NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Debate Over School Textbooks

October 15, 1999

Publishers of math and science textbooks used in schools are coming under fire for producing inferior products. But can publishers design acceptable textbooks when they must follow the specifications laid down by 50 different states?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently leveled a salvo of criticism at the tomes:

  • After reviewing the science textbooks most widely used in American middle schools, a panel of experts judged not one book as satisfactory.
  • Similarly, only four out of 12 math textbooks widely used in middle schools were found to be satisfactory.

The organization made the following observations:

  • Textbook publishers try to touch each standard drawn up by every state, resulting in shallow treatment of each topic.
  • Rather than attempting to include the absolutely latest scientific developments in each new edition, publishers should pay more attention to field testing the books in classrooms to see if they foster learning.
  • Teachers have been denied decent textbooks for so long that they have stopped demanding the high-quality books they need.

Publishers, for their part, argue that complying with curriculum guidelines laid down by state and local authorities is a long, complex, expensive and labor-intensive endeavor. There is no guarantee that even if a publisher meets the highest pedagogical standards and complies with the guidelines that the text will be adopted by a state or locality.

Educational publishers say they make extra efforts to see that their texts stand out in highly competitive local markets, but in the final analysis, state and local authorities determine what best fulfills the needs of their own students.

Sources: Editorials, "'Textbook Soup' Is No Way to Nourish Young Minds," and "Texts Made to Fit Local Standards," both USA Today, October 14, 1999.


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