Good textbooks raise achievement

Image result for shelf of textbooks

Good textbooks can boost student achievement significantly, especially in math, concludes new research by Thomas Kane at Brookings.

. . . if all schools could be persuaded to switch to one of the top quartile (math) textbooks, student achievement would rise overall by roughly .127 student-level standard deviations or an average of 3.6 percentile points. Although it might sound small, such a boost in the average teacher’s effectiveness would be larger than the improvement the typical teacher experiences in their first three years on the job, as they are just learning to teach.

Identifying “more effective curriculum materials can yield outsized bang-for-the-buck, because schools are already buying textbooks and better textbooks do not cost more on average than less effective ones,” notes Kane.

“Textbooks have no unions and it’s easy to replace one textbook with a better textbook,” adds Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution.

Educators are turning to free, open-source texts — with backing from the U.S. Education Department, writes Hechinger’s Nichole Dobo.

At an event tagged as the #GoOpen Exchange, the department praised pioneering educators who were working to upend the traditional model of textbooks and materials. To assist with that work, the Department of Education has recruited a full roster of supporters, both public and private, including Amazon Education, Microsoft and Edmoto.

The Department unveiled a website, the Learning Registry, to help teachers find free textbooks and materials.

However, identifying which non-traditional materials help students learn is a huge, time-consuming job for teachers.

I’ll add that my husband is updating his computer engineering textbook. It takes many hours of work to do it well. He hopes to be paid for his labors. I don’t see how we’re going to get high-quality learning materials without compensating the writer/developers.

Don’t blame Common Core for lousy textbooks

Textbook publishers are using Common Core standards to sell second-rate books, charges a Project Veritas video. It features quotes from a Houghton Mifflin employee (now fired), who says, “You don’t think that educational publishing companies are in it for the kids, do you? No, it’s all about the money.”

Publishers have been selling lousy textbooks — at a profit — long before the Common Core era, writes Kevin Mahnken on a Fordham blog.

Common Core, which was adopted in most states, kicked off a one-time shopping spree, he writes.

Dubiously “Common Core-aligned” materials started materializing in 2010—right as the standards were first being implemented, with nowhere near enough time for the publishers to have adequately fitted them to new classroom curricula. And pretty soon, we heard reports of texts that just recycled the old, rigor-free dross in new packaging, paid for by hundreds of millions of dollars in public contractsSome ugly scams followed, which were occasionally settled in the courts.

However, districts don’t need to buy from the big publishers, Mahnken writes. New curriculum providers such as “Core Knowledge, Great Minds, and Expeditionary Learning have developed legitimately standards-based materials for states at a steep discount.” Some units are open-sourced.

There are new rating tools from third parties such as EdReports. “It’s now easier than ever to search textbooks, compare them against one another, and select the one that teaches the standards best.”

Dianne Barrow, also quoted saying she “hates kids,” told the Washington Post her quotes had been heavily edited and taken out of context. She believes that Common Core will improve education by creating consistent academic expectations. And the bit about hating kids was a joke.

Laptops in, textbooks out

Students will get laptops rather than textbooks at Houston schools, reports the Houston Chronicle.  All high school students in the district will receive laptops.

All math and social studies materials will be digital this year. Printed science books were scrapped last year. English books will be next. The new model is “electronic text with features like hyperlinks, videos and interactive maps,” reports the Chronicle.

Houston is warehousing science, social studies and math books and switching to digital content.

Houston is warehousing science, social studies and math books and switching to digital content.

 Superintendent Terry Grier hopes to raise stagnant test scores by using savings from not buying books to “fund the technology and online resources that can be updated more easily,” reports the Chronicle.

“It’s called a digital transformation,” Grier said. “And every teacher is to make that transformation.”

“There are so many things wrong with doing this,” writes Darren, a math teacher who blogs at Right on the Left Coast.Books make it easier to read, find things, study and highlight.  Screens are hard on the eyes and “use a color of light that is known to screw up your circadian rhythms. That means that it’s harder to fall and stay asleep if you study near bedtime.”

There are other problems.

Is the infrastructure strong enough to support the laptops?  (How often does the power go out?  How often does the internet go out?  How often does the wireless go out?  Can the district handle all those kids logged on at once?) Do I have stable desks, and carpeting?

