Solving the Texas Textbook Massacre, Scandal, and Mystery

Textbooks are like disposable diapers, fodder for landfills, their obsolescence planned and forced new editions programmed with regularity. When I was a kid we couldn’t write in our textbooks. The nuns used them year after year – textbooks must not have been programmed to self-destruct quite so quickly in those days. We had to cover our textbooks with brown paper grocery bags, cut cleanly according to obsessive instructions, so the covers fit smartly around the edges, taped carefully so no tape touched the textbook. In spite of this care, or perhaps because of it, I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name of a single textbook I used in my twelve years of regular school.

A few summers ago I started noticing very old textbooks, from the early 1900’s, showing up in local garage sales. I started collecting them. One day I took a bagful down to the local used book store to see what I might get for them, but the owner was chagrined. “I don’t buy books like that,” she said, and wouldn’t even look down into the bag. Yet Powell’s “City of Books,” in Portland, does a brisk business filling newer-used US textbook orders from overseas, and textbooks, new and used, constitute an enormous, bizarrely regulated industry.

But the mystery of the Texas textbook scandal is why anyone cares, for who supposes students actually read the textbooks? And even if they wanted to, where are the school districts whose funding is deep enough to afford them? Schools that could have afforded new textbooks no doubt spend their money in other, more productive ways: building multi-million dollar sport complexes, for example. And if they have the textbooks, were they distributed? Or are they sitting in a warehouse, as Michelle Rhee discovered when she took over in DC? In any case, given the unaffordable prices and now the tampering with the credibility and reliability of textbooks, Texas teachers should forgo any of the changes forced by their state board of education and ignore textbooks altogether, avoiding their exorbitant costs, forced new editions, inflated purpose, and questionable educational effectiveness; and the rest of the country should follow their example.

Will the Education debate go the way of the Health Care debate? In the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “But the reform package [Health Care] emerged with a clear recognition of what is driving costs up: a system that pays for the quantity of care rather than the value of it. This can’t continue.” Neither can Education’s reliance on the textbook system, which is also too expensive and values quantity over quality. No one doubts this, but, as Gawande says, “the threat comes from party politics.” So too with Education. There is, Gawande says, “…one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves.” The same might be said for Education: it will count on local communities and local teachers for success, not state boards of education who confuse textbooks, editing, and censoring with teaching, and who would use a textbook to narrow the entrance to knowledge rather than opening the door to full and open access – access that is alive and growing on the Web, and that should be given more support to be leveraged by schools to lower the costs of education while improving the quality of instruction.

Instead of the traditional use of textbooks, teachers can use primary sources via the Internet. For in depth analysis, including background and extensive researched reports of current events, school libraries should subscribe to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (the blog is free; access to the full reports requires a subscription – which most libraries provide). Extensive reports include credible pro-con discussion and annotated and linked bibliographies for further reading. Open Culture is another site that includes free resources, including language, culture, and math and science material – including links to podcasts from reputable universities. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another site that features free and open access to the work of professional scholars (a current fund raising campaign seeks to establish a more permanent and viable funding source – so no, these sites are not free, though they offer free access).

Students are already using the Internet, and teachers can do more to leverage its resources. Google Books, for all the controversy surrounding the copyright issue, is getting better and students access the site without charge (apart from Internet service) for direct access to both primary sources and critical analysis. Credible and reputable periodicals are on-line, some with full access, others with limited access without a subscription. Scholarly journals are following suit and taking down their wall that limits direct access and frustrates students attempting to learn scholarship and research. And individual blogs such as the Becker-Posner Blog (Becker a University of Chicago Nobel economist, and Posner a federal judge), Caleb Crain’s blog, which augments his professional publications, and the World Wide Woodard blog, the blog of author and journalist Colin Woodard, just to mention a few – there are obviously many more – all provide direct, free, and open access to professional criticism, informed opinion, and scholarly research. Still other sites, like FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute – a physics site), provide forums for professionals to share papers and research, while giving students the opportunity to participate by reading and following the studies and discussion. It was on FQXi that I first saw Garrett Lisi’s recent physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

What we need is an exceptionally simple theory of education. Hopefully it will include open access to primary source documents that might nudge textbooks away from the center of the student’s desk, where the drool is soaking into the garbage bag cover.

Update: 5-27-2010…It was announced this week that Portland Public High School District has posted just over a 50% graduation rate. I don’t think the problem is textbooks. Meantime, here’s a blog post that touches on a similar crisis in higher ed. Some appear to be worried about the adulteration of their disciplines as ethos moves online. Yet their ships are sinking – see the post referenced below and then read the top post (we agree with Levi): Larval Subjects.