Long Live the Textbook

I watched the Michelle Rhee documentary on Frontline and wanted to get down a few thoughts. My first impression is of an incredibly strong, driven, focused leader. Rhee has courage, determination and grit.  This woman has got it going on.  Real badass and incredible role model of female leadership.

I think it’s a mistake to put too much focus on one individual leader, though. By sticking her neck out so far like that, Rhee has become a lightning rod for all the frustrations people feel about the state of our schools. It becomes this issue of are you for her or against her, and that’s not really helpful. It encourages a war-like mentality.  Everyone becomes overly reactive and defensive and that can become a real obstacle to constructive problem solving.

If I’d been in Rhee’s position,  I would have taken things from a different angle. Rather than focus so specifically on firing teachers and principals, I would have focused on implementing a high quality curriculum. I feel strongly that we shouldn’t put the burden of curricular design solely on the teacher. The notion that students should design their own curriculum is even worse.  It is well-intentioned, but absurd. Imagine middle school students designing their own algebra textbooks. You can’t expect anything but wildly uneven results with such an approach, though I sympathize with the underlying theory that students should actively construct knowledge. Yes, but let’s not lose our heads here.


Teachers, students and parents should be provided with a coherent curriculum that is aligned with the tests. Give everybody a textbook with all the material laid out plain as day. Everybody- administrators, teachers, parents and students need to be on the same page and the textbook makes that possible.

I will never forget my superintendent telling me that he did not believe in using a textbook in the classroom. He thought it was better if the teachers pieced together our lessons from multiple sources. The result for me was  a nightly scramble to come up with material for our 90 minute language arts core. Some days were inspired. I’d find reading material, and make reams of copies (the amount of photocopies you need in order to make up for the lack of textbook is staggering.) I liked using newspaper and magazine articles and I’d write questions to go with them, but often it wasn’t enough to keep the students busy for the whole period. And when students don’t have something concrete to do, they act out.

We spent a tremendous amount of time learning a reading process the district had put its faith in, where students read in teams. I found it very hard to manage. Too noisy, too hard to focus, too easy for students to get distracted. Yes, it was “interactive.” Interactivity is the holy grail of progressive education. But having lived it, I’m not at all convinced that is the best way for kids to read and learn. I think classrooms would benefit from more quiet, independent work time.

Toward the end of the year, I had the chance to pilot a textbook the district was considering for adoption. (Even though the superintendent felt it was bad pedagogy to use a textbook, he was still required to have one on hand.) For the two weeks that I used the language arts textbook, designed by Holt, the clouds opened. The reading material was well presented. Review questions, project ideas, it was all right there. My students were busy and engaged. I had good material to work from and helpful prompts to lead discussion. I feel like my strengths as a presenter really came through when I had that curricular support. My students thrived with that consistent, clear curriculum in front of them. Alas, the district adopted another textbook which weighed a ton, had tiny print, no pictures and was needlessly convoluted. Poor design. Bad decision.

In my fantasy scenario, there would be a well-stocked teacher supply room in every school with multiple sets of books to choose from. I know, fantasy. But it is a matter of priorities. As expensive as the books may be, they certainly aren’t any more expensive than rooms full of computers, which is the current spending trend.

This is not to say that I’m against computers in education. Gamification is a trend ripe for broad implementation. One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever observed in education was watching my son learn all his states, and their locations because of an app called Stack the States. When he was four years old, he could identify every state, by shape and location. I’ll admit, he could put those states in place faster than I could. The potential for learning in this format is tremendous. Games that allow kids to feel successful as they learn really work. Of course, the reverse is also true.  I downloaded the National Geographic app recently. The content is good, but the game interface is discouraging. A wrong answer earns a harsh, “Not even close!” Good games encourage you to keep trying until you get it right. With this game, you hit a dead end when you make a mistake.  Learning should not be a demoralizing process. If it is, all those awful defense mechanisms get triggered, and we’re back where we started.  The gamification trend is so cool because it makes use of the brain’s reward circuits. If a game doesn’t do that, it defeats the purpose.

Certainly, there are a ton of exciting developments with technology and education and I say let’s make good use of them.  But let’s not abandon that trusty old war-horse, the textbook, in our zeal for revolution and reform. The old ways are good too.


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