School Texts: The Outlook Of Teachers

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The decline of the American textbook has been greatly exaggerated--at least if teachers' opinions mean anything.

After examining dozens of studies of textbooks and identifying the most common criticisms, several colleagues and I asked a group of classroom teachers whether they agreed or disagreed with the typical judgments.

The teachers' responses suggested that they think textbooks generally are sound--and in some ways, getting better.

These results contrast dramatically with the analyses propounded by the current crop of textbook critics, a group made up almost completely of journalists, professors, education bureaucrats, and members of prestigious commissions charged with the responsibility of assessing the state of American education.

In fact, as we reviewed recent literature on the so-called "textbook crisis,'' we were unable to locate a single book or article on this subject written by a teacher.

But to assume that the views published in newspapers, magazines, and professional journals accurately represent the outlook of teachers could have dangerous consequences.

Our study of teachers' opinions was simple in design and format. We began with a search for books and articles focusing on the nature and quality of elementary- and secondary-school textbooks. Reviewing more than 30 publications, we identified the major criticisms made in each work and then isolated the charges leveled most often. These points we clustered into five categories: readability, content, organization, controversial issues, and "general'' criticisms.

So that our sample of teachers would have an opportunity to react to every criticism, we condensed each point into a relatively brief statement--keeping as much of the authors' original language as possible.

Typical survey items included the following:

  • "The content of textbooks has been declining dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years.''
  • "Textbooks are dull, flat, and unimaginative.''
  • "Textbook publishers try to please everyone, acquiescing to public demands, sacrificing principles for market realities.''
  • "Textbooks should teach fewer topics in greater depth.''

We asked a group of 100 elementary- and secondary-school teachers in two districts (one urban, one suburban) to indicate the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with each item on the survey. If they wished, the teachers could also add comments on each item.

And we conducted in-depth interviews with six teachers--to see whether one-on-one contact might yield conclusions markedly different from our survey results.

We found that teachers agreed with the critics on only seven of the 40 items. Our sample concurred, for instance, in the view that the textbook-adoption procedure needs considerable improvement and that teachers should play the major role in textbook selection. The teachers agreed that textbooks exert a powerful influence on what is taught in school and how it is taught. They also felt that publishers do try to please too many constituents and that textbooks do not do a very good job in teaching children how to think.

On the other hand, our sample emphatically differed with the critics on 20 items. For example, 88 percent of the surveyed teachers either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the notion that the quality of textbooks has been "declining dramatically'' during the past 10 years. Seventy-five percent disagreed strongly with criticisms labeling modern texts as "flat and/or unimaginative,'' written in a "choppy and stilted'' style, "lacking in continuity,'' saturated with "pointless'' workbook exercises.

The teachers did not believe that texts try to "remold the character and values of children'' or that they give a "one-sided view of the world.''

Twenty-six of the participants added comments at the end of the survey. In almost every case, these notes corroborated the survey's results. The following examples are representative:

  • "Our textbooks are beautifully illustrated and are up to date. They give clear, concise information and the children seem to enjoy them. I consider them a great teaching tool.''
  • "Most teachers use the textbook as a reference and develop creative ideas of their own to expand upon the lesson.''
  • "I'd like to see textbooks emphasize critical thinking and seeing both sides of an issue or argument.''
  • "Sometimes it is not the textbook that covers too much material, but the curriculum which expects the teacher to cover too much information. By trying to cover too much, depth in coverage is sacrificed.''

Data gathered in the six in-depth interviews further supported the information obtained through the original survey. Five general areas were discussed during the interviews: the importance of textbooks, the selection and use of texts, what constitutes good and bad texts, what those interviewed would change about the books, and the degree to which teachers should be involved in the development of texts.

Sample excerpts from our "interview summary'' follow:

  • Textbooks are viewed as necessary and desirable teaching aids by these teachers. They are seen as "the core in any curriculum.'' Textbooks are valued as "orientation tools'' and as "means of generating discussion.'' Textbooks are often supplemented to make the material in them relevant to current events and the lives of students, and to reinforce information taught earlier in the text.
  • Good textbooks were described as being "thorough and accurate,'' as having "good outlines, summaries, reviews, and illustrations/diagrams.'' Good textbooks were described further as being visually attractive, having "highlights of important ideas.'' Appropriate readability levels characterize good textbooks for these teachers, as does the inclusion of guidelines to help them adapt the books for use with students of varying abilities and needs.
  • Bad textbooks lacked these qualities; they were described as being "too deep,'' "not appropriate to student ability,'' lacking appealing illustrations and/or diagrams, and lacking material that relates the subject matter to the "real world.''

According to this sample, then, teachers place great value on their textbooks; indeed, they see texts as indispensable tools.

In their view, the books are, for the most part, realistic, relevant to children's lives, and fair in their treatment of a variety of difficult issues, as well as readable and well organized. And rather than declining--as the critics charge--the quality of texts is steadily improving, teachers feel.

They also believe, however, that they should play the major role in choosing books for their classrooms; many in our sample felt that teachers are neglected in the decisionmaking process.

And they regard teaching children how to think as a vital function of textbooks. In this area, the surveyed teachers indicated, texts need considerable improvement.

The discrepancy between teachers' opinions and those of recent critics most likely stems from differences in the perceived purposes of texts. Teachers commonly judge a book by its practicality: They want useful exercises and follow-up materials at the end of chapters, for example; they value accessible writing. The lack of literary quality so often censured by detractors may matter little to teachers.

Indeed, this implicit disagreement about the qualities necessary for effective textbooks makes changing the books in response to the most common criticisms a risky proposition.

For, as the principal constituency of textbooks, teachers must feel comfortable with any alterations: Changes must jibe with classroom needs. Most teachers, for example, would consider a book with poor readability worthless to them. Yet a frequent target of recent criticism has been the "simple'' style of many texts. A more sophisticated style might make the book more pleasing to critics but produce a text teachers would find unusable.

To make balanced judgments about textbooks and to produce the best possible learning materials for America's children, our survey suggests, publishers, administrators, parents, and policymakers should more frequently and vigorously seek the opinions of teachers about the resources to be used in their classrooms.

Vol. 7, Issue 39 Extra Edition, Page 56

Published in Print: August 3, 1988, as School Texts: The Outlook Of Teachers
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