A Better Approach to Textbook Adoptions

By / 11.9.2010

Until October, Texas owned the textbook debate. The Texas Board of Education, preparing last year for a book adoption, seemed determined to put a political spin into American history books Texas schoolchildren will be reading. That raised hackles and not just in Texas. A headline in England’s Guardian blared, “Texas school board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns.”

Time and cool heads prevailed and the new Texas standards, adopted in August, are not much different from those in other states. The textbook hoopla calmed down. And then, last month, a Williamsburg, Virginia mother (who happens to be a history professor) noticed that her son’s 4th grade schoolbook was—well, outrageous. It stated that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War, many led by Stonewall Jackson. This is not a view held by most historians.

The author of the book defended her work, claiming that she did her research on the Internet, where her source for information was the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  This created a bit of brouhaha. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University commented, “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”

Virginia has what is supposed to be a rigorous adoption system, books with agendas aren’t supposed to get through the process. This book was called “accurate and unbiased” by a committee tasked to read it. Virginia school districts, having spent a lot of money on the book, are now pulling it from classrooms.

Textbook nightmares are nothing new in the school world, and they are not unique to Virginia and Texas. But purchasing policies there, and in 20 other “adoption” states, determine content in textbooks for schools throughout the nation. Those books, routinely dull, are often error-ridden and biased. Actually the adoption process began with bias as a goal. After the Civil War, southern leaders didn’t want their children reading a northern version of that conflict. They set up their own school standards and the publishing industry complied with different books for Southern and Northern markets.

Today, in school districts in all 50 states, adoptions are usually a winner-take-all affair that leads to giant sales and huge profits for a few publishers. Those publishers spend their efforts—not on creating good books—but on promotion, gifts, and fancy presentations. Think of the power of lobbyists; textbook salespeople perfect lobby-like outreach to teachers and administrators.

This is not a minor affair: books are the intellectual meat and potatoes we feed our children. Shabby textbooks make a difference. They don’t have to be. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have closed adoptions. No salespeople allowed. Let books and other teaching materials speak for themselves to teachers and committees. Don’t limit choices to books from textbook houses. Have librarians share their expertise. Let a subcommittee of children read the choices and submit their thoughts. If a book doesn’t work for its potential readers, it shouldn’t be adopted. And call in experts: historians to comment on social studies texts, scientists on science texts.
  • If possible, do away with whole city adoptions.  The big bucks are just too tempting for those driven by bottom-line issues. Besides, given our diverse population, it doesn’t work for every fourth grade teacher in Los Angeles or Richmond to be forced to teach from the same history text. Have schools or even individual teachers pick books from a broad vetted list. Let some teachers, who can make a case for their decisions, pick volumes not on the list. Teaching U.S. history, or any subject, with good bookstore books, rather than texts, makes sense if a teacher wants to go that route. If we are to attract and hold sophisticated teachers we need to treat them as professionals rather than cogs in a bureaucratic wheel. Letting teachers choose their own books would not only support them and benefit kids, it might bring real competition to the schoolbook industry.

Some of our greatest thinkers have written books for children. Henry Steele Commager’s story of the Constitution is hard to top. Physicist Stephen Hawking is the author (along with his daughter Lucy) of a terrific physics adventure that is perfect for third graders. Why aren’t books like these read routinely in our schools?

Yes, the money-management folks will talk about the savings from mass purchases, an argument that doesn’t hold up. Most standard textbooks are outrageously overpriced.  Today’s massive adoptions bring billions of dollars in annual income to a few big publishers whose goal, as with most businesses, is to make money. Educating children is a minor consideration. Trade (bookstore) books are generally inexpensive.

How about assessments? Can they deal with a variety of books rather than one text? No problem if we assess ideas and what is usually the small number of essential facts that support those ideas. Currently our tests are shallow, dull, limited, and limiting. Detach them from specific textbooks and canned lesson plans and they can begin to test critical thinking tied to broad knowledge.

Some current conventional wisdom says the textbook issue has been solved. Books are out; technology is in. But, so far, online texts are aimed at test preparation, not deep thinking.  They promote skimming and browsing, not analytical reading. There’s a bigger issue here. We are giving up on whole book reading, which means losing our literary heritage as well as our national legacy. Right now, most schoolchildren have little access to what was once a shared body of heroes, villains, stories, and values.

As for our science scores, a recent study ranked us 48th internationally. “48th is not a good place,” said the New York Times. While hands on labs are exciting, without a story their concepts rarely stick. Only one state mandates science history. Ask your children: Who is Linus Pauling? How did we discover the atom? Chances are they won’t know.

Meanwhile, the current round of educational criticism is focusing on villainous unions and low performing teachers. Hardly anyone has looked in depth at factory-like education schools, administrator-heavy school systems, or the mental junk food we feed our children. All this is deeply discouraging to the good (and often great) teachers in our schools.

Photo credit: Judy Baxter