U.S. and world history textbooks are fat, heavy, stuffed with disconnected facts, emblazoned with graphics and, above all, dull, concludes Fordham Institute’s review of high school texts, led by Diane Ravitch. Chester Finn writes:
The books reviewed in this report range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good. The best are merely adequate. In the hands of a competent teacher, they could get the job done, but not much more than that. No textbook scored better than 78 percent overall—the rough equivalent of a C+ grade. Five of the twelve earned failing marks. Despite their glitzy graphics and vivid pictures, they all suffer from dull prose and the absence of a “story.” Is it any wonder that most students rank history or social studies among their least favorite subjects in school? What a crashing bore it must be to try to learn something from tomes like these.
The report recommends that schools or teachers be allowed to buy the textbooks they prefer, instead of adopting one book for the whole state.
This is no recipe for chaos so long as every school must attain state or district academic standards and be monitored by state or district assessments. Within that results-based accountability framework, a teacher or school history department should be free to choose whatever books, software, and supplemental materials they believe will assist them to get the job done. This will also liberate the textbook market from the handful of multinational publishing houses that dominate it today and encourage “boutique” publishers to bring more history texts (and other materials) to market.
. . . In addition, teachers should have the option of using their “textbook budgets” for alternative materials if they would rather assemble their own — from the Internet, from television, from a variety of publications, and from their own brains and knowledge base.
As long as publishers are trying to please all the state textbook committees, books will keep getting longer, heavier and more crammed with “mentions.”