What Does a Quality Textbook Look Like?

There’s an interesting new concern being voiced by Common Core leaders: “What does a quality textbook look like?”

Here’s a non-nuanced, concrete answer, especially for mathematics textbooks: “It gets results and doesn’t chase kids out of math.” And, yes, such textbooks do exist.

It’s not surprising that the issue of quality textbooks has come up with Common Core. After all, textbook publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The federally-supported mathematics and English Core standards will drive 85% of a school’s curricula and 100% of the related assessments in about 40 states. The creation of new Core-aligned materials that prepare students for the Core-aligned assessments is already making a rich impact on publishing businesses, vendors, and peripheral activities (teacher training, consultants, etc.). So much has to be rewritten or at least republished with the words “Common Core Aligned” on the cover. Old materials must be thrown away. New materials have to be bought. Lots of profit is on the horizon.

The major problem for publishers, however, is actually in mathematics education. They must figure out how to get good, reliable, and verifiable results from American children who have become math phobic over the past 50 years. That means publishers need to listen to authors who have a proven success record and not to ideologically-driven math education leaders who have for years promoted fads with political correctness as the purpose of math education. It will be hard—and expensive—to cut the cord between publishers and embedded education “leaders” if quality textbooks are to be created. Profits may suffer at the beginning.

But here is a checklist for publishers, administrators, teachers, and parents to consider about math textbooks:

1) Look for results, not ideology. It is about student success, not affirming adult beliefs.

  • Results are reflected in GPAs, End-of-Course exams, state tests, national tests, and/or college board exams.
  • Local comments from students, teachers, and parents give anecdotal but often powerful insight. (Surveys are especially interesting when high school students are asked about their elementary and middle school classes.)
  • Specific studies commissioned by the author(s) or publishers show results.
  • School districts or schools with similar demographics that have used the textbook should be contacted. This information can be supplied by the publisher.

2) The author (not “consultants” or “advisors”) who actually wrote the textbook is named, preferably on the cover. This also helps provide accountability.

  • If no authors are listed, the book has been created by workers in publishing “development houses.” This can and probably does provide lack of continuity, different writing styles throughout the book (and supplemental materials), and thus incoherency which decrease clarity of the lessons and affect student responses. This also erases responsibility for the publisher.

3) Actual examples of internationally-based problems (not simply referenced in “studies” by education researchers) are offered for review by the publisher if the textbook is listed as Common Core-aligned, since it is touted that Core standards are internationally based.

4) The teacher’s manual does not consist of 1,000 pages for 180 days of instruction.

  • One afternoon of teacher training with a user-friendly textbook should be sufficient .
  • If it is claimed that a detailed and extensive teacher’s manual (for teaching the teacher) is needed because of weak teacher preparation or skills, then it is the school administration’s problem. They need to work with the teacher training sites to produce better candidates, not buy a truckload of supplemental materials.

5) The textbook does not waste space with expensive, colored photos even if they may have a relationship to the topic. One color used for highlighting words or graphs is sufficient.

  • The textbook uses appropriate space for examples and creative repetition of exercises through every lesson of the book for practice and mastery.
  • The textbook’s focus is on mathematics. Use of social justice themes, for example, in math problem-solving detracts from the math concepts which should be the focus of students.

6) The use of calculators is limited to a few “investigative exercises” to help familiarize students with calculators for later use; they are not to be used in regular problem-solving activities in grades K-6.

  • Mental math and memorization of math facts are required.

7) Few supplemental materials are necessary for students, especially in basic, foundational learning.

  • A test manual and a solutions manual are sufficient as supplements for teachers.
  • A manual for specific populations (special needs or gifted) may be useful.

8) No protest has ever been waged against the textbook by any organized parent group.

  • An Internet search will show if such protests have taken place.

9) The textbook can be completed in one school year without skipping pages or topics.

  • Textbooks of 600-800 pages that can weigh up to seven pounds are subject to teachers’ having to eliminate topics. This creates holes in the fabric of linear mathematics education.

