How to save our ineffective textbooks
By Jay Mathews,
When I was in school, I loved textbooks, especially new ones. I remember the sharp edges of the covers, the brightly colored drawings and charts, the rustle of freshly published pages being separated from each other.
I was short, clumsy and shy. But with textbooks I was a star. I actually enjoyed reading them. I loved memorizing key facts. I gobbled up each thick book. I was usually a teacher favorite.
I didn’t think about it much at the time, but most of my classmates didn’t like textbooks and didn’t get much from them. Now I learn in Beverlee Jobrack’s penetrating new book, “Tyranny of the Textbook,” that that is why the $4 billion-a-year textbook business is so much a part of our schools’ mediocre performance.
Textbooks don’t work well. Research shows that, with rare exceptions, they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell.
Dumping on textbooks is not new. School critics often point out the mistakes in the books. The recent outrage over a Virginia textbook that falsely suggested that thousands of African Americans fought willingly for the Confederacy is a good example. But that is not what Jobrack is writing about.
She grew up in Northern Virginia and taught middle-school English before launching a long career as a textbook editor. Her grasp of textbooks’ failures comes from 25 years of trying to move the industry toward improving learning as well as sales.
“My products earned a host of awards for design, innovation, sales and editorial excellence,” she said. “They never earned any awards for effectiveness because, to my knowledge, awards for effectiveness do not exist” in the textbook industry.
Jobrack argues, rightly, that textbooks can help students learn well only if they are part of a curriculum designed by educators who know what works in the classroom and tested by comparing the level of achievement under one curriculum to another. There is research on which curricula are most effective, but textbook companies don’t use it because their customers aren’t interested in that.
“Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to teachers who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable,” Jobrack said.
That’s bad for many reasons, including the fact that some scholars think students need more time with textbooks, not less. Former school administrator and teacher trainer Mike Schmoker says in his new book, “Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning,” that students must learn how to read textbooks if they are going to survive in college.
“The educational community was quick to respond to the (legitimate) criticism of textbooks,” he wrote, “but quicker still to adopt their horrific replacements: excessive use of lecture, work sheets, movies, poster making, and pointless group work.”
Some school reformers have placed their faith in new teaching standards as a way to make textbooks work. Forty-five states and the District have adopted new Common Core standards for math and English language arts in hopes that that will force textbook companies to remake products that do not inspire much learning.
Here is Jobrack’s description of what really happens when publishers incorporate new standards:
“In some cases chapters or sections are rewritten or reworked to reflect a standard or group of standards. For the most part, however, a paragraph here, an activity there, a few practice exercises, and some assessment items are all that are required to be rewritten or reworked.”
Textbook selection is painful to watch. Votes by teachers “rule out any extremes,” Jobrack said. “Research-based programs may appear too difficult to teach. Computer-based programs may not seem to encourage enough classroom participation.”
Primary-grade teachers sometimes select textbooks that they feel their students will enjoy most, often with little text but lots of nice pictures. Or an administrator may award the adoption to the publisher with the lowest price or most free materials.
“Even when adoption committees include content specialists,” Jobrack said, “these people typically evaluate the accuracy of the content, rather than whether the instructional strategies are effective.”
Jobrack said teachers and textbook adopters must be exposed to research on effective curricula and trained to find the textbooks that will link best with good teaching.
How is that going to happen? Jobrack doesn’t say. We don’t know how to persuade states and school districts to insist on effective curricula and textbooks because there are so few examples of that happening.
This is the best and deepest book on the trouble with textbooks I have seen. If anything is going to be done, it may be Jobrack who will have to do it.
The Obama administration and a few school-conscious billionaires seem to have money for various reform ideas. They ought to give Jobrack the grants she is seeking to create a Consumer Reports variety of Web site identifying the most effective curricula and, thus, create a market for good textbooks tied to them.
I wish her luck. Persuading education departments and school boards to accept learning materials that will cost them more money and frustrate many teachers is going to be a very hard sell.
To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.