Higher Standards » Informative articles on Christian education » Are Secular Textbooks Right for Christian Schools?

You're Only as Good as Your Tools

Nearly everyone would agree that textbooks are the foundational tool for a teacher. But not everyone agrees on which textbooks are the best tool. Many Christian teachers believe that the leading secular textbooks are more academically credible than Christian textbooks. The major publishing houses certainly have worked hard to create that impression. And they have the most resources, the best funding, and the largest clientele.

Setting aside for the moment that secular books are based on faulty premises (such as man’s being his own measure, for example), let’s look at just the superficial issues of credibility. How reliable are secular textbooks? According to professional organizations and educational experts nationwide, not very reliable at all.

The leading secular texts contain unbelievable numbers of surface errors. A 1998 study of middle school physical science textbooks revealed thousands of errors, forcing researchers to conclude that “none of the 12 most popular middle-school physical science texts was acceptable” (John Hubitz, “Middle-School Texts Don't Make the GradePhysics Today, May 2003). And these errors were not necessarily typographical; they involved scientific inaccuracy and imprecision. In 2000, Project 2061, a reform initiative for the teaching of science and math in grades K-12, evaluated leading science and mathematics textbooks. These 1999 findings concluded that “most of the texts have serious weaknesses” and “not one was rated highly” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000 Annual Report).

These companies are trying to gain the largest markets while investing as little as they possibly can. Obviously, revising their faulty textbooks would cost them money that they are not willing to spend.

But it’s not just the science and math texts that have weaknesses; history and literature books also have problems. Frances Jacobson Harris, of the American Library Association, shows that depending on current history textbooks can “compromise student learning” (School Library Media Research, Volume 5, 2002). In 2003, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined six widely used high school U.S. history texts and six world history texts. They concluded that “the books reviewed in this report range from serviceable to abysmal. None is distinguished or even very good . . . . No textbook scored better than 78 percent overall . . . . Five of the twelve earned failing marks” (Chester E. Finn, Jr., “Foreword,” A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks, p. 8).

The criticisms of history textbooks focus on two weaknesses: the “dumbing down” of the text itself as publishers adjust to “short attention spans and non-readers” and the “increasing content bias and distortion” (Gilbert T. Sewall, American Textbook Council, senate testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, September 24, 2003). The overuse of colors and bright photographs tends to “overwhelm the text and confuse the page,” making it harder to read. But the distorted content is even more troubling. Special interest groups, as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League (which aims to secure justice and fair treatment for the Jewish people) and the Infinity Foundation (a group dedicated to promoting Hindu ideals into American mainstream life), emphasize that influencing American textbooks is critical to their success (See the following websites: http://infinityfoundation.com and http://www.adl.org/education/textbook). As publishers cater to these groups, their books become extensions of political and cultural agendas, rather than balanced, scholarly texts.

Most of the blame for the alarming record of these textbooks lies with the four leading publishers in today’s market. In the 1990s, the smaller independent textbook companies were swallowed by multinational corporations. These big publishers no longer focus on the student, or even the teacher, but on the huge state markets (particularly Texas, California, and Florida) that produce the largest, most reliable revenue. Their conformity to state standards is minimal and mechanical.

These companies are trying to gain the largest markets while investing as little as they possibly can. Obviously, revising their faulty textbooks would cost them money that they are not willing to spend. Only dramatic market changes can improve the textbook industry, and it does not look like any such change is coming. (For a detailed analysis of market-driven textbook publishing, see the following sources: Harriet Tyson, “Overcoming Structural Barriers to Good Textbooks,” and Tamin Ansary, “The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor.”)

Clearly, a Christian school that wants high-quality textbooks should look beyond the current secular market. Reliance on such questionable books does not serve the essential purpose of Christian education. Weeding out both the philosophical errors as well as the factual ones leaves the teacher little time to do his real job: helping his students conform to the image of Christ