wasting bandwidth since 1999

Textbooks Don’t Work

In a recent post on his Class Struggle blog, Jay Mathews explains why textbooks don’t work and hurt schools. His conclusions are based on a new book called “Tyranny of the Textbook” that discusses “why the $4 billion-a-year textbook business is so much a part of our schools’ mediocre performance”.

Textbooks don’t work well. Research shows that with rare exceptions they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell.

Jobrack [the author] argues, rightly, that textbooks can help students learn well only if they are part of a curriculum designed by educators who know what works in the classroom and tested by comparing the level of achievement under one curriculum to another. There is research on which curricula are most effective, but textbook companies don’t use it because their customers aren’t interested in that.

“Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to teachers who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable,” Jobrack said.

Despite all that “not very effective” stuff, here in the overly-large school district we are in the process of doubling down on textbooks, by adopting the online/digital versions of the same materials being pushed by the publishers.

However, simply swapping out paper books repackaged in a digital format – written and distributed by the same companies, usually with the same content – is not “revolutionary”, “innovative”, “reform”, or whatever other term our administrators have applied to the transition.

The digital versions of these instructional materials are hardly unique, usually wrapped in a convoluted interface and/or DRM, and often cost the same or more than the paper versions, and there are few good reasons to continue supporting this branch of the education business.


  1. Doug Johnson

    Hi Tim,

    Diane Ravitch has been a long-time critic of text books (The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003).). This is why we need good libraries. See:

    Have a good one,


  2. Jenny

    Wait a sec…are you agreeing with Jay Mathews? Wow.

    • Tim

      Yeah, don’t tell anyone. :-)
      Don’t worry, he’ll be releasing the “challenge” index soon.

  3. Wil

    I’ve read in research about the ineffectiveness of math texts, specifically. The paper stated that they were little more than “problem sets” with little or no conceptual explanation of what was happening. As a result, the teachers (who have a lot of math anxiety, themselves – have research to back that) don’t teach the concept, just “this is how you do this problem”. Not a lot of scaffolding involved.

    I’ve started tutoring from an understanding angle instead of an algorithmic one. It’s wild how into “robot mode” kids can get when they recognize the layout of a math problem. They stop thinking about what they’re doing (conceptually) and start doing what they’ve been pressured to memorize. It’s actually kind of “1984”. Scary.

    Thanks for brining this to our attention. And for the research quotes.


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