valuable in its own right but would also be better than test prep at actually bolstering students' knowledge in the areas that standardized tests are purportedly testing! :-/

  6. oh no, I think Blogger ate my comment! anyway was going to point to these findings:

    To me the most interesting part is that the non-textbook-based, rich curriculum involving primary sources and debates and genuine problem solving etc. was not only valuable in its own right but also improved students' recall of historical facts like dates and names. So *even if you only cared about standardized test scores* this would be better. All usual caveats that it's just one study, may not work as well for lower grades, etc.

    This was all snarkier in my original post.

  7. @Sara: Thanks for commenting & sharing the study--I'll take a look. I think there really is something to going straight to the primary documents. Unfortunately, I think that K-12 students are actually being referred even less often to primary documents than they used to be.

    James Boutin @urbanteachersed (his blog is the first listed in the "What I Read" section) is a social studies teacher and has written some about primary documents. I'll try to get his attention.

  8. Thanks Rachel - I will try to take a look at James Boutin's blog. I have found even working with very high-achieving college students that they are much more engaged by primary documents. I would imagine this would be even more the case with high school students, lower-literacy students, etc. b/c the documents themselves show what is weird about the past. Even little things like the differences in typography in an old newspaper seem to spark students' interest. Unfortunately I agree with you that this seems to be less prevalent in social studies classes these days. And I sense that even when students are ostensibly studying primary sources, it's often in the context of a canned exercise like the AP document-based questions rather than in a spirit of discovery. The irony is that the raw primary sources are probably easier than ever for teachers to access if they know where to find them - through sites like the Library of Congress's Chronicling America newspaper database, Google Books, etc.

    Of course, this requires teachers to have some confidence they know the background and can guide students through the documents. There are ways to do this such as inviting college history professors to lead summer continuing ed workshops for K-12 teachers, integrating robust subject matter coursework in education schools, providing ready-made curriculum modules free for download like the Stanford project provides, etc. but of course in our current political reality funding seems to be getting cut for all those kinds of things.


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