To the Editor:
California’s “curriculum crisis” may present an opportunity for educators to evaluate the worth of a textbook-adoption system created in 1927 (“California Faces a Curriculum Crisis,” Sept. 16, 2009). As a veteran Los Angeles teacher, I wonder whether making experimental revisions to textbooks justifies the enormous expenditures.
As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1960s, I was taught that “new math” based on set theory was the best learning strategy for schoolchildren. In the ’70s, however, my own children’s school no longer used that method. I returned to teaching in the ’80s as “fuzzy” discovery-integrated math made its debut, though my private school resisted and followed the traditional, content-rich course sequence of prealgebra though Algebra 2. A decade later, teaching at a public magnet school, I found California phasing out traditional math courses and paying only for integrated discovery-based math books. Eventually the state reversed itself, another experiment ended.
Who profited from these decades of experimentation on schoolchildren? The state curriculum and textbook-adoption commission certainly, and the textbook publishers enormously. Your article quotes California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who says, “Each new version of our textbooks seeks to improve on the last as we learn what strategies and materials are most effective.” That so many versions are so readily abandoned argues against that view.
A timeline accompanying the story shows when various subjects’ textbooks were supposed to be replaced from 2009 through 2012. Science and history evolve significantly and require updating, perhaps using supplementary materials. But what major changes occur in language arts, mathematics, or Spanish to justify costly new textbooks every few years? It’s often experimental learning strategies such as “whole language,” “discovery math,” and “cooperative learning”—not new content—embodied in revised textbooks.
That this whole process has been halted due to budget troubles may actually benefit students and teachers, and encourage the creation of a better textbook-replacement process in California’s future.
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Calif. ‘Curriculum Crisis’ May Have a Silver Lining