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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Science Group Bemoans Quality Of Biology Textbooks

Science Group Bemoans Quality Of Biology Textbooks

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High school biology textbooks, a leading science professional group says, suffer from the same problem as the curriculum they're based on: They're a mile wide and an inch deep.

For More Information

Visit Project 2061, of the AAAS, for more information on the review.

A review of the 10 most popular biology texts found them to be loaded with facts for students to memorize, but offering little explanation of the underlying scientific importance of them. The analysis is the latest under Project 2061, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's long- running effort to improve science education.

"The important ideas are often camouflaged behind vast amounts of vocabulary and details," George D. Nelson, Project 2061's director, said at a press conference held here late last month to release the analysis. "Not much learning of biology is going to take place while using these books."

In the review conducted by biology teachers and curriculum specialists, few of the most commonly used books and their supplementary materials received average marks higher than "poor" in the 19 categories Project 2061 defined as important.

For example, the evaluators rated all of them poor in "demonstrating use of knowledge" and "encouraging students to reflect on their own learning."

The findings are similar to those of an influential international study that called the United States' science and mathematics curriculum "a mile wide and an inch deep" and said it lacked the rigor and depth of other countries'.

What the Customers Want

If textbooks are inadequate, publishers counter, it's because they reflect what policymakers say they want. Authors base their books on states' academic standards and the materials demanded when state officials formally adopt books for use in their classrooms, the publishers point out. The publishing companies also survey teachers to gauge their interests.

"The content of instructional materials is not determined by those who publish these materials, but rather by those who use them," Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers' Washington-based school division, said in a statement.

For More Information

Read results from the Project 2061 study.

Mr. Nelson of Project 2061 acknowledged that publishers are confined by what they are able to sell, but he said that the AAAS initiative is working to change what schools demand of them.

"Our intent is to slowly change the market ... so someday, the textbooks will be in the form that helps students learn the material," he said.

The science group plans to hold a conference this fall that will bring together scientists, curriculum directors, publishers, and teachers to discuss ways of improving the content of textbooks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nelson suggested that biology teachers supplement—or even replace—the current texts with trade books that fully explain biological issues. One book he recommended is The Beak of the Finch, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of current research of the species on which Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution.

Teachers also can revise existing materials or prepare new ones that will aid students in getting beyond learning the facts of biology and into a rich understanding of the principles of it, Mr. Nelson said.

Project 2061's "Instructional Analysis of Biology Textbooks" is the fourth in a series from Project 2061, all underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Earlier reports have pronounced middle school science and algebra texts inadequate, but declared that some middle school math books fit Project 2061's vision of good teaching.

Project 2061 plans to evaluate elementary school math and science materials next.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 13

Web Resources
  • Hear an interview with Dr. George Nelson, from "As It Happens," a radio production of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, June 29. (Requires the RealAudio Player.)
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