10) Schools using the textbook can show the following:

  • a steady, significant decrease in low-level math courses and the need for remedial programs,
  • an increase in enrollment in advanced math and science courses,
  • an increase in those passing state-required exit tests, and
  • an increase in passing rates and scores on college board exams.

11) In summary, does the textbook show accuracy, brevity, and clarity in its lessons so both parents and teachers can help children learn mathematics?

There are those who insist that textbooks aren’t “the curriculum.” They say it’s all about the teachers. (Common Core now says it’s about standards.) If that’s the case, let’s just give all students a copy of the Yellow Pages. Let’s save all that money spent on books and materials and finally train teachers in their content areas so they can use anything handed to them to teach—including the Yellow Pages. (And if the textbooks are so unimportant, why do progressives fight so hard to get “their” chosen textbooks adopted?)

Maybe teachers can do without a book, but many of us know that students need a quality textbook. Parents and teachers come and go in the lives of children these days, but a user-friendly textbook should always be within reach for children. It can set up a satisfying relationship with positive results for them to show the world.

More than a million homeschooled students, plus many charter, private, and small public schools use a textbook that meets these listed criteria. The math education leadership hates the series because they say it is too traditional. Reams of documentation exist, however, to prove its success with students. For more information, go to http://saxonmathwarrior.com. (Disclaimer: The author is NOT affiliated with any publisher.)

3 thoughts on “What Does a Quality Textbook Look Like?

  1. I must say someone has really nailed the proper math textbook by my estimation. In order to avoid the quintessential “color photos of Asian or Hispanic women in lab coats” to influence our students emotionally, I once kept half the textbooks on the floor propping up some weak table legs, and used whatever else I could scrounge to teach my lower and mid level 8th graders, and chose to scrounge up and hoard a large number of highly successful Keedy, Bittinger Algebra I books for many years.

    I came to trust those authors in college as an adult student getting my long awaited B.S. For Math Ed. My middle school was using them in Alg I for years. And then came the deluge of texts being sent to evaluate in huge kits full of all the bells and whistles! Those of us enjoying the newness of techno became enamored of what promised to be user friendly software for LPs and test making, for background and supplemental worksheets, and bags, oh did they give us goodie bags!

    They fed us well too at the textbook selection workshops, too well. It became Lunchenwars! I remember an HBJ rep taking a bunch of us to a great little artists in residence restaurant where we were wined and dined to the max. It was way too easy to appreciate the largesse and deliver the vote on their textbook at our local schools especially if we were a trusted Math Dept chair. I feel guilty to this day about my participation in that textbook adoption committee and vowed to never do it again.

    Keedy, Bittinger books could only be found for another few years and then the huge textbook companies devoured the smaller ones or these great authors had passed on and the techno-gizmo producers won the day/weeks/months.

    A fiasco my final year when the wrong texts were given to the complete opposite of who they were meant for, and I saw it the first week and ceased depending on one of the books a few months into the school year.

  2. Brilliant, Niki. Your list is excellent.

    I’m using Saxon Math as a tutor, modifying it to suit the student. There is no other textbook series out there as thorough, error-free, logical, incremental, and crystal clear as Saxon Math. Even if a student wants to work with other materials from school, I still use Saxon as a guide for topics, to be sure we fill in the gaps that invariably are there.

    I’ve tried other series, including Singapore Math; I always come back to Saxon. I’m not affiliated with any publisher either; I just really like this series.

    Most district administrators do hate Saxon, but that’s because most have lost any sense of how to teach math to a child. They honestly do not know. They honestly believe that struggle, discovery and discussion are the way students should learn math. They seem to have a cult-like attachment to a method that has failed students across the country for three decades.

    I’m now using Saxon to teach myself Algebra II. I’m about 10 chapters from the end of Algebra II, and then I’ll move on to “Advanced Math.” I’m doing every problem in every chapter. It’s enjoyable and relaxing. This work also is helping me tutor, even though I tutor Grades 2-8, because I can see where it’s all going. It’s reaffirmed everything I’ve been thinking about how math should be taught.

    Sadly, most graduates of districts that hate Saxon Math will never have the skills to do even this work, much less the more-advanced work required for engineering or chemistry or other math-centric fields.

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