Glitzy Texts, Dull Students

May 1, 2004 • Commentary
This article appeared in Philanthropy Magazine on March 01, 2004.

Whether they’re covering physics or lyric poetry, the textbooks handed to K-12 school children are receiving failing grades from scholars on the left, right, and center. The books have graphics worthy of MTV, but beneath this glitz the texts are hobbled by political correctness, shallowness, incoherence, even factual errors. No wonder large majorities of students leave high school scoring below “proficiency” in science and U.S. history.

The problem was vividly demonstrated after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many educators, especially in social studies, had anemic responses at best, reports Chester E. Finn Jr., an education expert and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Using textbooks that stress political correctness over analysis, teachers asked their students “not to blame anyone (lest this lead to feelings of hatred or prejudice), to appreciate diversity, and to consider the likelihood that America was itself responsible for this great evil visited upon it,” Finn reports.

This led Fordham–which had largely abandoned earlier efforts to encourage social studies reform in favor of systemic educational reform–to re‐​engage the daunting task of improving K-12 social studies. “I couldn’t look in the mirror if we didn’t try,” Finn said at the time. He advises fellow donors to explore three avenues to attack the problem of flawed texts: “First, we have to diagnose and expose the problem. Second, we must create alternatives; third, and most difficult, we need to disseminate the material to teachers and policymakers.”


Why have textbooks reached the point that they have little value for either students or teachers? The Koret Foundation in San Francisco, in association with Stanford’s Hoover Institution, set up the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education to tackle this and other questions. One important factor, says Diane Ravitch, a prominent education reform expert and task force member, is “the system of statewide textbook purchasing,” which has “warped the writing, editing, and production of textbooks.” Because textbook companies sell in bulk to large states like Texas and California, they’re loath to portray any person or culture in an unfavorable light for fear it will prevent their textbooks from being adopted. The result is confusing history books devoid of narrative, packed with disjointed information, and tremendously boring.

Reform‐​minded funders can produce their own studies of textbook quality, as Fordham did in its recently released Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks, which assembled a diverse panel of experts to review widely used texts in American and world history. (The result: Five of the 12 books earned failing marks, and none scored better than a C+.) Or donors can support similar efforts by, say, a state think tank. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, for instance, has done reviews of textbooks under consideration by the State Board of Education in several different fields.

Such diagnostic work can greatly aid educators who select texts, concerned parents and government officials, and even publishers, yet this kind of honest reviewing is rare. “It should be as easy for a teacher to obtain multiple reviews of textbooks and instructional materials as of novels to take to the beach,” Finn insists.

Creating Alternatives

The second avenue of attack is the creation of alternative teaching materials. Chuck Stetson, chairman of the Bible Literacy Project, is among the philanthropists working in this vineyard. Stetson became concerned with the lack of background cultural knowledge among today’s students who could not decipher great works of literature because they had never been taught anything about the Bible.

He began working with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center to produce a consensus report, The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, endorsed by a diverse range of groups from the National Education Association on the left to the National Association of Evangelicals on the right. The report is “the first broad consensus statement in the 160‐​year history of the public school system on how to address teaching about the Bible in a fair and constitutional way,” Stetson tells Philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Stetson and his team have been busy keeping an eye on a successful test run of the project in five Tennessee schools. The full curriculum will be ready for the 2005–2006 school year. Despite the potential for controversy, the curriculum has generated no complaints. “We know how to teach people where the boundaries are,” says Stetson.

Similarly, the Bill of Rights Institute produces materials that educate high school students and teachers about the country’s founding principles. One of the institute’s supporters, Earhart Foundation president Ingrid A. Gregg, explains that her trustees see this effort as a way “to encourage the front lines of education reform.” Well‐​crafted instructional material and rigorous teacher training programs are essential, Gregg contends.

B.J. Steinbrook, executive director of the Challenge Foundation, is also focused on training teachers and placing the best materials in their hands. Challenge funds numerous high‐​performing charter schools, but it also supports the Core Knowledge Foundation, which produces a rigorous curriculum for K-8 grade students developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a University of Virginia professor and self‐​identified liberal made famous by his 1987 book Cultural Literacy. He argues that all students–especially those from disadvantaged circumstances–need to be taught “a body of lasting knowledge,” including the “basic principles of constitutional government, important events of world history, essential elements of mathematics and of oral and written expression, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation.”

The Challenge Foundation agrees and urges the 162 charter schools it funds to consider using the Core Knowledge curriculum (61 of them do). Similarly, after two years of investigating the best strategy for its education funding, the J. F. Maddox Foundation “came to the conclusion that curriculum is the most fundamental element in reform,” according to executive director Bob Reid. He, too, has seen the dramatic improvements a rigorous curriculum makes possible.

Maddox has helped two school districts implement Core Knowledge. Although cautious about singling out one factor, Reid notes that Hobbs High School–which ranks last in New Mexico on per‐​pupil funding but the district uses Core Knowledge (K-6)–and now has a much higher percentage of students taking A.P. classes than in all of the high schools in Albuquerque combined. “It’s the curriculum, stupid,” Reid quips. “Without good content, you have nothing.”

Another curriculum producer, this time for courses in environmental and life science courses, is the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a free market environmentalist organization based in Bozeman, Montana. The center aims to focus environmental education on solving real‐​life problems. Curriculum guidelines and lesson plans PERC has created teach students to apply economic reasoning to discover what drives environmental destruction and how to promote workable solutions.

The Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation supports PERC’s educational programs as part of its larger effort to promote a better understanding of economics and the positive role that markets play in America. “The whole system of teacher education is inherently anti‐​market,” says managing director Mike McDowell. “Our role is to produce material and train the teachers to help them understand how markets work.”

Donald R. Wentworth, a professor of economics at Pacific Lutheran University who directs environmental education at PERC, says “the most important task is to create forums where teachers can discuss environmental issues” from a critical perspective. PERC and the Foundation for Teaching Economics sponsor teacher workshops that highlight real‐​world economic solutions through EcoDetectives, a middle and high school curriculum created by PERC.

“Teachers assume that markets are the problem, not the solution,” says Wentworth. “Workshops help people get over what they think they know, but isn’t so.” Concrete environmental market success stories, like the rescue of the Alaskan halibut industry through tradable fishing quotas, drive home the principles of this results‐​oriented approach. “Teachers come into this skeptical,” in Wentworth’s experience, “and they go back changed.”


While donors who support better textbooks have many success stories in the areas of diagnosis and alterative texts, work on the dissemination front lags behind. Yet it is perhaps the most important of the three avenues to reform. “We’re finding that disseminating this material to teachers and policymakers is a real problem,” says Finn. “We don’t have many direct lines of communication.”

Philanthropists with strong community ties can work to show school boards, local politicians, and schoolteachers the obstacles and opportunities connected with better textbooks. “Locally oriented donors can flood their market, if they are persistent and patient, injecting new ideas into the bloodstream of their community,” Finn says.

State‐​level think tanks can serve as a vital link in this effort. We’ve already mentioned the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for instance, which not only reviewed textbooks under consideration by the State Board of Education but also applied pressure for the adoption of coherent, content‐​oriented texts.

Whichever aspect of the problem donors choose to work on, plenty remains to be done. And as the aftermath of the terrorist attacks showed, the need for better textbooks isn’t just an abstraction that ivory tower intellectuals need worry about. Poor textbooks are having a debilitating effect on young minds right now.

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