Education Commentary

On Teaching and Textbook Publishing: Political Issues Obscure Questions of Pedagogy

By Arthur Woodward — January 21, 1987 6 min read

There can be few educators who have not heard of California’s decision in 1985 to reject many of the 7th- and 8th-grade science textbooks submitted for state adoption, and its similar decision last year on the K-8 mathematics series. But while the two rejections made exciting headlines and sent publishers scurrying to change their materials, California officials have in fact been sending out confusing messages about the state’s commitment to genuinely improving the instructional quality of textbooks. Indeed, rather than being in the vanguard of textbook reform, California may be in the unenviable position of being a leader without any followers.

The actions by the California Board of Education jarred the publishing industry and appeared to affirm Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig’s pledge to improve the quality of the much-condemned “dumbed down,” poor-quality, compromised textbooks that students were using. Indeed, with its lucrative adoption contracts (in 1985, they were worth $134 million), California’s influence is such that after a dazed and uncertain silence following the science-text decision, most publishers decided to revise their materials to incorporate or strengthen coverage of evolution and other issues as the board had demanded.

The exclusion of evolution, human reproduction, and other contentious topics from many science textbooks has been well documented. Publishers’ avoidance of such topics is surprising only to those who are unaware of the influence of special-interest groups and the sensitivity of publishers to attacks on their textbooks. The nature of the state-adoption process, especially in the recent past, has resulted in publishers self -censoring their own books in an attempt to anticipate criticism. The result, most blatantly apparent in the field of science, is textbooks that clearly misrepresent the discipline on which they are based. Thus, it appeared that the California board’s action, even though rejecting only the junior-high-school science texts, would send an important message to publishers that topics deemed “controversial” could not be excluded or downplayed.

Unfortunately, that message seemed to get lost. Publishers made only token revisions, adding one or two paragraphs to the rejected texts. In the end, Mr. Honig did not effect significant change in the treatment of controversial topics. But, more important, in choosing to address the essentially political issue of censorship, rather than ones of pedagogy, Mr. Honig seems to have missed a real opportunity to begin the slow process of improving the instructional quality of textbooks.

Below the surface of the glossy, coffee-table-style books that emerge from the current textbook industry are: lessons that students find superficial and meaningless; end-of-chapter exercises that emphasize factual recall; photographs that do nothing to enhance the content of the text; and skill lessons that avoid teaching higher-order thinking skills. Mr. Honig could have made an important statement that the instructional-design quality of a textbook was just as important as the coverage of controversial issues. He did not.

The state’s more recent rejection of the K-8 mathematics textbooks also ignores the actual quality of textbooks in favor of an attempt to radically change the kind of mathematics that is taught in California schools. The rejection of the math series, which occurred because it failed to meet new curriculum guidelines that radically departed from school-district curricula, raises the issue of whether state officials are being realistic. Can the state really expect to institute far-reaching curriculum changes so quickly? I am not criticizing the intent behind the California Math Framework, which emphasizes the topics that ought to be included in a sound mathematics education. Rather, I am questioning whether the fundamental issues of curriculum reform can be effected through textbooks, and whether the wholesale rejection of all mathematics books is merely a quick-fix proxy for genuine improvements.

In any event, for all the influence of California and Texas, textbooks are basically consensus documents that will sell as well in Peoria as in San Diego. While publishers will include California flora and fauna in a chapter on minerals in their science series, and the Texas state capitol in a chapter on social studies, the fact remains that the content and kills contained in the textbooks will be a fair match with what the vast majority of states and school districts demand and what school districts and states test for.

Ironically, while the economics of a national market has enabled textbooks almost to reach the aesthetic and production qualities characteristic of high-quality art books (often at the expense of instructional quality), such a market is, by definition, conservative and slow to change. While California can demand that the textbooks its schools use meet certain criteria. these standards cannot be radically different from ones used in the rest of the country--at least not if California expects to adopt textbooks produced for the national market. Thus, if California really wants to implement curriculum change through the textbooks it adopts, it will be forced to finance the development of books specifically designed for that state.

Like the curriculum-reform movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, California in the 1980’s has chosen textbooks as the vehicle to implement curriculum change. Yet, as the failure of the new math and new social studies in the 60’s and 70’s so clearly showed, the developers of the new curriculum materials were leaders with few followers. Little effort had been made, at the grassroots level, to inform and educate the people whose job it would be to purchase and use the new materials, and few people could really be surprised that school districts preferred materials that more closely reflected well-established curricula.

Similarly, the news that a number of large California school districts had already “preselected” math textbooks shows with striking clarity the wide divisions and tensions that exist between the reform goals of the state and the preferences of teachers and administrators at the local levels.

Signs are already appearing that California is realizing that it cannot totally change math textbooks produced for a national market. Publishers must now show that their series covers three topics mandated by California’s Math Framework, instead of the 10 originally listed. Demands for radical textbook-design changes that would have meant massive revision have been dropped.

Faced with a policy that has been inconsistent and confusing, it is not surprising that, to date, California’s approach to textbook reform finds few followers among the other states. In the meantime, textbook content is till facile, the illustrations still inappropriate, and the end-of-chapter questions still banal. When California begins to address textbook improvement in terms of improvement in instructional design, California will indeed be a leader in educational reform. Until then, the state must be satisfied with an additional paragraph or two on evolution and an attempt, which history suggests is doomed to failure, at implementing fundamental curriculum reform through textbooks.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 1987 edition of Education Week