Published Online:

Textbook Rules Have Backfired, Report Contends

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

WASHINGTON, State policies aimed at improving school textbooks have, in fact, destroyed the quality of the books and made it nearly impossible for good ones to be produced and sold, the Council for Basic Education charged last week.

"The harder [state officials] try to regulate the content of textbooks,'' concludes a report released by the council, "the less useful textbooks become for their own students and students elsewhere in the country.''

This problem has had profound effects on children's learning and love for reading, according to the report's author, Harriet Tyson-Bernstein, a senior research associate for the council.

"Much of what is in the textbooks is incomprehensible to me,'' she said at a press briefing here. "I can't imagine what it's like for a young person. That's a large part of the reason why kids don't read books.''

The report notes that the 22 states that adopt textbooks statewide have sought to align the books with their curricula and tests; required texts to adhere to "readability formulas''; and encouraged publishers to produce new editions and additional materials.

Far from improving the products, the report argues, these practices--which districts in the other 28 states have mimicked--have resulted in books that resemble "a thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes, and charts.''

Abolishing statewide adoptions might cure some of these ills, the report says. But it stops short of recommending such a step, conceding that it is politically unrealistic and might produce unintended new problems.

Instead, the report urges state policymakers to divorce curriculum and testing programs from textbook adoption, abandon the use of readability formulas, and improve the selection and training of adoption committees.

In addition, it says, national curriculum organizations should define curricula and encourage scholars to write textbooks, and foundations should support independent textbook reviews and research.

It also urges teachers' unions to organize textbook-study groups and press for greater involvement of teachers in selecting materials.

Ideally, the report concludes, textbook-selection policies should be changed to place student learning above all other criteria.

Officials of the C.B.E.--a nonprofit group that promotes the study of the liberal arts--also announced plans for a project to follow up the study. They said the council had contracted with Bruce Britton, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, to conduct classroom tests of the effectiveness of textbook passages.

The project is intended to create a standard that members of adoption committees can use in analyzing books, according to David H. Lynn, an editor at the council.

Source of the Problem

The report, "A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco,'' follows a number of studies by political groups and scholars that have criticized textbooks as bland and devoid of controversial content. The studies have found, for example, that books often omit information on evolution, environmental issues, and the role of religion in American history.

But while these critiques have attracted a great deal of media attention, the CBE report says, another group of studies, based on research on how children learn, have highlighted a more serious problem: that most texts are educationally unsound.

In particular, the report says, "two serious flaws afflict the vast majority of commercially prepared materials for children: writing is poor and books treat most topics so superficially that students can't make sense of what they are reading.''

But unlike critiques that have blamed textbook publishers for such flaws, the C.B.E. study places responsibility for them squarely in state capitals.

"Authors and editors do not willingly chop and flatten sentences, nor do they thoughtlessly mangle storylines,'' it says. "The source of the writing problem is not in the publishing house, but in the public agency.''

"Legislators, educational policymakers, and administrative regulators,'' it concludes, "have unintentionally drained the life out of children's textbooks.''

To provide an example of the "Byzantine'' textbook-adoption process constructed by state policymakers, the report includes an account of an adoption in the mythical "state of Nirvana.''

"Through this fictitious (but not false) account,'' the report says, "we protect the identities of willful states, misguided experts, cunning marketeers, and overworked teachers and administrators, and try to give the reader an understanding of how textbooks have come to be the way they are despite everybody's best intentions.''

Readability Formulas

Specifically, the report notes, policymakers have "flatly rejected textbooks that fail to achieve a mandated numerical score on a readability formula.''

Such formulas, while aimed at ensuring that the reading level of the books matches the ability of students, have in fact made the books more difficult to understand, the report contends.

"Great writers can rise above the constraints'' set by the formulas, Ms. Tyson-Bernstein said, citing as an example Theodor, author of the popular Dr. Seuss books. But, she noted, "there are very few Dr. Seusses around, and most of them don't work for publishing companies.''

Policymakers have also crimped the writing in textbooks by requiring them to match curriculum guidelines and the items that will be tested on standardized assessments.

This practice, known as "alignment,'' has become increasingly common as school systems seek ways to improve their students' scores on achievement tests.

But this practice has hamstrung textbook publishers, the report argues. "Instead of designing a book from the standpoint of its subject or its capacity to capture the children's imagination,'' it says, "editors are increasingly organizing elementary reading series around the content and timing of standardized tests.''

The 'Mentioning' Problem

State officials often demand that books include long lists of particular content items, the report says.

But while this practice has the worthwhile goal of ensuring that students learn the curriculum, it says, such lists have led to the problem of "mentioning''--in which a hodgepodge of items are named with little explanation or context. No two state lists are identical, it notes, and publishers therefore must include a vast number of such items in order to sell to a national market.

As with bad writing, "mentioning'' helps make books incomprehensible, Ms. Tyson-Bernstein argued.

"Regardless of the message one wants to convey, students are not going to get a message in the vehicle presented in these books,'' she said. "They are a basket of leaves. There is no tree on which a child can hang the facts.''

This problem has become more acute in recent years, the report says, as special-interest groups and scholars have pressured policymakers to include more topics in their required lists. And curriculum-alignment efforts that employ "key-word searches'' to analyze whether the books match the curriculum have further exacerbated the problem, it notes.

"The book that uses the word 'mitosis' four times in two pages will have an advantage over the book that explains mitosis well in one and a half pages while only using the term twice,'' it says.

Other state practices, such as frequent demands for new editions and rewards for publishers that provide "freebies,'' drive up the cost of textbooks without providing any benefit to students, the report notes.

But, it says, reform is possible at relatively low cost. The cost of instructional materials represents less than 1 percent of per-pupil expenditures in most states, it notes.

Copies of the report can be purchased for for $10 each, plus $3 postage and handling, from the Council for Basic Education, 725 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories