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Nearly everyone would agree that textbooks are the foundational tool for the classroom teacher. But not everyone agrees on which textbooks are the best tool. A number of Christian teachers believe that the leading secular textbooks are more academically credible than Christian textbooks. The major publishing houses certainly have worked hard to create that aura. And they have the most resources, the best funding, and the largest clientele to do it.
Setting aside for the moment that secular books begin with faulty premises (such as man’s being his own measure), let’s look at just the superficial issues of credibility cited by professional organizations and education experts nationwide.
The leading secular texts contain unbelievable numbers of surface errors. A 1998 study of middle school physical science textbooks revealed thousands of errors that forced the researchers to conclude that "none of the 12 most popular middle-school physical science texts was acceptable."1 And these errors were not necessarily typographical; they involved scientific inaccuracy and imprecision, and critical qualities of legitimate scientific studies. In 2000, Project 2061, a reform initiative for the teaching of science and math in grades K5–12, released its 1999 findings from its series of evaluations of leading middle-school science and mathematics textbooks. These findings conclude that "most of the texts have serious weaknesses" and "not one was rated highly."2
But, it’s not just the science and math texts that have weaknesses; history and literature books also have their problems. Frances Jacobson Harris of the American Library Association shows that a dependence on current history textbooks can "compromise student learning."3 In 2003, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted an evaluation of six widely used high school U.S. history texts and six world history texts. The study concluded that "the books reviewed in this report range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good. . . . No textbook scored better than 78 percent overall. . . . Five of the twelve earned failing marks."4
The criticisms of history textbooks focus on two weaknesses: the "dumbing down" of the text itself as publishers adjust to "short attention spans and non-readers" and the "increasing content bias and distortion."5 These textbooks contain bright photographs and lots of color, but these qualities tend to "overwhelm the text and confuse the page," making it even harder, rather than easier, to read. But the distorted content is even more troubling. Special interest groups, as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League (which aims to secure justice and fair treatment for the Jewish people) and the Infinity Foundation (a group dedicated to promoting Hindu ideals into American mainstream life), emphasize that their influence on American textbooks is critical to their success.6 As publishers cater to these pressure groups, the textbooks become extensions of these diverse political and cultural causes, rather than founded on historical fact, scholarly appraisal, and balance.
Most of the blame for the alarming record of these textbooks lies with the four leading publishers in today’s market. Rather than the previous domain of several independent, competing companies, textbooks today are produced by multinational corporations that bought out smaller companies in the 1990s. These publishers no longer focus on the student, or even the teacher, but on the huge state markets (particularly Texas, California, and Florida) that produce the largest, most reliable revenue. These publishers claim that they are responding to state standards and, therefore, to state pressure, but their conformity to those standards is minimal and mechanical.
The dollar is the bottom line, and they seek those huge dollar markets with as little financial investment as possible. Obviously, the wholesale revisions or rewrites of current textbooks, recommended by leading educators nationwide, are not financially beneficial to these companies. Therefore, only dramatic market changes will alter the current textbook industry. And those changes do not appear forthcoming.7
Clearly, the Christian school seeking the best possible textbooks should look beyond the current secular market. Reliance on such questionable texts cannot serve the essential purpose of Christian education. To weed out both the philosophical errors as well as the factual ones would leave the teacher little time to do his real job: helping his students conform to the image of Christ.
Dr. Rhonda Galloway teaches English at Bob Jones University and writes for BJU Press during her summer break.She has been a featured speaker at both state and national homeschool conferences.
2 American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000 Annual Report
3 Frances Jacobson Harris, "There Was a Great Collision in the Stock Market": Middle School Students, Online Primary Sources, and Historical Sense Making School Library Media Research, Volume 5 (2002).
4 Chester E. Finn, Jr., "Foreword," A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks (2004), p. 8.
5 Gilbert T. Sewall, American Textbook Council, senate testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
7 For a detailed analysis of market-driven textbook publishing, see the following sources: Harriet Tyson, "Overcoming Structural Barriers to Good Textbooks," and Tamin Ansary, "The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor."