Thursday, April 23, 2009

On textbooks (and Texas)

More education inside baseball stuff for the overly patient reader. Today's topic: textbooks. In our mini-course today, our "text" will be this article on Edutopia. Though it kindly attempts to address many problems with textbooks, it does start off poorly:

Textbooks are a core part of the curriculum, as crucial to the teacher as a blueprint is to a carpenter.

Not even close. My curriculum is determined by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- find it here. Decent teachers may use the textbook as a resource, often the main resource, to cover the curriculum, but it takes institutional myopia to claim that they are the curriculum. They aren't a blueprint, but rather a pretty reliable hammer: blunt, simple, and unglamorous. Though the author mentions this reality later on, s/he doesn't really seem to believe it. All elements that may contribute to my need to write my own "texts" on three narrow areas in my curriculum as the textbook takes rather poor stabs at explanation.

The main concern on textbooks, that the article smartly mentions, is the vanishing choice of printing houses. Another key reality is the outsized influence of those states that buy their textbooks en masse, not district by district as Massachusetts does. So some states have a greater say:

Texas, California, and Florida have unrivaled clout. Yes, size does matter. Together, these three have roughly 13 million students in K-12 public schools. The next eighteen adoption states put together have about 12.7 million...obviously, publishers create products specifically for the adoptions in those three key states...

For reasons ranging from dedicated funds to lockstep purchasing process, the single state with the greatest sway over how textbooks are written is quite possibly the last state I'd want to have that power. Due to bureaucratic and finanical reasons, textbooks are essentially dumbed down to the point where they would be acceptable to Texas purchasers, who represent a state scoring notably below Massachusetts in reading ability (per the NAEP). As a special bonus, not only is Texas an academic laggard, but a cultural one as well. Texans' struggle with teaching evolution can only result in wan, mealymouthed explanations of that scientific theory. These are the people with a gigantic influence on the textbooks placed in front of American children.

As a reward to you, the reader, a quiz. Which statement do you believe is true about the textbook that I use in my classroom?

  • Though it surveys world history from the Fall of Rome until the Enlightenment, India is only mentioned twice -- both times in connection with European exploration.
  • It uses outmoded and incorrect spellings for many historical figures of importance.
  • It claims that Buddhism is a religion.
  • In the textbook's telling of the schism that birthed the Orthodox Church, it was the Catholic pope who favored icons, while the Orthodox church rejected them.
  • There is no mention of pre-exploration history in modern Australia or the United States.
  • It labels Confucianism with the symbol of Taoism
Highlight the end of this sentence for the answer: of course, they're all true.

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