Study: Some Elementary Math Textbooks Are Better Than Others

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 08, 2017 3 min read
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The current approach to curricular resources in the United States might seem to indicate that the textbooks any given school uses doesn’t matter much. Many states and districts don’t know what textbooks are currently being used in their schools. Others opt to allow each school to select its own academic program. In some schools, teachers have been asked to draft units and lessons from scratch and skip textbooks altogether.

But a research effort in California offers evidence that which math textbook a school chooses to use actually has a significant impact on academic performance.

Researchers Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, and Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, examined math scores on the state’s standardized tests in elementary schools that were using the four most popular math textbooks in the state between 2008 and 2013.

They used information from the state’s School Accountability Report Cards to create a database of school textbook adoption. The analysis includes 1,878 schools that used the four most popular texts: Houghton Mifflin’s California Math, Pearson Scott Foresman’s enVisionMATH California McGraw Hill’s California Mathematics: Concepts, Skills, and Problem Solving, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s California HSP Math.

One text, Houghton Mifflin’s California Math, was consistently associated with higher performance in grades 3, 4, and 5 than the other three books, taking into account factors like the schools’ prior performance and students’ demographic characteristics.

This study doesn’t probe what it was exactly about this book that led to higher results. Was it something about the content it covered? Its alignment with state standards or the assessment? Its ease of use? And the book that did so well in the analysis is no longer sold in California.

But it does include a call for more states and districts to collect this sort of information so educators can make more informed decisions about curriculum and researchers can eventually probe why some books seem to be more effective.

Koedel and Polikoff write that there are good reasons for considering the impact of textbooks: Most schools adopt textbooks and use them as part of day-to-day instruction; research so far has indicated that textbooks do have an impact on student achievement; textbooks are less expensive than other approaches to school improvement; and curricular materials are (usually) less politically fraught than other school reforms.

Just two states—Florida and Indiana—collected information about what books were being used at the time of this study. In California, the information was available but difficult to compile and analyze, the researchers write.

Koedel and Polikoff are now collecting information about textbooks in Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida, and plan to continue to study the effects of textbook adoption.

Polikoff and Koedel are echoing Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos, who called for more research into instructional materials in 2012. And in a recent opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report, Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, writes that there’s a growing body of evidence that the curriculum schools use matters. Sahm points to research from Harvard professor Thomas Kane, who found that high-quality curricular materials had a greater effect than teacher’s experience level on students’ academic progress.

This focus on the quality and impact of curriculum comes at a moment when many teachers are developing their own lessons or supplementing their prescribed curricula more than ever with materials from the internet and various open educational resources.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.