The horror…if you’re at all squeamish, you may not want to read this article by an editor at a textbook publisher on how public school textbooks are made. If you’re curious about why Texas has such an absurd weight in the world of textbooks, though, it will explain all.
It’s a system that needs to be fixed. The article has some interesting suggestions, too, although the plan — more modularity and flexibility in curriculum materials, and a move away from reliance the massive all-in-one tome — also has potential for abuse. (I’m picturing the creationists producing little, slim ‘supplemental’ pamphlets for the schoolroom, and getting them approved by school boards. We also need some standards on what is not acceptable in the class.)
I seem to remember Richard Feynman dispairing on some schoolboard(was it California?),over the way the schoolbooks were picked,how the board members were lobbied,and how bad he thought the books were didactically.
Another problem that can arise if the modular approach is utilized is the question of hardcover versus softcover books. If they produce hardcover modular books, I’m not sure that the savings will be enough to make them worthwhile, on the other hand softcover books, at the high school level, isn’t an option, they simply don’t survive long enough for a normal district purchase run (usually 6-8 years).
Off topic – but can anyone give me opinions on Karl Poppers books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. As I am wondering whether or not i should buy them.
If you are at all interested in the topic, any book by Karl Popper is worth the time and money.
Craig Melancon says
My two cents: Get rid of textbooks and replace them with actual books: The Feynman Lectures, The Ancestor’s Tale, and other interesting books that show students actual scientific arguments, actual debates within subjects (Dawkins v Gould), all with a far more exciting and inviting method than questions at the end of each chapter.
Textbooks are one area where open source makes complete sense. There are a few initiatives but it would be great to get wide spread adoption of the idea. Every student could get a Kindle for the cost of a few years textbooks and the content wouldn’t be crap.
It would be awesome if there were an Amazon Kindle-like solution, which could even possibly be customizable by individual teachers. If enough schools bought them, the cost per unit would go way down. Of course, then you’d be trying to figure out how to get people to treat them nicely and replace them when the inevitable kid lost it, poured soda over it, or had it stolen, but it would save a tremendous amount of paper, prevent wingnuts in Texas from controlling what goes into textbooks, and even give school districts and teachers the ability to add supplemental materials without incurring printing costs or killing trees.
The Feynman story on textbook idiocy/corruption can be found here:
Richard Feynman touched on this in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. It was pretty eye-opening how corrupt the system was even back then.
The Feynman story contains his account of a blank textbook being approved for further consideration. It seems the publisher had missed its release date and was allowed to send a dummy copy (with all of the pages inside blank) as a placeholder to ensure it would retain a spot on the list of books available for adoption. If I recall correctly, some of Feynman’s colleagues on the textbook committee had already given some points to the blank book, ranking it above others with actual content.
It’s a scary and eye-opening story.
When I saw all that “Texas is gonna secede!” nonsense, I immediately thought, what a boon for the science students who will be left in the US once the Ten-Gallon-Hatted Elephant is off our backs.
Cloudwork | April 18, 2009 1:19 PM
Read Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, instead…
Popper’s a putz…
I homeschool and we don’t use any formal school textbooks. We study all kinds of different books, encyclopedias, historical fiction, etc. I can guarantee that my son has never grabbed a textbook from a teacher and insisted on finishing it that day. However, he takes our “school” books and trots off to his favorite climbing tree and studies them until dark fairly often. Formal textbooks just don’t work.
I was a teacher in Texas public schools for 3 years. I used textbooks a little, but prepared materials from primary sources to teach kids the difference between primary and secondary sources. Our state may adopt inadequate books if they like, but good teachers don’t rely on them anyway.
That was my first thought, too, and why I came here to comment.
I suppose if , the fucktard Right would have had to invent them…
I suppose if the Gablers had never existed, the fucktard Right would have had to invent them…
I love this idea from the article:
“Reduce basals to reference books — slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.”
However, what would be needed for some inexperienced or less-educated science instructors is a companion volume which provides the information of the at-least fundamental tests which are the bases for the inferences by scientists that lead scientists to designate the information as being part of the core.
