Be afraid of your child’s math textbook

Be afraid — be very afraid — of your child’s math book warns Annie Keeghan, who worked in educational publishing for 20 years, in Open Salon.

There may be a reason you can’t figure out some of those math problems in your son or daughter’s math text and it might have nothing at all to do with you. That math homework you’re trying to help your child muddle through might include problems with no possible solution. It could be that key information or steps are missing, that the problem involves a concept your child hasn’t yet been introduced to, or that the math problem is structurally unsound for a host of other reasons.

After a series of mergers and buyouts, few educational publishers are left, she writes. Many are skimping on quality control to rush new books (especially math books) to market to beat the competition.

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  1. Thank you so much for your post. I find, as a classroom teacher, that I have had to train my students to look for these mistakes. Unfortunately, they are quite common. On the upside, it has taught my students not to trust everything they read. It is a great conversation to have with students!

  2. This is not unique to elementary or secondary education textbooks. I took a course in combinatorics from the man who wrote the textbook we were using in class. One of the assigned problems we did was one he had included in the textbook because it “sounded neat”. Turned out to be an open problem first posed over 100 years earlier (and it still is unsolved today). Sheesh!

  3. Eric Jablow says:

    Forget about the quality of test textbooks for a moment; the February issue of the Notices of the American Mathematics Society has an article by Alan H. Schoenfeld, “A Modest Proposal,” detailing how students are learning that any time a problem is posed, there is an answer, even if the posited information do not lead to one:

    For example, Reusser asked ninety-seven first- and second-grade students the following question:

    There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?

    More than 3/4 of the students “solved” the problem, obtaining their answers by combining the integers 26 and 10.

    I would bet that no matter how good or bad a text book is, as long as students lean this simple and incorrect faith that every posed problem has a solution, they will do poorly.


    • I would be more worried if he’d asked 5th graders and gotten that result. Of course 1st and 2nd graders try to solve it. Kids that age are typically optimistic and trusting, not just about math problems.

      • tim-10-ber says:

        Talking with a high school math teacher in one of the country’s top academic magnet schools she says her high school students don’t know how to solve these problems with incomplete information…it isn’t just elementary students…so just when is supposed critical thinking and reasoning taught in school?

      • Eric Jablow says:

        That was just the first of a few examples; the rest were of older students.

  4. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Well, another example of the free market at work. Higher quality and lower prices, just like TVs, right?

    • Free market? Hardly. The approval process a teacher and/or district has to go through to use state funds for books eliminates smaller publishers. Its actually regulated very heavily.

  5. Actually, this isn’t the free market at all, because the BUYERS of the textbooks aren’t real market buyers. The market is distorted because quality doesn’t matter to the buyers. The market will produce whatever buyers want. If parents had choices about where their children were educated — as they have choices about other products they buy for their children — and if they were comparing educational outcomes in deciding which provider to use, textbook buyers would have to buy quality books. So blaming it on the market is absurd. The publishers are responding to what a monopolistic system says it is willing to accept.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Markets rely on feedback. If the word gets out that Toyotas and Hondas last longer than Pontiacs and Plymouths, more of the former are bought and less of the latter. The latter improve or die. Hopefully, stories like this will make the books improve–or die.

  7. Kirk Parker says:

    Wow, all those comments over at Open Salon and nobody mentioned Feynman? (I can’t share this over there, Open Salon is a closed system for some reason.)

    A further observation: it’s not just academic publishing that is having these problems. I recently bought and read a Very Highly Rated book on a Very Important subject by a Very Knowledgeable person from a Genuine Publisher (a division of Random House)… and it clearly hadn’t really had any copy editing done!

  8. I remember the story. In a nutshell, Feynman showed up at the meeting of a textbook committee he had been shanghaied onto and found that he was the only one who had read the books.

  9. Kirk Parker says:

    Rob, that’s part–but only part–of the story. Some of it is even worse.

  10. Every so often I bug my husband by saying “Energy makes it go!”

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before: When my kids were in el ed, they had a science curriculum with the tests provided. They were having troubles. I looked at the tests. The more you knew, the less likely you were to be able to answer the questions. The teacher to whom I mentioned this smiled brightly and said, “The better students seem to have more trouble,” with the air of a person who wasn’t interested in the issue whatsoever.

    • We are often provided “test banks” as a service with our university textbooks. I never use them; some of the questions are truly awful.

  12. palisadesk says:

    The part I liked best about the Feynman story was where he examined one of the suggested textbooks and found it was full of pages that were totally blank! He was the only one on the textbook adoption committee to notice this;-)

    Sobering reflection on the level of careful scrutiny given to the issue….

  13. The question I have to ask is why we need new math text books? Especially for the younger grades. 2+2 is still 4.

  14. I think the Gates Foundation or the Fordham Foundation — or both — should start rating textbooks.

    The first criterion should be–is the math accurate?

    I would have no problem, though, with the exercise in which a student would rate attractiveness. I don’t think it would instill math phobia. The teacher could assign photos of movie stars and politicians–or skip that exercise completely.

  15. I’ve regularly found typos and errors in the college-level textbooks we use. And when I’ve been hired by publishers (increasingly less, these days) to evaluate chapters, I found some howlers of errors.

    Of course, as someone else noted, other books seem to have little copyediting these days. I’ve found errors in cookbooks, for example.

  16. A search of “free online textbooks” turned up several state initiatives. States are working on free online textbooks. If publishers aren’t careful, they’ll market themselves out of business.


    In theory, if a textbook is in a supported digital format, it can be edited over time. There’s no need to wait for a new edition.

  17. There’s no reason textbooks for some subjects, such as math, can’t be open source and slowly improved over the years until they’re just killer. This would be a great opportunity for someone like the Gates Foundation to step in and supply the modest funding that a few open source textbooks would require.

    Apple’s new technology also has the opportunity to disrupt the textbook market.

    I think the textbook market is ripe for a technology-driven disruption. Whether this will improve education overall, I couldn’t say…