What Role Should Textbooks Play in Education?

What Role Should Textbooks Play in Education?

Find all our Student Opinion questions here.

Do your teachers use textbooks in class or for homework assignments? Are there certain classes where you think textbooks are particularly beneficial to learning? Are there other subjects that you prefer learning a different way?

The New York Times writer Dana Goldstein spent the last five months reading 43 middle school and high school textbooks. In “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.,” Ms. Goldstein writes about the differences between major textbooks published in Texas and California since 2016:

In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.

Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers. In a September speech, President Trump warned against a “radical left” that wants to “erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”

The left has pushed for students to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.

The article continues:

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.

Shortly after the article was published, many Times readers responded in comments and on social media. In the follow-up article “Readers Respond to Our Look at the Politics of American History Textbooks,” Ms. Goldstein highlights some of those comments.

She noticed many readers were struck by the difference in how the two states interpreted and presented African-American history. For example, the CNN commentator Keith Boykin tweeted:

Both California and Texas textbooks teach the Harlem Renaissance. But Texas school books say that some critics “dismissed the quality of literature produced.” California explains white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s. Texas doesn’t mention their race.

There were educators, and other readers, who questioned the benefits and future of textbooks:

One teacher, Peggy Warren, wrote on Twitter that the article was “Solidifying my decision to not use the designated textbook in my classroom! Primary sources are the way to go!”

Some people questioned how much students retain from textbooks. But others responded that textbooks may be most influential as a guide to teachers on how to focus their lessons.

James, a Times reader in Los Angeles, commented, “I teach college freshmen. Those of you who think that these textbooks have little or no effect on the students’ education are being naïve. I see the difference every day. Some states simply teach better history.”

Writing on the Mother Jones website, the journalist Kevin Drum said, “I hate both of these textbooks. I hate all textbooks these days. Cut them all in half! Get rid of the endless boxed inserts and stupid ‘discussion points.’ But add more charts! If I had been forced to learn American history from one of these overstuffed, chopped-up monstrosities, I’d probably hate history too.”

Some readers proposed that there be a national curriculum to ensure consistency of interpretation across the United States:

Trish Zornio, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Colorado, wrote on Facebook, “As an educator myself I’ve long supported a basic federal common core curriculum (e.g. evolution not creationism) to ensure American children get consistent and quality education no matter where they grow up. This comparison of textbooks between two states shows why it’s vital.”

Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed, posting on Twitter:

National unity depends on their being a national narrative. This is especially so for the US as it is a country based on an idea. The idea of each state fashioning its own narrative is an oxymoron that contributes to our political dysfunction.

However, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer at The New York Times Magazine and the creator of The 1619 Project, responded to Mr. Haas on Twitter by saying:

“National unity” has depended on a national narrative and political reality that downplays and erases genocide and slavery to play up an “idea” only made possible through the subjugation of millions. The belief that there was ever a single national narrative is naive.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What are your experiences with textbooks? What are the benefits and limitations to learning with textbooks? Have you had different experiences with textbooks depending on the subject you were studying or how the teacher presented the material?

  • Do you trust all that you read in textbooks? Have you ever perceived bias in the textbooks you have used? If yes, have teachers or other students called out or responded to the bias? Do you think any textbooks are free from bias or opinion? Can you think of anything you have read in a textbook that reflects something about the state where you live? You can look at the examples in the original article if you want ideas.

  • Are there other ways you learn in school that don’t involve textbooks? Do you have teachers who supplement textbooks with other sources? What are your experiences with analyzing primary sources to learn history or conducting experiments to learn science?

  • Who do you think should be responsible for writing, editing and approving textbooks? In the original article, Ms. Goldstein explains the steps of textbook production:

1. Authors, often academics, write a national version of each text.

2. Publishers customize the books for states and large districts to meet local standards, often without input from the original authors.

3. State or district textbook reviewers go over each book and ask publishers for further changes.

4. Publishers revise their books and sell them to districts and schools.

What do you think about this process? Is there anything you think could be done differently? Why? How do you think people should be selected for reviewing textbooks?

  • In the two articles, some teachers express how they have thought about ditching textbooks entirely, adding or challenging the information in the textbook, or using an article, like Ms. Goldstein’s, to remind students about the bias inherent in their textbooks. What do you think about these approaches and responses? Does one resonate with what you think should be done?

  • What do you think about the idea of having a national curriculum? Do you think it would be beneficial to have one narrative or one perspective on science, math, history, English and other subjects? What concerns do you have about this approach?