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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Textbooks are Terrible’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 01, 2018 13 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What advice would you offer to textbook publishers?

There are some pretty terrible textbooks out there. In fact, I’ve published a popular post titled The Best Resources For Adapting Your Textbook So It Doesn’t Bore Students To Death.

Today, Dr. Barbara Blackburn, Meghan Everette, Rachael George, Jody Passanisi, and readers share their advice to textbook publishers about how they can improved their products. Though this column doesn’t have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Response From Dr. Barbara Blackburn

Dr. Barbara Blackburn was recently named one of the top 30 education global gurus. She is the author of 17 books, including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word and Motivating Struggling Learners. A regular consultant who works with schools and districts, she can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

As a former consultant for two textbook companies, I gained an insider’s perspective on textbooks. My first recommendation is that publishers quit trying to be everything to everyone. I saw (and continue to see) programs that are packed with strategies and resources, and it’s just overwhelming for teachers. Especially with new teachers, streamlined resources are more helpful, still allowing some choice. It reminds me of a friend of mine, who lived in Turkey for a few years. When she came home, she struggled with grocery shopping. As she said, “I can’t even pick what to buy. There are over 40 choices of cereal!”

Next, I would make sure the resources that are recommended are not only research-based, but they are practical for teachers and relevant to students. There are research-based strategies recommended now, but they may be complicated and time-consuming for teachers. While quality instruction does take time, there must be strategies that can be implemented within the normal course of instruction. Also, too often, the material is not relevant for students, other than information in a box labeled “Real World Connections”. It’s also important for teachers and students that the material is engaging.

Finally, and most importantly, I’d recommend that textbooks not be viewed as the only source of information. Although some of this issue may be teachers who are looking for a one-stop shop, I’ve seen textbook publishers promote their materials as such. For students in today’s society, we need to pull in a variety of resources, and even when textbook publishers provide those, we still need to go beyond what any publisher will create or curate. Ultimately, the best judge of what a student needs is the teacher, and any textbook should only be one resource.

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a Teacher on Special Assignment in the Salt Lake City School District and a regularly blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching site:

Having sat through several textbook adoptions in the last few years, I can tell you this: textbooks are terrible. Now, I’m not opposed to textbooks as a resource and teaching tool, and in fact, I believe we need them to support teachers and lighten the load of finding every trick, tool, and model to teach with. Textbooks hold great promise; they can provide a roadmap for teaching standards and offering best practices in a neat package that requires no printing. However, most textbooks are not written by teachers. Most are not actually aligned to standards. And some even deteriorate quality instruction.

There are very few resources written after Common Core that were intentionally aligned from the outset of their design. Sure, existing resources were “updated” but all too often side-by-side comparisons show relatively little change in the method of instruction or content. We are being offered last year’s model with this year’s sticker on the front, and that’s the case whether it’s CCSS or state standards. Moreover, the books that are “aligned” tend to focus equally across standards and yet standards weren’t designed this way. There are priority standards or focus areas that requires much more attention. For example, this past year in reviewing mathematics materials, we discovered that while fractions are a focus area and critical foundation to learn in third grade, very few programs gave fractions more than a handful of lessons. Teachers then are relying on too little material or are forced to find supportive work on their own, both of which diminish the purpose and power in a textbook.

Second, work is being created without teachers. Sure, sure, if you turn in the front of any book on the market, teachers were consulted. Rows and rows of them usually. But is this true? A close inspection of elementary reading materials from a variety of textbook publishers showed that nearly all the names were high school teachers or administrators. Some of the names repeated throughout companies. And “reviewers” will tell you first hand that they see finished materials, not help in the concept development or program structure early on. Educators should be designing programs from the ground up. It shouldn’t be reliant on which text you know you have access to easily, or what the company decides is important. Teacher design, coupled with the intentional focus on standards, can help develop a learning arc throughout the grades that is powerful. Leave teachers out, and you will get it wrong.

Finally, textbooks are trying to be everything instead of being anything good. Pick up any ELA reading materials today. They are incorporating science and social studies, albeit in a peripheral way. They are teaching grammar and spelling in some disconnected context. They include forced vocabulary that may or may not be valuable or important in life. And then, of course, they include reading text. The reality is, teachers ignore the writing, devalue the science and social studies, and have to recreate grammar because it is rarely aligned. Just two years ago, our grade level spent five weeks on textbook grammar that didn’t address a single standard in our grade. If teachers have to rewrite it anyway, what’s the point? Instead of trying to sell schools on a program that has so many shrink-wrapped elements you’ll find them packages years from now when the program changes, textbook publishers need to create quality, stripped down instruction that does what it promises and nothing more. Quit with the everyone-in-one million dollar programs.

