It’s the curriculum, stupid

Education reform has ignored curriculum, writes Beverlee Jobrack, a retired editorial director for McGraw-Hill, in Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms.

Mediocrity is the norm, according to Jobrack, writes Erik Robelen in Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

• School and district committees for curriculum selection filled with teachers and others who lack the appropriate expertise, motivation, and time to make the best choices;

• State textbook adoptions focused on whether curricular materials meet state standards, line by line, with little or no attention to whether they actually are of high quality and represent a coherent and well-designed instructional approach; and

• A radically consolidated publishing industry, driven by sales and marketing tems, that has “resulted in a dearth of customer choice, a reluctance to innovate, and huge [curricular] programs that are barely distinguishable from one another.”

Graphics win favor. Innovation does not. “A group of very experienced teachers selects the textbook that is most like what they are already doing so they don’t have to change their lesson plans or procedures,” she writes.

Common standards won’t change teaching and learning “without real and meaningful changes in the curriculum,” Jobrack believes. The industry will resist change, she says in an interview.

“They’re not changing anything in the curriculum. They are simply relabeling. … If there’s anything missing in a textbook series, the publishers will simply add a paragraph or add a lesson to address that particular standard.”

When publishers produce an incoherent, standard-stuffed curriculum, it’s not surprising that teachers cherry-pick what they want to teach and ignore the rest.


About Joanne


  1. Lightly Seasoned says:

    My department just uses novels. We haven’t bought anthologies/text books in over a decade. I have a set of very old Scot Forsman texts that I use for a few things, and I plan to use them until I retire.

  2. @Lightly Seasoned, this is off topic, but I think you are a high school English teacher. My daughter will be a freshman this fall. She has an EXCELLENT English teacher this year, is in a leveled class, the highest class at her school, and is excelling. The high school she will most likely go to has decided not to offer honors freshman English. All freshman will take the same English course, and the classes will be heterogenous. I am fairly certain she will spend most of the class time reading under her desk, doing homework for other classes, or, if by chance, some of her friends are in the class, talking to them.

    What sort of homeschooling/afterschooling do I need to do so that she continues to learn Language Arts during her freshman year?

    • I’m not a teacher, but I second the recommendation for high-level reading, in terms of content, vocabulary and complex sentence structure. If she hasn’t already had this, I would recommend study of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes. Also, I would recommend expository writing, not personal reflections. I had my kids do what I did; write short – about 1 page – “in-class” essays, plus longer papers requiring research into academic sources, all written in the third person, in ademic format. This can also be done in history. Taking clear, comprehensive notes from a lecture (lots available online, DVD, library etc) is also a very valuable skill. I had to teach my kids the basic outline format.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Read the good stuff. A solid background in the most common biblical stories and Greek & Roman myth (ie. The Illiad, Odyssey, Aeneid) are especially important. For vocabulary development, put the Free Rice app on her phone (if she has one that can do apps). You can also find lot of SAT vocab development stuff online. For composition/grammar, my favorite approach (aside from diagramming) is a little book called The Art of Styling Sentences. I believe Barron’s publishes it for maybe $20; it teaches grammar and composition through sentence patterns. I’ve found it highly effective for style/sentence variety.

    • Stacy in NJ says:
  3. For years I’ve battled our social studies department about the atrocious ten-ton US history book they use. From a literacy standpoint, it is so counter-productive, as many students simply don’t read it. And the nature of the class is so content-memorization heavy that it has become the most failed class in my entire school.

    I’ve half-jokingly asserted that the dept could replace the book with Kenneth Davis’ I Don’t Know Much About History, considering that’s all many of the students will recall or even need to know to be an educated electorate. I mean how many Civil War battles and generals do you know? Is it worth testing kids on both the Union and Confederate names for all the battles?

    Where’s the critical thinking and practical application?

    • George Larson says:

      Don’t you think that two sides speaking the same language and using the same maps name the same battles differently is worthy of some thought? Don’t you think the succession of commanders of the Union Army of the Potomac is significant?

      • George Larson,

        It is significant, but the question here is it important to memorize it for a test? I say that it is important to discuss it in class and then allow the students to choose from a wealth of various possible topics about, for example, the civil War, to research and then synthesize the information into some sort of authentic product. In other words, use the same skills that they will have to use in the work place as adults.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Is it worth memorizing for a test when everyone knows that the information will be forgotten within weeks?

        I find it mildly interesting that the battle(s) of Bull Run and Manassas are the same battle(s). Is there any point in having high school students memorizing the “Bull Run = Manasses” mapping?

        I think learning the order of the (roughly) 10 most important battles and *WHY* they matter makes some sense. But I can’t get too hung up on Bull Run/Manasses as *names*. I also can’t get super excited even about the top-10 battles until I see some indication that the goal is to teach this so that the knowledge lasts longer than two weeks after the test.

        • George Larson says:

          Swede and Mark Roulo

          The answer to my 2 questions might make the information seem worth remembering.

          It is strange that I can remember and I am not a Civil War Buff, a re-enactor or taken a history course since high school.

          For the two of you: What are the two most important facts or ideas your students should know about the Civil War or War Between the States?

          • Mark Roulo says:

            I don’t know about top 2, but top 1 is that the war *WAS* about slavery. Yes, it was also about state’s rights, but the primary right that the southern states cared about was slavery.

            Example here:

            The answers to your questions would *help*, but I expect that most classes teach the sequence McDowell -> McClellan -> Burnside -> Hooker -> Meade and test for same. Do the names matter all that much relative to that fact that we had four commanders in two years? I expect that the turnover (and the reason for it) matters, but that the names don’t matter so much. And learning the reasons probably doesn’t help much in remembering the names (I’ve heard of all but McDowell, but couldn’t have provided you with the sequence).

