Q & A: Researcher Sees Reason for Optimism in Social-Studies Texts

March 18, 1992 5 min read

Social-studies textbooks have long borne the brunt of criticism aimed at classroom materials. Attacked as bland, “dumbed down,’' and superficial, the books have also come under fire from representatives of minority groups, who complain that the books ignore the contributions of their cultures.

But a new federally funded study by University of Pittsburgh researchers suggests some cause for optimism. The researchers analyzed four of the best-selling social-studies textbook programs used in grades 2, 4, and 6 and compared the results with those of similar reviews conducted in the 1980’s. They say the books they examined, all of which were published between 1989 and 1991, show some improvement over earlier editions.

Margaret J. Rogers, the project’s research coordinator, discussed the study with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero.

Q. Why is there cause for optimism?

A. Basically, our paper talks about five of the major criticisms: instructional design, wrong-headed choice of content, too much content, [the perception that] texts are too easy, and [the charge] that they lack literary merit. ... We found evidence of greater depth--particularly in the coverage of American regions at the 4th-grade level--and in coverage of some non-United States content, such as the [former] Soviet Union and China, and certainly greater coverage of geographic content--in both the five themes of geography and in geography skills, which are virtually uniformly introduced. We also found evidence of more lively writing, as well as more literature. ... There were more primary sources in some of the books. ...

We saw more discussion of multiple causation and the interpretive quality of history.

Q. Social-studies textbooks in California and elsewhere have been criticized recently for their portrayals of minority groups. Has there been improvement in that area?

A. The first step in improving multicultural content was introducing pictures of minorities and women and handicapped people in texts, but that was quite superficial. The next step was cameos of “great’’ African-Americans.

If you look at the continuum, the next step was to introduce groups at key points in American history. For example, African-Americans have been traditionally covered when the “three-fifths clause’’ is discussed in the adoption of the Constitution, and referred to again briefly in abolitionist times, the Emancipation Proclamation, and then typically picked up strongly with the civil-rights movement with some reference backward to key Constitutional decisions of the late 19th century. What we have found now to a greater extent--and I won’t say that it’s perfect--is more of the life of the everyday person. This reflects the fact that there has been a trickling down of social history. Really, textbooks have caught up ... with current historical interpretation.

You mention California and stronger calls for an Afrocentric approach, to actually tell it from the perspective of African-Americans. Certainly, we don’t see that.

Q. What about other minority groups?

A. The African-American story, the women’s story, and, to some extent, the Native Americans’ story are equally well treated. To a much lesser extent, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are treated. I think there’s room for more of their stories.

Q. You found that textbooks are continuing to grow. On average, each book was 84 pages longer than its counterpart in the previous edition. Does that become counterproductive?

A. First of all, it’s very daunting for a 6th grader to pick up a whopping 605-page text. ... I guess, to my mind, a quality text is one that has depth as well as breadth. If longer necessarily meant more in-depth treatment of subjects, then longer texts would not necessarily be bad, but there is still brief and shallow treatment--"mentioning,’' as it’s called--in a number of areas.

There is one caveat there, and that is we only looked at the texts themselves, and so much is dependent on what the teacher brings. ... As a reference book, there is nothing wrong with 605 pages, but if students are being asked to read it from cover to cover, it doesn’t leave a lot of leeway for other important social-studies concerns, such as community involvement or current events.

Q. Did you find more history in general?

A. In 2nd grade, it’s still primarily the community approach. ... [At other levels, one program] more explicitly defines history and gives a brief overview of American history from the Native Americans to the Oregon trail. [Another program] goes to elaboration of the Spanish-English colonization of the United States.

I think generally we see more history and more geography, which is certainly what the California framework, the Committee on Geography Education, and the Bradley Commission [on History in Schools] are all calling for, and I think we can see that influence.

Q. What is the most significant change you found in the books?

A. I think the one that bears greater investigation is the organization of texts themselves. In all of the discussion about choice of content ... I think not enough attention has been paid to how texts are organized so that they’re user-friendly.

We don’t know this, but we suspect that organizing around powerful themes and using a single text structure and organizing content so that readers aren’t asked to make quantum leaps across time and space may be more helpful for them in learning the material. Then, as as they go on to high school, if they have a framework that they can hang additional new information on, it might encourage comprehension, retention, and evaluation. ...

For example, in [one 6th-grade] program ... they lay out a chronological framework, but all areas of the world are covered at the same time. It’s like the “Circa 1492'’ exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, where we see at the same times what is happening in Europe and Asia.

Q. Where are textbooks most in need of improvement?

A. I think in the honest treatment of important controversial issues. For example, we mentioned in the paper that global issues, such as the environment, international trade, and cooperation, are treated. But issues such as world hunger, nuclear power, population growth, the scarcity of nonrenewable resources--they’re discussed economically, but the political and moral issues are undertreated.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Q & A: Researcher Sees Reason for Optimism in Social-Studies Texts