This would enable every instructor, not just the best-educated, to present the valid testing and reasoning behind each concept to the student.
Better yet, distribute it to each student in the US along with the reference book; that way, if an individual instructor ignores a concept or slants the class activities for understanding to their own personal pet belief, then any curious, interested student has the facts handily available to him/her.
Hence my email to you, PZ… I was serious in it and would love to hear your opinion of it.
Just as an aside, Texas governor Rick Perry has suggested that the state might secede, and Tom DeLay has suggested a means to do this. Might it not be advantageous, from an educational perspective, to encourage this? Just asking.
Sorry, but that is not possible. Under “No Child Left a Dime” legislation, any school or district in the “Program Improvement” category must teach the adopted curriculum with “fidelity”. Creating your own materials is explicitly disallowed.
I’m with those who think formal textbooks don’t add anything to learning in certain subjects, and even take away from reading actual books. German High-Schools for example are MISERABLE at reading actual books. All the books (or booklets, rally) from our curriculum taken together make about a two inch stack (and one inch of that is Homo Faber, which was one of two books that I thought was really worthy of being school reading material).
We should have regular books combined with a core outline of basic concepts being taught, at least for subjects where this is possible. I have a hard time imagining how to teach math or grammar* (native or foreign) without a basic textbook. And I haven’t read all that many popular science books to know if basics are well explained in them, but certainly the basic concepts could be in one slim core-text, and the rest should be learned through actually DOING science, supplemented with explanations from actual scientists…?
Anyway, I’d love the opinion of professional teachers on this. Such an approach might work for homeschooling, but not for a situation where you have thirty kids to teach, every year a new group.
*I’m a firm believer in teaching proper grammar and understanding thereof, so “picking it up as you go” from reading and writing in that language is NOT acceptable to me as a way of learning it. I speak from experience, knowing the grammar structure of two languages (English and German) and therefore being able to fluently express myself in both, but having to make it up as I go on my first language (Polish)because I’ve never went to school in Poland and therefore know everything I know about it from reading. and do I ever SUCK at both Polish spelling and grammar. And I can’t even get better at it, since I don’t know the rules :-/
Why do we still use physical textbooks anyway? It seems like having the books available electronically, and possibly a chapter here or there printed would be more useful anyway.
I know that it would be unfair to expect student’s families to purchase the books, but it does seem like the school could buy a license to a database of information. It could even get interesting if actual experts in various fields could write articles for it, like a paid wiki-pedia. However textbooks are a racket, changing would require a lot of effort on the part of the people in each state.
Peter Zachos says
Oh wow.. i did a research paper in college about public education and this article was one of my sources. It was a great and enlightening read then, as now. Spooky stuff, indeed, but also informative and instructive of how long it can take for good information and research to get to classrooms, and how much red tape and filtering it must go through in the process.
While doing labs in full force does work in a homeschooling setting (I should know), as my DH can attest to (the professional teacher you allude to), labs can and do work in a public setting as well. Although in his case, he might have more preparation to do than I would, it can and still is done.
He teaches Physics, Physical Science, Earth, Chemistry, and the AP equivalents and all get labs with them. The Physics book he uses is Conceptual Physics and it is packed with labs to do. Some are more detailed than others, but he does almost every single lab in the book that he can. And he succeeds in doing so every year with each group of students he has. Now the difference may be the fact that he’s on block scheduling as opposed to 7 55-minute class periods (giving him more time to do said labs), but he does do them.
There’s no reason why the information couldn’t be made publishable in textbook form, if provision were made for it at the outset of the project.
As to the more immediate issue, isn’t the answer rather obvious? Have several middle-sized states form a common textbook purchasing coalition that would outbalance Texas’s influence.
Alex Besogonov says
More I know about the education in the USA, more I like education in Russia and the USSR.
We mostly used ‘stereotypical’ textbooks. My math book survived more than 20 re-printings over the course of more than 30 years without any significant changes.
