Education By The Book, Unfortunately

, Jason Livingood, Leave a comment

If a public-school student gets to college without knowing when the Civil War was fought or how to do basic math, part of the problem may be with the student’s textbook.

“Out are math texts that emphasize drill or memorization; in are calculators, conceptual understanding, and even this question from the grade five everyday math program: ‘If math were a color, what color would it be and why?’” said Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey on Monday at a forum he chaired on textbook adoption.

Dr. Frank Wang, who was once simultaneously CEO and President of Saxon Publishers but resigned from the company in order to pursue his dream of becoming a math professor, pointed out that the criteria used by state committees during the selection process do not take into consideration a textbook’s effectiveness in educating a child. At a recent textbook hearing, a California committee member bluntly told him that “we are not concerned with the efficacy of a textbook.” Instead, says Wang, textbooks are evaluated on how well they (and their publishers) navigate the selection process.

Wang recalled one instance in which a committee member spoke to him privately after Wang did a presentation for Saxon on a calculus textbook he had authored, asking him advice for how best to teach her son calculus. She really liked the textbook, she said, but she couldn’t vote for it because it didn’t meet the list of criteria textbooks were supposed to satisfy. “She was in the peculiar situation of really liking a book and wanting it for her own child, and not being able to vote for it,” Wang explained.

Home-schooling parents frequently use Saxon books to teach their own children. In math competitions, home-schooled children regularly best their public school counterparts.

Not only do the state textbook adoption processes not take a text’s ability to help educate into consideration, but also states that use such processes comprise a majority of the 15 lowest performing states in the 2002 National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) test administration, said Wang. The NAEP is a standardized test used by the U.S. Department of Education.

Publishers have devised a set of bias guidelines so that editors can remove content likely to draw objections well before the product is ever brought before the selection committee. In twenty-two states, textbooks which are purchased with taxpayer funds for use in public schools must first be approved by the state’s Board of Education, a step that involves the textbook passing a committee review.

Groups are free to bring objections about proposed textbooks to the board, which then directs the book’s publishers to alter their publication accordingly. If a textbook does not meet the criteria established by the committee, the book is ineligible for purchase with state funds. Committee members are usually political appointees chosen by the governor or state superintendent of schools.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, agreed with Wang that the status quo in these states strongly favors very large, well-funded textbook publishers, as they can afford what few smaller companies can. Ravitch teaches at New York University.

Dr. Wang also noted a degree of corruption in the textbook adoption process. Once when he went before the Oklahoma school board, he recalled that one large publishing company took the entire judging committee out to dine at one of the most expensive restaurants in Oklahoma City.

Ravitch and Wang both argued that the current adoption process should be scrapped entirely in the states in which it is in place. Instead, Ravitch and Wang suggest allowing teachers to decide what textbooks to use to educate students. “I think that they will be smarter and better informed, and I trust them more than all these textbook committees and bureaucrats put together,” Ravitch said.

Stephen Driesler, the executive director of the schools division of the Association of American Publishers, disagreed but offered no solution to the problems, concluding: “How do we select the textbooks? Do we let Saddam Hussein select the textbooks? He did it for Iraq for many, many years; nobody complained about the quality of the textbooks there. Uh, do we let George Bush select the textbooks for the entire country? Uh, I don’t know. If Howard Dean gets in there, you wanna let him select the textbooks for the entire country? You know, I don’t know what the solution is, but I think ultimately, as long as textbooks are in public schools, as long as they are paid for by tax dollars, the citizens of this country will have and deserve to have a right, a say, in the selection of those textbooks.”