How am I, the teacher, supposed to handle a kid who forgot to charge his laptop, and it goes out during the quiz?

How will the district/schools handle those kids who just cannot be trusted on computers?  (Yes, they exist, and sometimes they find a way to access porn sites and send hundreds of pictures to the school secretary’s printer. Just saying.)

“Two years ago our prior superintendent pushed a mandate to give every single kid an iPad,” writes Ellen K, who blogs at The Sum of All Things, in a comment. Results:

-Less focus on writing-both content and the skill.

-Fewer research skills as students resort to plagiarism on an exponential scale.

-Inability to read — especially scary when you consider that young kids are being taught to read on devices over printed material. Five year olds don’t know the phrase “eye strain” but they do know when something hurts. . . .

-The inability of teachers to remove or even control distractions created by devices has resulted in classroom chaos. Fights and events are formulated on social media and it is literally us against them.

Other than that, it’s been great.



Most textbooks that claim to be aligned to Common Core standards are just repackaged versions of earlier books, writes Matt Collette on The Daily Beast.

That leaves teachers scrambling to find or create materials that match what they’re supposed to teach.

EdReports, which wants to become a Consumer Reports for education, has hired teachers to review best-selling elementary- and middle-school math textbooks. The Gates Foundation, which funded the development and adoption of Common Core, funds EdReports.

Of more than 80 textbooks reviewed this spring, 11 met expectations for alignment with the Common Core, according to EdReports. Nine were from the Eureka Math series by publisher Great Minds.

 In a multi-page statement, publishing giant Pearson—which had zero textbooks evaluated as being aligned with the Common Core—said EdReports’ evaluations “reflect a very narrow interpretation” of Common Core “and fall short of the true intent of the standards.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—which had over 30 texts evaluated, none of which fully met standards—said it was “fully committed to working with our customers” and would continue to work toward improving its products.

TPS Publishing argued that reviewers considered its non-aligned main textbook, but ignored the Core-aligned supplements, such as workbooks or online material.

“Not everyone gets the supplementary material,” said Sheldon Fine, a former teacher and administrator who now works to train math teachers through Math For America. “To expect teachers to go all over the place to put things together is unfair.”

If a book says it’s Core-aligned, is it really?, a non-profit that aims to be the“Consumer Reports” for Common Core finds learning materials, isn’t impressed with allegedly “Core-aligned” math materials, reports the Washington Post.

Angie Todd uses Eureka Math to teach kindergarteners about place values in Pinesville, Louisiana. Photo: Tia Owens-Powers Town Talk

Angie Todd uses Eureka Math materials to teach kindergarteners about place values in Pinesville, Louisiana. Photo: Tia Owens-Powers, Town Talk

Out of 20 sets of K-8 math materials in widespread use, only one series — Eureka Math — was aligned with the Common Core for all grade levels, the report concluded. Teachers and math experts analyzed the texts.

Next will be English Language Arts and high school materials.

Educators need “a trusted resource for rigorous, independent and public reviews of the alignment and usability of classroom curricula,” said Eric Hirsch,’s executive director.

“Several recent analyses have found that while many academic publishers slap a “Common Core aligned” label on their books and teaching materials, few actually follow the new standards, notes the Post.

Eureka was created by a nonprofit called Great Minds, which won a contract with the New York Education Department to develop Eureka/Engage New York math. Education departments in Louisiana and Tennessee have praised Eureka/Engage NY, reports Jessica Williams in the Times-Picayune.

Great Minds, which had to change its name from “Common Core” to avoid confusion with the standards, developed its English Language Arts and math curricula for Core classrooms. Eureka is not an update. It’s new.

Denmark debates Muhammad art in textbooks

Denmark is debating printing Muhammad cartoons in text books and requiring social studies teachers to explain why the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran the cartoons in 2005, reports the Washington Post.

This was the most controversial of the "Muhammed cartoons" run in 2005 by a Danish newspaper.

This was the most controversial of the 2005 Muhammed cartoons printed in 2005 in a Danish newspaper.

Weeks ago, a gunman opened fire, killing one man, at a Copenhagen cafe hosting cartoonist Lars Vilks, who drew Muhammed as a dog in 2007.

Months ago, French journalists were murdered at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, known for its depictions of Muhammad.