            More important, I think, is when Grant was given a major command (in the west?) and then brought east to win the main event. You really need to know who Grant was to have a handle on the US Civil War. McClellan as a *name*? Maybe not so much.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “Don’t you think that two sides speaking the same language and using the same maps name the same battles differently is worthy of some thought?”

        Okay, I’ll bite. One team names the battles after geographical features (rivers) and the other names them after municipal units (cities, towns, farms). Why is this significant? I find it mildly interesting that in the middle ages, the surviving knights from both sides in a battle would often meet afterwards to agree on names so that the histories would sorta match and that this did *NOT* happen here. But why does it matter?

        • George Larson says:

          Your theory fits some cases. I favor: How did the armies approach the battlefield? They named the battle after the nearest map features. The South approached from Manassas Junction the North from Bull Run. This holds for Shilo and Antietam. I suspect the press decided the battlefield names, not the military

        • George Larson says:

          I agree with you on what was most important.

          I agree with you in part about the commanders.

          It strikes me as strange you mention George McClellan only once. He commanded twice, trained his Army after Bull Run and he came close to defeating Lincoln for reelection.

          Hooker, Burnside, McClellan and MacDowell started out with good plans which they executed badly.

          The South went through a similar game of musical chairs out West.

          The North’s search for military competence took longer in the East, but finding it first in the West made the difference. Yet everyone agrees the South started out with better commanders.

          The search for competence made the war into a war of attrition in spite of everyone’s prediction of a quick easy one battle war. Once the best commanders were found it only made the war bloodier.

      • As general knowledge? Of course. As a part of discussion? Sure. As a series of multiple choice questions on a final exam that lead to Ds and Fs on a report card? Absolutely not.

  4. Michael Mazenko,

    Exactly right! What use is rote memorization of information? You need to have the students actually do something with the information so that the process matches up more closely with what they have to do as adults in the real world. Any authentic product that requires the student to practice and develop valuable real world skills will do (write a research report, give a formal speech, create something artistic that reflects synthesis of the information, and so on). I agree with you 100%.


    The funny thing is, if your daughter likes to read and continues reading challenging books at home, that is really all that she needs to do. She will acquire vocabulary, reading comprehension, and an eye for narrative structure just from reading. If you want, have her write some reflection pieces (or, to be more creative, rewrite chapters in her own voice) and that will meet all the objectives of a typical LA class.

  5. palisadesk says:

    Robert Pondiscio has had a lot to say on this topic (too often ignored, I agree).

    See here:

  6. I’m appalled at how this author sees text selection. Teachers are absolutely the best people to be choosing the textbooks. They know the content and the students in the depth necessary to make good choices (most of the time), and they are the ones who have to deal with the fallout if the new textbook turns out to be a dud.

    This article sounds like it’s written by someone who has written a new “reform” textbook (which of course will be so much better than the traditional approach, right?). Reform textbooks aren’t new in math, so I’ve been through the process of falling in and then out of love with the new reform approaches. Most of the new reform books started out terrible. Some of the ones that have survived to a second edition are looking better, but the first edition versions all had some real problems (some of the second editions do too, but they’re improving). New reformed texts always look so promising: the activities and lessons that are demo-ed are clever and relevant, and it all seems so much more engaging than the old way. And then you get stuck teaching from them, and you realize there are big gaping holes that you have to scramble to fill because nobody thought to include ____, or they were sure that their new approach would get students to master ____…but it didn’t. Or maybe you’re the teacher who gets the students who were taught out of the new texts for the last 3 years and you find that none of the students know how to do ____, which used to be something you could count on students knowing so you could build on it in your class, and you find yourself trying to squeeze another 2 weeks out of your schedule to teach the prerequisite stuff that didn’t get taught because of the new approach, and no one (until they got to you) even realized that the topic was missing.

    Sorry about the rant.

  7. Cranberry says:

    Irony alert: McGraw-Hill publishes Everyday Math.

    I would say that blaming teachers for mediocre materials is…misplaced. I also have not noticed that the education world is opposed to innovation. Rather the opposite, in fact, in that many are innovating so frequently they have no idea if anything works.

    As a parent, I saw the carnage that happened when our local school dispensed with their previous curriculum. The transition was badly handled, and I don’t think the new curriculum was an improvement.

    ”A group of very experienced teachers selects the textbook that is most like what they are already doing so they don’t have to change their lesson plans or procedures,” she writes.

    That makes perfect sense. I’ve seen what happens when change in lesson plans and procedures is imposed from above. Catastrophe.

    The teachers have more sense than the textbook publishers.

  8. Deirdre Mundy says:

    The sad thing is that a really good, methodical, comprehensive textbook actually makes teaching easier, by providing a jumping off point for lesson planning.

    When I first started homeschooling, I tried the “no textbooks, only real books!” method. It turned out to be increduibly time consuming from a planning persepective, the library often didn’t have the books I wanted, and the curriculum was biased by my own interests. (My daughter decided Ancient Egypt was neat. I love Ancient History. So we just sort of got stuck on Egypt. Sure, it was fun, but we needed more structure.)

    Now she’s in Second Grade, and we’re working through a US history text (intended for older kids so I read aloud.) It’s great, because it gives her a framework to see where her favorite bits that she happily studies on her own (Aztecs, Incas, Colonial times and pioneers) fit into the larger picture.

    I should have KNOWN this was the better way to go, since my own awesome Civ class in college combined primary documents with… McNeil’s Outline of world history. You need the larger framework that an organized textbook provides….

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      While textbooks often provide a great framework, the actual writing can be incredibly boring, dry, and impersonal.

      My 7th grader is using the Hakim Story of US series for history this year. We combine those with books written by Albert Marrin for real depth.

      I like textbooks for math, though. The Foerster’s Algebra text is wonderful