When Will Curriculum Supplant Textbooks?

By 02/06/2012

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Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reform
By Beverlee Jobrack
(Rowman and Littlefield, 248 pp., $35)

The problem of the textbook in American pre-collegiate education–how it is used, the vagaries associated with the adoption process, the superficiality of most textbooks–is by no means new.  As Beverlee Jobrack points out, many of the issues were adroitly addressed by Harriet Tyson-Bernstein in her Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America’s Textbook Fiasco (1988).  Commendably, Ms. Joback’s approach, in addition to dealing in depth with these issues, is even more comprehensive, paying considerable attention to the importance of curriculum, arguably the most neglected facet of current school reform efforts.

As far back as 1963, when Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, concern was raised about the low levels of academic achievement, caused, it was felt, by the overemphasis on students’ social development, characteristic of the Progressive Era in American education.  Nevertheless, the tradition of emphasizing governance issues, access, teacher quality (recruitment, retention and renewal) – important as these issues are – has tended to divert public attention from what it is that society can reasonably expect our students to know when they graduate from high school.  As a spokesperson from the American Federation of Teachers put it, “A curriculum sets forth the body of knowledge and skills our children need to know to grow into economically productive and socially responsible citizens.”

The power of Tyranny of the Textbook is the author’s ability to connect the textbook issue to every facet of student learning.  She explains how textbook publishers have, in effect, usurped the whole arena of what students should know, engaging in an unholy alliance with test makers neutralizing the influence of even the best teachers in the process.  Parallel, but not necessarily integrated with this, has been the development of a whole set of core academic standards.  These have largely failed to bolster academic achievement because of the chasm between the content of the standards and the content of the textbook.

However, for all of the author’s ability to use her insights garnered from years of experience in the textbook world, none is more salient than her instinct for appreciating the centrality of curriculum and subject matter content in the learning process.

To quote directly from her book: “A curriculum is not a set of standards, nor is it a set of lessons, although it includes both….A curriculum is not a teaching method, but incorporates different teaching methods to teach concepts in an organized way.  A curriculum is a set of daily lesson plans, activities, supporting resources and assessments organized in a way to develop student skills and understandings in a subject area.”  What better description can be found to describe an ideal curriculum!  As such, I recommend this book without reservation.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down are available here.

Comment on this article
  • EEB says:

    Good textbooks can form a framework for a functional curriculum, with the Teachers’ Manuals providing resources, suggestions, and assessment modules. It’s very rare to see a textbook, today, that can fill this role.

    In the ’60’s, a MS or HS student who was out sick could keep up with many subjects simply by reading the chapter, doing the assignments, and having a parent or sibling quiz him/her on content according to suggestions IN THE TEXTBOOK itself. Less than ideal, but far better than the blizzard of unrelated activities that many curricula resemble today.

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  • jim miller says:

    I think the rigidity of the traditional textbooks have played a great role in forming this negative sentiment. But I think digital textbooks, like the CK-12 flexBooks with their flexibility, adaptability and added features are changing this perception. They are empowering the teachers and the students to take active part in knowledge creation by enabling development of personalized content and student centric curriculum. Other free resources like social networking platforms and other support tools are creating more scope for collaboration and sharing of best practises. I would, however point out that it’s incredibly important for any digital tool, especially digital textbooks to allow flexibility along with delivering high quality content.

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