The Case of the Fallacious Textbook, Part II

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by Sara Mayeux

Earlier yesterday morning (well, it was morning where I am, though you may have been eating lunch), I opened with a few thoughts on the Great Textbook Debacle of 2010, which is now turning into the Even Greater Textbook Debacle of 2011. I wanted to expand a bit on my assertion that textbooks probably matter less than we might think. Here's why: I'd imagine that classroom teachers vary widely in how much they rely on the textbook, and that students vary even more widely in how much they actually use the textbook. At either end of the spectrum the textbook itself is going to be epiphenomenal to whatever students are or aren't learning.

Some K-12 teachers will treat the teaching of history simply as a weekly exercise in filling out a worksheet about some number of pages from the text. That approach to teaching history is likely to engage no one, and thus I am not losing sleep over the possibility that students will long remember much of what they learned thereby, fallacious or otherwise. And incidentally, that approach to teaching history at the K-12 level is probably at least partly to blame for the fact that college history professors often report a mismatch between their expectations and those of their students. When Indiana University's history faculty embarked upon a study of their students' performance in history courses (more on that here), they found that students "may view the textbook as the central source from which all factual answers for the exam emanate, while professors often conceive of textbooks as secondary tools providing students with a general (sometimes uncritical) narrative that must be compared to more scholarly writings, course lectures, and documentary sources." Sam Wineburg, who studies history teaching, has reported that historians tend to rate textbooks as the least trustworthy sources while students tend to rate them as the most trustworthy.

Other K-12 teachers will introduce primary sources, literature, film, paintings, and material culture to the classroom; will plan field trips, imaginative exercises, and debates; will model for students how to construct their own understanding of history, using the textbook as a backup reference source, not as a state-sanctioned repository of History Itself. That approach to teaching history is one that I and probably most people who study history like better, and one that I like to think is more likely to spark at least some students' lifelong interest in the subject. And it's one that mitigates the fallout of a bad textbook. I fear that every current trend in American education—the emphasis on standardized testing, the expanded scheduling of rote reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects, the skittish avoidance of any curricular unit that might be deemed "controversial" (defining "controversial," of course, as "might make someone uncomfortable," which is what history at its best is supposed to do), the preference for watered-down, "age-appropriate" texts rather than rich and complicated original documents, the devaluation of advanced degrees or continuing education for teachers in the subjects they teach, etc.—is pushing away from this model.

But I don't know for sure, and would be delighted to be proven wrong. I admittedly don't spend much time interacting with K-12 teachers, and I think our national discussion about education is generally woefully unsolicitous of the actual experiences and concerns of actual teachers. So, if you know more than I do about what sort of history teaching is going on in our K-12 classrooms these days, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. What I've gleaned from the media does not make me optimistic, though of course, the media has biases of its own.

On that note, I would like to close this two-parter of an opening guest post with a particularly heartbreaking story that I read in The New York Times last year. The article was ostensibly about how immigrant students are often segregated into separate classes within their schools, which in its own right is a development we could have any number of interesting discussions about. But between the lines, the article, I thought, was better read as a case study in how thoroughly standardized testing has colonized American education. A major reason why students for whom English isn't a first language tend to be shunted off into separate classes is because school administrators are so terrified that these students will do poorly on their standardized exams and bring down the school's No Child Left Behind ratings. Thus, in the words of the Times reporter, these students must be "relentlessly drilled and tutored on material that appears on state tests." And if you're curious about what exactly that looks like, the reporter also provides a telling image:

"Write this down," she told a class one day. "There's always a question about Huguenots."

Significant historical episodes are often reduced to little more than sound bites. "You don't really need to know anything more about the Battle of Britain, except that it was an air strike," Ms. Cain told one class. "If you see a question about the Battle of Britain on the test, look for an answer that refers to air strikes."


I try not to think about this story too much, because the thought that all around the country today and every day there are classroom teachers telling their students versions of "You don't really need to know anything more about the Battle of Britain" is fairly terrifying to me. For what it's worth, I don't blame Ms. Cain any more than I blame the author of the Terrible Textbook—I imagine that she cares about her students but is under any number of informal and formal pressures to produce passing test scores. As someone who knows that history can open up new worlds and as someone who knows that 15-year-olds, and especially 15-year-olds who may be poor or marginalized or stigmatized in their day-to-day lives, are among those most desperately in need of doors to new worlds, I find it tragic that we've created an education system in which this teacher is instead limited to soundbites. I do not think we should pretend that what is being taught in this story is history.

It's funny because back when this article came out, some person named Sara Mayeux wrote a bitterly dashed-off letter to the editor in response:

No wonder dropout rates are high. It appears that the testocracy that runs our schools has turned even the most vital, engaging stories of human history into an exercise akin to memorizing phone books.

If I were still in high school, I might find something better to do with my time, too.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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