Textbooks are not bad. They are not evil. They do not replace a teacher, but they can support or discourage quality teaching practices based on standards by their content. Textbook publishers need to quit promising the world and promise they are doing more to support students and teachers instead of their profit line.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

Do textbook publishers get real feedback? The biggest piece of advice I would offer textbook publishers is to review the content of their curriculum and make sure it truly aligns to the standards and whatever assessment the state is using to evaluate learning. I frequently get my hopes up and then they are quickly crushed as I find the textbook don’t hold up to what they claim to provide.

While I know there isn’t a silver bullet curriculum and the teacher is the major player when it comes to student growth and achievement, we can’t have core curriculums that require teachers to still spend a significant amount of time finding materials to supplement their lessons to make it more student centered, rigorous, or aligned to the standards. I am sure these requests create an incredible amount of work and money on the end of the publisher to customize their materials but it ultimately serves the students at a much higher level and it positively supports teachers.

Response From Jody Passanisi

Jody Passanisi is the middle school director at an independent school in Silicon Valley. Prior to this, she was a middle school social studies teacher and an adjunct instructor in social studies methods at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Jody’s book: History Class Revisited: Tools and Projects to Engage Middle School Students in Social Studies was published in 2016 by Routledge and Middleweb:

Using history textbooks in class can be a hot-button issue with social studies teachers. There are some to whom the book is sacrosanct, and others who barely use it at all. To present my biases in all their glory, I will state for the record that I am generally part of the latter category.

While history textbooks can often be useful for presenting information in a logically and developmentally appropriate way, it is often difficult in current formats for students to do much more than read and answer questions. While textbooks do offer context in a way that is hard to beat--I am thinking especially in terms of maps and some primary source documents-- it is the natural state of textbooks to be two dimensional in their ability to interact with students-- and they often primarily present the dominant narrative. The textbook can be a great resource to compare to other resources-- for example if a student is looking at multiple perspectives of the same event, the textbook’s take on the event can be useful as a more neutral source for comparison. But the tools that students need to make those comparisons - those secondary sources and primary sources - are often not present in textbook, nor are the graphic organizers or brain tools that students could use to do that kind of work.

As I wrote about in my book History Class Revisited: Tools and Projects to Engage Middle School Students in Social Studies, published by Routledge and Middleweb, I often used resources from Social Studies School Service in conjunction with the textbook and other primary and secondary source texts for my students to engage in those kind of textual comparisons. Textbooks still seem to be clinging to the vestiges of old school teaching tactics where frontal teaching was paramount and students were recipients of information. I would recommend that textbook publishers keep making steps in that regard. History Alive!, for example, has interactive options. In the digital age, much of what textbooks have to offer is the fact that they are written developmentally. While students can glean much of what is in the textbook from the Internet in various sources, what they find may not be comprehensible or reliable-- the textbook at least is a source they can rely on to try to not be as biased as other sources. Textbook publishers would benefit, and teachers and students too, from taking a page from design thinking and project based learning models, or from programs like Stanford History Education Group’s Resources: Reading Like a Historian-- where students are more actively engaged in the creation, interpretation, and much more opportunity in terms of evaluation of resources, not just comprehension.

Responses From Readers

Carolanne Brandt:

I teach middle school science and we’re moving forward with NGSS. I have a few things I’d like to see in science textbooks.

1) I’d love to see books in a EyeWitness style format. Most Science textbooks that I’ve seen are very dry. Let’s jazz it up a little. Learning doesn’t have to be boring.

2) I’d like to see sections where students can relate science to everyday life. In fact, let’s try using more diverse people as role models, also. Most Science books highlight white males. I know there is a diverse array of people who’ve contributed to Science. Kids learn better when the subject is relevant.

3) I’d like to see a reading comprehension and vocabulary section, not just a list of chapter vocabulary, but some suggestions for teaching vocabulary rather than memorization. The questions in the back of the chapters aren’t very thought-provoking and I don’t feel that they help with comprehension.

4) a teacher’s media guide would be nice. An interactive component that can supplement the textbook that includes resources for YouTube videos, slide presentations, etc. Many teachers are purchasing supplemental activities with their own money. Why not include this in these pricey textbooks?

Pamela Broussard:

1. Make support material editable. If we can even delete some questions, that would be helpful or change a few words to words that might work better in our context.

2. Have a less white space or a fewer examples version. A teacher may have already covered it or have examples on the board for the students to review. I know the importance of white space and include it in the material I create, but sometimes I need a quick warm-up or quiz. It is frustrating when the actual exercise or handout has so little for a student to do on it. Sometimes the material only has 4-5 questions and to review the topic would take 3 pages of something that could fit on one page if examples were deleted. A teacher can cover examples in many formats but if we need students to practice and write on a paper, have a no graphics/no examples version so we can save on printing allotments.

Thanks to Barbara, Meghan, Rachael, Jody and readers for their contributions!

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