Some of these textbooks were so good that you could almost read them as a book (like ‘Integral and differential calculus’ by G. M. Fichtenholz).
“Sorry, but that is not possible. Under “No Child Left a Dime” legislation, any school or district in the “Program Improvement” category must teach the adopted curriculum with “fidelity”. Creating your own materials is explicitly disallowed.”
Sorry but you are wrong. I can and DID create my own materials. I kept a record of what I taught and turned it in to my vice principal at the end of the year. The text GUIDED what I presented, but I ENRICHED it with primary sources.
Prof. Henry Armitage says
Open. Sourced. Text-books.
And I’ll just back LRA up on this one, DH does exactly as they do, all the time. As long as you can show proof that you are still “meeting state standards” you do NOT have to follow the program improvement to the final letter on the final page. You can and are in fact, welcomed, to enrich with primary sources or ideas as much as you wish.
Just as long as those sources are not outside of state standards. And believe me, state standards are not as strict as one thinks.
I used to work for a company that made high-school reference books for one of the publishers mentioned in that article (they subcontract a lot of work).
We weren’t making textbooks, so we didn’t have to mess around with curricula and suchlike (most of the things described in that article don’t apply to my work at all), but we still had to keep everything very conservative otherwise the publisher would reject it out of hand. This wasn’t because the publishers were all republicans, but because they knew that if their book got singled out as ‘liberal’ by a right wing group, it would be dead in the water before it so much as reached a school board. This meant that we had to make lots of strange concessions and leave quite a few things out. By the way, making science books can be tricky, but it pales into insignificance when compared to making Sex Education books.
EB, thanks for the insight into labs in schools :-) I remember we had quite a few smaller labs, but with only 45 minutes do do them in, they weren’t all that thrilling.
Though, as far as NCLB goes, I wonder if this supplementation only works in schools that aren’t in danger of being failed? I can see that in such a situation the school would have the wiggle-room to let teachers teach as they see fit. but I’ve heard too many stories of schools at the edge that just coached to the test to make sure they wouldn’t get their funding cut, which sounds as if those who need improvements in education most were getting the worst part of the deal…
Jadehawk, much as I pain to say this, DH’s school is consistently a very high D to low D school. And it’s one of the best schools in that area.
I don’t know that it’s so much about failing schools due to NCLB as it is Educractic bullspit calling the shots, that a school would have worry about funding over.
I suspected as much. So is the “Texas” thing largely a cop-out then? A pretense of throwing up ones hands at a seemingly insurmounable problem (“Texas is too BIG!”), when the real issue (“right-wing crazies will raise hell”) isn’t impossible to overcome but likely to be quite seriously unpleasant.
The scant replies on this topic, which is at the very frontline in the battle for science cliteracy, indicates to me that a majority of people who mouth advocacy of science educaation do only that : mouth it and then wring their hands in anguish when it is not taught.
Individuals contacting their local newspaper or individuals contacting their congressperson have little or no effect. Lobbying my united groups have great effect on national policy.
Why do scientists as a group not lobby for mandatory national science standards by the National Academy of Sciences?
Venting by individuals on blogs gives a little relief to individuals; lobbying by a group of the most productive and therefore reknowned scientists could actually result in effective change for the better.
Why is this not occurring?
Rev. BigDumbChimp says
Sausages being made
#37– cliteracy, huh? ;)
Please, our educational methods need a complete overhaul. K-12 education is so boring, it’s no wonder so many kids drop out.
Biology at the elementary level being taught indoors… that’s just stupid. Take them outside and teach identification skills. Better, have each of them ride a horse.
Physics: go to the airport and have them watch planes take off. Better yet, send each kid up in a two-seater and let them handle the controls.
Basic math: there’s plenty of methods to teach the kids to do it in their heads. By sixth grade they could all be walking calculators.
Reading: don’t tell them what to read, help them choose their books.
I could go on here.
Michael Simpson says
Well, now I can move Wikipedia up one notch on the list of useful sources of information, just above high school textbooks.
