Education Opinion

Questioning Teachers’ Outlook on Texts

By Harriet Tyson-Bernstein — September 21, 1988 5 min read

Vincent Rogers’s Commentary, “School Texts: The Outlook of Teachers” (Aug. 3,1988), pits the views of external textbook critics against those of classroom teachers, who are said to regard their textbooks as “realistic,” “relevant to children’s lives,” and “fair in their treatment of a variety of difficult issues.” Flaws in the methodology and assumptions of Mr. Rogers’s study, however, raise questions about the validity of the results and conclusions he reports.

Mr. Rogers asked 100 elementary-and secondary- school teachers to react to a list of “typical” textbook criticisms he had “condensed” into brief statements. But even when one allows for the distortions made inevitable by such compression (the same kind of distortions that textbook critics rail against), his list is a straw-man reduction of the research and commentary on texts--a version bound to generate responses supporting his evidently preconceived conclusion.

For example, what serious study of textbooks concludes that the “content of textbooks has been declining dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years"--an item Mr. Rogers says is typical of the entries in his survey?

In fact, since “content” cannot “decline,” the statement is meaningless. Does “decline” mean that today’s books are shorter? That there are fewer facts, or fewer ideas? Do the books contain more factual errors? Are they less carefully edited?

Forced to answer such a nonsensical and loaded question, I, too, along with 88 percent of the teachers Mr. Rogers surveyed, would have disagreed with the statement, if only because a few categories of textbooks have improved in recent years.

Mr. Rogers attempts to show that critics of textbooks are wrong because teachers disagree with them. Yet some issues, such as the prevalence of “choppy and stilted” writing, are matters of fact, not opinion. Even if 100 percent of the teachers, rather than the 75 percent he reports, disagreed with the scholarly findings about textbook writing, their views would not alter the evidence.

Most elementary- and junior-high-school texts--for which state-mandated readability formulas weigh heavily on writers and editors--reveal a clear pattern of short sentences, for example.

Evidence shows that students have difficulty understanding the meaning of this formula prose. The connections between ideas that would be explicit in a compound sentence are rendered implicit when sentences are chopped in two, and when words such as “because” and “however” are removed.

Similarly, the concern that texts cover too much material--and therefore treat most topics trivially--is founded on research, not personal taste. Studies of texts in many categories document the piling--on of facts and terms, the proliferation of topics and chapters, and the elliptical treatment of important subjects. Yet the teachers in Mr. Rogers’s survey do not complain about excessive coverage in the books--only in the curriculum.

Publishers faithfully mirror the overloaded curricula of many states and districts. Curiously, the study finds that teachers think--with the critics--that publishers try to please too many constituencies. Do Mr. Rogers and his teachers fail to see the incongruity here? Efforts to please too many constituencies, especially the curriculum writers, produce excessive, trivialized coverage.

The 100 teachers who think that textbooks are generally well organized, readable, and fair in their treatment of controversial issues also believe the books should present both sides of an issue and do a better job of teaching students to think.

What is not clear is whether the surveyed teachers see the connection between writing and thinking, between depth and thinking, and between controversy and thinking. One wonders whether the sample included any biology or earth-science teachers, whose textbooks have virtually ignored, for over a decade, both the concept of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.

Mr. Rogers evidently has not read the research on textbook prose (as distinct from the journalistic ravings of a handful of literary snobs). If he had, he would not attribute to textbook critics a preference for ''literary” or “sophisticated” writing, as opposed to the “simple” style that the teachers in his survey are said to prefer.

The critics are talking about clear writing that enables students to comprehend, connect, and remember. If he or his teachers had read the corpus of research on the effects of formula-driven prose on student comprehension, they would not say that “appropriate readability levels characterize good textbooks.” Again, it is not a question of what teachers believe, but of whether students, in fact, get the point of what they read.

It is not surprising that Mr. Rogers’s teachers regard texts as indispensable tools. Research has amply documented the dependency of teachers on textbooks--and their extra features that take much of the work--and judgment--out of teaching.

It also comes as no surprise that his teachers value the cosmetic features of textbooks. Students of the textbook-adoption process have documented the critical role in selection played by attractive graphics--which, though of questionable instructional value, increasingly displace text--and a recent publication date, which bears little relationship to up-to-date content.

Nor is it surprising that Mr. Rogers regards teachers--not students--as the “principal constituency” for textbooks. He champions the humble teacher who just wants an attractive book--not too deep or fancy but relevant to the “real world” of the students--and a package of helpful teaching aids.

By implication, the “journalists, professors, education bureaucrats, and members of prestigious commissions” whom he defines as the “current crop of textbook critics” oppose all those practical and helpful things. They do not. Mr. Rogers has created a series of non sequiturs and spurious discrepancies.

What is surprising is that Mr. Rogers fails to see that textbook critics are primarily interested in what’s good for students, as well as what’s ultimately good for teachers.

It is good for students to read books that ignite their interest in a subject and motivate them to read more books. It is good for students to be able to learn from books, rather than rely exclusively on a teacher who uses the book merely as an “outline” from which to teach.

But it is not good, in the long run, for teachers to depend on ready-made lesson plans; credentialed teachers can be replaced by cheap clerks if following the publisher’s directions is all that is required. Nor is it in the best interests of teachers to conceal their dependency with unsupported beliefs and opinions about textbooks.

Professional is as professional does. Professional teachers will acquire knowledge about textbook characteristics that motivate students, promote love of learning through reading, and place students’ interests slightly ahead of their own.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1988 edition of Education Week