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Declining Literacy: Do the Textbooks Contribute to the Problem?

Education in the United States is experiencing a state of crisis. In spite of national efforts to raise standards and student achievement, several recent assessments reveal that high school graduates cannot read well enough to function successfully in today’s world. In the age of No Child Left Behind, it seems that many children are.

Here are the facts. The Department of Education’s National Adult Literacy survey of 1992 revealed that over 50% of American adults over the age of 16 were functionally illiterate. The tragic news is that the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy reveals that the "average prose and document literacy did not differ significantly from 1992."1

Defining literacy as "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential," the assessment found that "average prose literacy decreased for all levels of educational attainment between 1992 and 2003" although "the educational attainment of America’s adults increased between 1992 and 2003." Even though more adults have completed more education, their reading is weaker.

But wait—there’s more troubling news. A recent report from ACT, the nonprofit American College Testing program, reveals that "only half of the 1.2 million high school seniors who took its test in 2005 are prepared for the reading requirements of a first-year college course."2

The impact of this declining literacy is far-reaching. A related study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts presents "a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture." Entitled Reading at Risk, the report of this survey of national trends among American adults reveals that "literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young."3

But it’s not just reading literacy that seems problematic; our students are having problems with math and science as well. The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures math, reading, and science literacy among 15-year-olds every three years, reveal that "U.S. students scored below the international average in total math literacy" and the "U.S. score in science, which was average in 2000, fell below average in 2003."4

Why do our students struggle? Some blame television and other technological distractions. But Patrick Welsh, high school English teacher from Alexandria, Virginia, faults mainstream textbooks for a large part of the problem. He bemoans the declining literacy but takes some of the blame. Acknowledging that "we saddle students with textbooks that would turn off even the most passionate reader," Welsh labels these books "feather-weight intellectually."5

And he’s not alone. Textbooks critics in all academic disciplines describe books that are "dumbed down" intellectually. Let’s start with the textbooks that teach reading.

In his 1995 book entitled Dumbing Down Our Kids, Charles Sykes summarizes the history of reading textbook development in the 80s and 90s that preferred the holistic, rather than the phonics, approach to teaching reading. He concludes that these "faddish techniques for teaching reading" have produced "a generation of illiterates."6

Although recent reading textbooks again emphasize phonics, the damage done seems to have far-reaching ramifications. The mainstream textbook publishers have adjusted the books in all disciplines to the students’ inability to read. Rather than raising the bar, they’ve lowered it to accommodate the lower-reading levels of most students.

Gilbert Sewall, president of the Center for Education Studies and director of the American Textbook Council, claims that "new textbook editions across the curriculum reflect lowered sights for general education. Textbook makers are adjusting to short attention spans and nonreaders." Their solutions are picture and activity books that combine "high cost, unconscionable bulk, and instructional confusion" rather than "clear, portable, simply designed, text-centered primers."7

Patrick Welsh describes the leading high school literature textbooks as weighing in at 7 pounds and 1,500 pages but filled with excerpts from literature rather than whole works. These huge books contain only 15–19 complete short stories and 0–4 plays but 35–45 excerpts from various works. He describes books "full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the reading."8

History textbooks seem to have similar characteristics. Gilbert Sewall, testifying before the Senate, describes history textbook content as "thinner and thinner." He explains, "Too many children cannot or do not want to read history, which contains concrete facts and complicated concepts, reading that requires some facility with language. So textbooks become picture and activity books instead."9

English and history textbooks are obvious victims of this faulty pedagogical philosophy of the textbook industry. But math and science textbooks also fall prey to the tendency to "dumb down" the books.

In fact, the book Why Schools Matter, based on research from the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), faults U.S. textbooks for the poor performance of U.S. students on international achievement tests. This research shows "powerful evidence that textbooks exert a strong influence on what teachers teach, . . . and the levels of performances and accomplishments expected of students."10

This report from the TIMSS study prompted the American Association for the Advancement of Science to conduct Project 2061, an evaluation of precollege mathematics and science textbooks. This study concludes that most textbooks at these levels "cover too many topics and fail to develop any of them well." Like the literature textbooks, the math and science books are "too large, too encyclopedic, and too loosely structured pedagogically."11

Puzzled by the content, structure, and style of these textbooks, one textbook critic observes, "It’s as if their authors had decided above all not to expose students to the intellectual rigor that is the lifeblood of science."12

And she’s not alone in her opinion. Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, concludes that his organization’s review of the textbook industry "shows plainly that liberals, conservatives, independent scholars, and academic review panels alike share a surprising unanimity about the deplorable state of today’s textbooks."13

It is time for parents, teachers, and administrators to reject these mainstream textbooks and seek educational materials elsewhere. There’s too much at stake to maintain the status quo. Our students deserve better. They need books that challenge—books characterized by depth of content, literary quality, and pedagogical effectiveness. If we want our children to succeed, we must give their teachers the tools they need.

1For details on the findings of this assessment, see "A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century," National Center for Educational Statistics (December 15, 2005).

2"Declining Literacy Skills: Another Analysis Highlights a Massive Problem," Las Vegas Review Journal (March 2, 2006), p. 6B.

3Dana Gioia, "Preface," Reading at Risk (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, June 2004), p. vii.

4Associated Press, "U.S. Students Behind the Curve in Math," MSNBC (December 6, 2004).

5Patrick Welsh, "How Schools Are Destroying the Joy of Reading," USA Today (August 4, 2005), p. A11.

6Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 101.

7Gilbert T. Sewall, "Textbook Publishing," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 7 (March 2005), p. 502.

8Welsh, p. A11.

9Gilbert T. Sewall, American Textbook Council, senate testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, September 24, 2003.

10William H. Schmidt, et al., Why Schools Matter(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), p. 357.

11"The Use and Adoption of Textbooks in Science Teaching," National Science Teachers Association: Teacher Resources (2006).

12Pamela R. Winnick, "A Textbook Case of Junk Science," The Weekly Standard, Vol X, No. 32 (May 9, 2005), p. 16.

13Chester E. Finn, Jr., "Foreword," The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute (September 2004), p. iv.

 by Dr. Rhonda Galloway. Updated October 21, 2015.

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