It’s not that I’m an overtly patriotic, but exactly what kind of science students will we be producing over the next generation, if their textbooks are such intellectually inferior pablum? And given the quality of the University of Google education, along with the #1 status of Wikipedia for almost any question, one can’t even improve upon their high school texts.
I guess we have to rely upon good teachers to train the next generation of scientists and and physicians. Let’s pay them for this quality! Oh yeah, it’s more important that we bail out AIG (I know, it’s probably a good idea, but still makes me ill).
Sorry, I’m still ill from reading how this was done.
There you have it…where (hopefully) education goes.
That’s disgusting. I remember Richard Feynman’s rant about the textbook industry (that was about 50 years ago now) and I thought “oh no, can it possibly get any worse”? The article answers the rhetorical question with a deafening “of course it can get worse, just watch it”.
It would be great if universities stepped into the picture and helped set the agenda and materials for the kiddies – after all, once the kiddies have finished high school they’re beyond the university’s ability to retrain them. With modern technology it should be possible to build up a very large source of 100% free core materials. Everyone with access to the internet can have access to all that text and on a state-by-state basis (or school district basis) specialized educational groups may select material for a compilation to be printed in a textbook. Personally I’d prefer more uniformity over all the states; this “our state/school district has special needs that no one else has” is a myth that needs to be dragged out into the streets and shot.
I have often marveled at some of the rubbish published today as textbooks (including university texts!) I think it’s a great crime that older and excellently written books are often replaced by vastly inferior books all for the sake of changing book covers or something. The best Algebra textbook I used in my school years was last published in 1918 and I would maintain that it is superior to most current Algebra texts. Rapidly developing fields have valid reasons for more frequent revisions of text, but never an excuse for bad texts.
Good old American Capitalism at work.
“*I’m a firm believer in teaching proper grammar and understanding thereof, so “picking it up as you go” from reading and writing in that language is NOT acceptable to me as a way of learning it.”
“picking it up as you go” always infuriates me; it is the “learning by osmosis” nonsense promulgated by the most inferior and vile creatures which unfortunately often manage to find their way into the educational system, including universities. Despite years of research demonstrating that it is 100% garbage, the myth still persists; unfortunately the rubbish is employed in all classes, not only reading and writing.
Patrick Q. says
I’m part of a team that’s been developing modular materials for math distributed for free on the internet: Algebra2go. We’ve had such great success with the project that I can readily imagine this approach either replacing textbooks or supplementing very different sort of texts.
My two cents,
I think that a degree in education is probably a must have for elementary teachers in America (not sure of the terminology elsewhere), but at the high-school level, teachers should hold a degree in the subject they teach. All of my best teachers had a degree in their subject, and they expected us to not only “progress in our understanding”, but to know the damn material. Some courses offered a lot of leeway in selecting supplementary materials (English, Latin, History), and the teachers took advantage of it. In other classes (Biology, Calculus, Physics) one simply has to learn a bunch of difficult stuff, and having an instructor who understands the stuff is a good thing, indeed, it is much better than an instructor who “knows how to teach” the difficult stuff.
I guess my point, if I actually have one this time, is that there should be a lot more emphasis on teachers knowing the subject that they are going to teach, and fewer requirements about knowing “how to teach” a subject that they aren’t qualified to teach. The textbooks are, if even minimally accurate, less importanrt than the instructors using them.
LRA @ #39,
Hah! Thanks for pointing that out. (In my physiology class this past week I’ve been talking about the female half of the mammalian reproductive system ….)
David Marjanović, OM says
The author of the piece is pretty accurate in his description of the American text book industry. Having worked in the industry from the mid ’60’s to the mid ’80’s and worked on its periphery I can attest to the process and the changes he describes. I even had a few lovely encounters with the Gablers in testimony before several different Texas state adoption committees. One set of hearings at which the Gablers attacked my books, I was also attacked by a women’s rights group that opposed the Gablers, creationists who worked with the Gablers, and several other interest groups. They all made life interesting.
