Textbook Selection Committee Should Be Fired. Then Re-Hired, and Fired Again.

Okay, I just got a preview of what my daughter’s math textbook will be next year.

I was looking over thin, soft, thermally-bound books. They were almost entirely empty space, usually two or three problems per page with abundant empty space. I was a bit confused, because the paper was much heavier and glossier than I would expect from a workbook. In fact, it felt like it was practically dripping from all those glossy pages, and the smell of glossy paper was in the air. So I asked about them. “That must be the workbook that goes with the textbook”. Surprise! Nope, it is the actual “book”. The class has two sets, part 1 and part 2, with thermally bound softback books. The books are set to be reused for as many years as possible. (Based on the construction, I’m thinking the second year they’ll be thoroughly trashed.)

When I grew up, this was what I could expect from a textbook: Every section started with a description of the new material. After the brief discourse there were a series of examples, often five or ten examples, that demonstrated how to implement the concept. This is what we normally see in a math textbook.

An older math book, lots of examples
An older math book, lots of examples
An older math book, the examples continue
An older math book, lots of examples

All total, for this one section, the old textbook had eight pages of instruction and examples.

If the student did not understand the material during class, they could bring the book home with them. At home they could work through the material themselves or get help from parents or students who had already taken the course.

If the student missed the lecture for any reason, perhaps from an illness or extracurricular activity, the student could still work through the textbook and figure out how to do the work.

And when it came time to do math exercises, there were plenty to work through. Each concept had anywhere from 75 to 150 different problems the student could work through if assigned or the student wanted or needed the practice. Teachers would usually assign a smaller number, maybe 20 or 30 problems, but the exercises were present if they were needed.

An older math book, lots of examples, and lots of problems to work through.
An older math book, lots of examples, and lots of problems to work through.

The old textbooks were sturdy. Heavy bindings. Heavy paper. Thick heavy paperboard covers. Stitched and glued spines. They could survive two decades of abuse being smashed and squashed in backpacks, pinched in lockers, stomped on or thrown by students, and still end up in reasonably good shape. The textbooks were built to last, and the content was timeless. You could throw the textbook in a time machine for a thousand years ago and people would think it was a gift from the gods.

But now the textbook from next year. They are flimsy paperback. I wanted clarification and asked if those were worksheets or workbooks. Nope, the softback, cheaply bound books are the new textbooks. I could see how some students had already completely trashed their two-month-old paperbacks.

And the content itself? It is very nearly worthless. If these books were sent back a thousand years ago, they’d be used for kindling. And even today, I’d argue that is still about all they are good for.

New textbook. Zero explanation, zero examples. Eight problems on two pages.
New textbook. Zero explanation, zero examples. Eight problems on two pages.

Note there are no explanations. It starts out “Solve it! Write your solution in the space below.” So I asked the teacher, “Where is the ‘Solve It’ problem?” The reply: “It is in the teacher’s edition.” Sucks to be the kid who didn’t write it down.

Note that there is no teaching done inside the book. There is no written lecture on the concept. There is no collection of examples. It only contains a small number of problems, and a lot of white space.

Here are the next two pages:

New textbook. Zero explanation, zero examples. Hope you were listening in class, or you're screwed.
New textbook. Zero explanation, zero examples. Hope you were listening in class, or you’re screwed.

Even though it looks like a workbook with all that empty space, students are not supposed to write in the book. They need to write on their own papers and turn those in. The book ostensibly needs to be kept in good condition for the following year.

But then I notices the QR codes in the top corner. Of course, this is rather discriminatory. While it may seem like everyone has a smartphone these days, a large number of students do not. My kids do not. About half of my neighbors don’t give their kids smartphones either. But maybe, just maybe, that would be enough for these books.

I thought perhaps the QR codes link to an actual online textbook. Maybe they give some useful information about the section and all the content. So fired it up. They were URL codes.

On my phone it redirected, then redirected again, then redirected a third time to a mobile home page. That wasn’t good. So I took a photo of the code, transferred it to my computer, fed it to a QR-parsing site, got the URL, and opened the page. (Whew!)

Was it the textbook? NOPE! It goes through two other pages, ultimately redirecting to a web site (“Virtual Nerd”, as though understanding mathematics makes you a nerd) that has ONE SINGLE PROBLEM worked out in a video. If you don’t happen to have access to a smart phone, you don’t even get that. If you have a smart phone and it fails to properly do the redirection dance, you’re screwed. If your phone is one that cannot play flash videos in their custom player, you’re screwed.  If you are an ESL student who cannot follow the pace of the video, you’re screwed.  If the single example that happened to be in the video doesn’t perfectly match your problems (the twelve total problems in the textbook for you to study), you’re screwed.

When I asked about students who need to miss due to illness, or who miss for extracurricular activities, the teacher just shook her head. “Please don’t let them miss many days, because we cannot go back and cover old concepts”. That’s it. The new system does not allow students to read about concepts.

So we talked to the school, and they said these are the new books the district will be using for the next several years.

So we ended up tracking down some people from the school district’s textbook selection committee.  They had their excuses for picking it. “Yes, it is a bad book,” they explained. As teachers, they were scrambling to write their own worksheets to go along with the text that both explained the material and provided suitable sample problems.  The committee members explained it as “Our choices were bad, horrible, and terrible. The state only allowed us to look at three textbooks, and they did not have any others that satisfied the new common core requirements. We went with the least bad option.”

I disagreed.  The “least bad option” would have been to keep the previous textbook, telling the state to shove it; that those three options are completely inadequate.  They could have actually stood up to the school board and required a textbook that, you know, actually teaches the material.

My next stop is to start pushing the issue both online and to my state legislators.

These books are more than just a waste of money. They are harmful to our future.

Comments 2

  • This is the most concise example of how terrible Common Core that I found on the internet.

    • Note that while I don’t have a problem with the curriculum itself, I am disappointed with how so many educators and administrators interpret it.

      In theory the curriculum is the minimum standard to be taught, and students should be further taught and encouraged to reach their maximum potential without limits. Most of the educators I have spoken with — but not all of them — agree with that interpretation.

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