This brief study on the state of Elementary and High School textbooks in this country is a discouraging review of the often overlooked $4.3 billion K-12 text book industry. Since a majority of teachers rely on them as the central tool for their instruction, the author asserts that the calls for education reform in this country will have minimal success until instructional materials, especially textbooks, regain the quality he claims was lost years ago. The author explains how five factors contribute to producing textbooks that are bad for students and schools.
1. "Textbook adoption has been hijacked by pressure groups." The result is textbooks are dumbed down by responding to both right- and left-wing pressure groups and designed to be "inoffensive to every possible ethnic religious and political constituency."
2. Textbooks are judged by how "they live up to absurd sensitivity guidelines." Anything that could be considered a stereotype, or could be considered critical of any group, is aggressively rejected.
3. They are reviewed by a checklist approach that values mention of key words and phrases over quality, accuracy and content. The textbooks are neither adequately reviewed nor field tested regarding effectiveness "in raising student achievement." In addition, "readability" formulas result in a "lowest-common-denominator approach." The result is textbooks that are pleasing to the eye but are boring, contain facts without context or content and often are inaccurate and/or misleading.
4. Only four multi-national publishers control the textbook market. Requirements to post performance bonds produce huge numbers of free samples and stock book depositories not only drastically increase the cost of textbooks, but freeze "smaller, innovative textbook companies out of the adoption process…."
5. The centralized state adoption process of many states is fundamentally flawed, especially in California, Texas and Florida, in that "it distorts the market, entices extremist groups to hijack the curriculum and papers the land with mediocre instructional materials."
The major suggestion in this report toward reforming the whole industry is to remove the purchase of instructional materials, and especially textbooks, from centralized state adoption practices where they now exist. The author firmly believes that the students and schools will be better served if the "legislators and governors in 'adoption' states should devolve funding for and decisions about textbook purchases to individual schools, districts or even teachers."
The author seems to see the state adoption processes as a key element in the whole reason textbooks are so poor as instructional tools. He then concludes that the poor quality is one of the causative factors in poor test scores on standardized tests. One central point emphasized in the study is that according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, states with centralized textbook adoption processes tend to cluster at the bottom in achievement, while those states that score the highest tend to be states without centralized textbook adoption processes. He interprets this as a strong indication of how centralized textbook adoption is a factor in decreased education achievement, and concludes that elimination of centralized state adoption of textbooks is a key reform that can produce positive results in student learning.
About the Authors: Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted most of his career to improving education in the United States. As Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and chairman of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Senior Editor of Education Next, his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. Diane Ravitch is Research Professor at New York University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.