What Tamim Ansary describes, however, can be misleading. Battles are fought over text books without end. But to take one example, visit any classroom in Texas, say biology, and one is just as likely to find the most recent biology textbook still stored in the original shipping cartons while the teacher uses a favorite text that is a dozen years old.
Elhi textbooks are manufactured to tight physical specifications. Historically they must be sewn, not glued, the case (the covers) must be made of specific materials and assembled in particular way. Paper has to be of a minimum weight with specified opacity and brightness. And the books have to last five years. If one doesn’t the publisher replaces it with a new one free of charge.
When books are reviewed for adoption, major factors are the copyright date (more than three years old and the book earns demerits) and the ancillary materials. Those include the Teacher’s Edition, the lab (if a science book) or workbook, the overheads, computer software, videos, tests, and anything else you can imagine. Teacher’s Editions, with teacher annotation added to the margin and/or interleaved with the student pages are horrendously expensive to print and bind, because they are oversize and can only be printed by one or two manufacturers in the US.
I could go on at length. I worked for 20 years as an editor and publisher of science and math texts beginning as a blue pencil editor working with real authors (my first author of a high school chemistry text was chemistry prof at Michigan and later the president of the ACS) , and ended working with authors who couldn’t write a simple letter much less a text book, but who were signed to dress up the spine. I left the business at that point and ran a company providing science teachers with everything they might use in a lab other than the text book. It was a relief.
My great-aunt is a professor of educational studies at Oxford (or Cambridge, I can never keep those two straight) and I had dinner with her when she visited last week. She told me something that I found really surprising – it takes, on average, 25 years for accepted theories of education to make their way into practice.
For instance: if a well-respected study back in 1984 discovered that teaching algebra a certain way was more effective than whatever was being used at the time, that way of teaching algebra would in general not be seen in actual classes until this year.
She’s working on creating a Master’s program to address this issue right now, but still it’s pretty amazing how slow education moves.
I haven’t read all the comments — sorry, busy day! — but it boggles my mind how Texas can have such impact.
Why don’t the education boards of several of the bigget “blue” states — New York, California, Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, and the like — simply form a “quality textbook” COALITION, adopt some reasonable standards, and OUTWEIGH Texas’s influence.
This ain’t rocket science; it’s politics: if you’re getting muscled around by the big boy on the block, go find allies and beat the snot out of him.
Rev. BigDumbChimp says
Sounds good, but the term “Herding Cats” comes to mind.
I remember my ninth grade English teacher who taught us English WITHOUT a textbook. We had to take notes on a daily basis and turn these in as a English notebook twice during each semester. This, in effect, was our textbook.
This might not work with biology as a creationist teacher would probably turn the biology classroom into a Sunday school.
Steviepinhead’s idea is a good one except for the flaw pointed out by the good Rev. It is like herding cats, especially with New York State. I’m retired now, so it may no longer be the practice but in NY for many decades the State Regents’ Exams drove everything in that college scholarships hinged on them. So every course in NY for college bound students had to teach to those exams. This spawned an entire class of text books tailored for the NY Regents’ exams. But unlike the texts produced for Texas, these were usually only one or two color, often paperback, and tightly written. Very few other states ever bought them. As for the other states Stevie mentioned, text book selection was at the local level, with either each individual teacher, a department, or sometimes a school district making the choice. The state had no role in it. (For California this applied only to 9-12 texts, K-8 being state adopted.) But the truth is that history is littered with texts that never made it in Texas but which were successful elsewhere in the country. I handled to texts in the 1970’s, a junior high physical science course known as IPS and a chemistry text that were only listed once in Texas and didn’t sell well there (neither fit the state standards), but were adopted by more than half the country outside of Texas. But since then the text book business has increasingly concentrated on packaging—fancy color, special inserts and supplements, lots of illustrations and lowered reading levels—to the point that schools come to expect fancy packages, often ignoring the substance of a book. Oh, everyone would be interested to know that in scoring the worthiness of a book, one gets marked down if the copyright date is more than three years old—as if basic biology, physics, or chemistry has changed significantly in three years.