Children need to learn about the cartoons, wrote Mai Mercado, a spokesman for the right-wing Conservative Party, in  Jyllands-Posten: “No matter how strong one’s religious feelings are, or how much one cultivates their religion, you do not earn the right to violence or threats.”

No profit left behind

Pearson, the British publishing behemoth,  sells billions of dollars of textbooks, tests, software and online courses in North America, reports Politico‘s Stephanie Simon in No profit left behind.

“Public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective,” writes Simon.

Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.

Pearson’s interactive tutorials on subjects from algebra to philosophy form the foundation of scores of college courses. It builds online degree programs for a long list of higher education clients, including George Washington University, Arizona State and Texas A&M. The universities retain authority over academics, but Pearson will design entire courses, complete with lecture PowerPoints, discussion questions, exams and grading rubrics.

In peak years, the company has “spent about $1 million lobbying Congress and perhaps $1 million more on the state level,” writes Simon. But, she adds, the National Education Association spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress in 2013.

I think this is the key point:

“The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. “When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.”

The real question is whether schools need the products and services they’re buying from Pearson and its competitors. As long as Pearson has competitors, it can’t jack up its prices or lower its quality without losing business. For example, it’s losing GED customers like crazy because the new test is too expensive and too difficult. I predict they’ll announce a new new GED or lower prices to regain business.

Students protest ‘patriotic’ history

In a Denver suburb, a conservative school board member proposed focusing U.S. history courses on citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority. Naturally, students walked out in protest.

Students protest outside of Ralston Valley High School, in Arvada, Colo.  (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Students protest outside of Ralston Valley High School, in Arvada, Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Some students waved American flags and carried signs, such as “There is nothing more patriotic than protest.”

Other carried signs supporting teachers. “The youth protest in the state’s second-largest school district follows a sick-out from teachers that shut down two high schools,” reports AP.

The school board proposal — which has not been voted on — would establish a committee to review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to ensure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strike or disregard of the law.”

“There are things we may not be proud of as Americans,” board member Julie Williams told Chalkbeat. “But we shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place.”

“In South Carolina, conservatives have called on an education oversight committee to ask the College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement courses, to rewrite their framework to make sure there is no ideological bias,” notes AP.

“Politics, propaganda and faith” have distorted history in textbooks written to meet Texas’ standards, historians complain.

AP U.S. History: Has it moved left?

Critics of the new AP U.S. history framework have gone overboard, writes Rick Hess, a former history teacher.

Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King weren’t removed: The old framework didn’t mention historical figures, except for a few presidents, and the new one follows suit. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are still there.

But he’s concerned about the lack of “attention to America’s motivating ideals or to the resulting governing institutions.”

In the new framework, the only mention that the American Revolution might have had any historical significance is a clause mentioning that it had “reverberations in France, Haiti, and Latin America.” There is little or no discussion of the intermediary institutions that are so critical to American culture, society, and government.

While the standards talk often about ethnic and gender identity, I don’t see any room for a discussion of whether there emerged any kind of distinct American “identity.”

There’s little about economics that’s not about government efforts to combat injustice. Students are introduced to decade after decade of American depravity, but there’s nothing to offer context for 20th century U.S. international engagements.

Democratic presidents are lauded, while Republicans are criticized.  “Where FDR and LBJ are warriors for justice, Reagan is described as a man of ‘bellicose rhetoric’.”

Social history — “as distilled by professors with a taste for 21st century identity politics” — drives the framework.

Critics should communicate their concerns and give the College Board “a chance to act,” Hess concludes.

Here’s a practice exam.

AP’s version of U.S. history must reflect how it’s taught by university professors, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly. If it deviates too much, colleges will deny credit. That means “every philosophical, pedagogical, and political fad to overwhelm the faculties of today’s post-modern campuses will creep into the courses taught to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.”  

. . . ask yourself whether the collegiate version of U.S. history—warts and all, with emphasis on the warts—is what you want kids to learn about the nation’s past while in elementary, middle, and high school. Might it not be more important for them to internalize basic chronology, fundamental events, key people, and major accomplishments than to agonize about the injustices and downtrodden of bygone years?

College Board says students learn all that before taking AP U.S. history. But do they?

Open-source textbooks lower costs

Free “open-source” textbooks are lowering students’ costs at a Virginia community college.