Higher Standards » Informative articles on Christian education » Textbook Authorship

Who Wrote the Textbook You're Using?

In an effort to provide the best possible education, many Christian schools today are using textbooks produced by leading secular publishers. They assume, as do their public counterparts, that these books represent the most scholarly, reliable sources of educational material available today. Sadly, many contemporary experts claim that the opposite is true: modern textbooks do not reflect scholarship at all. How can that be? Aren’t the books authored by reputable scholars?

In fact, in many cases, modern secular textbooks have no author at all. Tamim Ansary, former editor for a leading publisher of elementary and high school textbooks, confesses his disillusionment with the whole process of creating textbooks. When he first began his career as an editor, his idealism about the creation of books was destroyed when he overheard his boss complaining, “The books are done and we still don’t have an author! I must sign someone today!”1 In other words, textbooks often are not written at all; they’re compiled by teams of people with various purposes and goals.

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, explains that these books, whether science, math, or history, result from “a massive corporate effort. With few exceptions, textbooks have multiple authors, multiple editors, and multiple consultants. Some carry the names of authors who have been dead for many years.” 2 She explains that some texts are not written at all by the publishing houses that claim responsibility; instead, they are “compiled by specialized firms (“chop shops”) that cater to the specific editorial needs of big publishing houses.”3

“As in any disease epidemic, a particular piece of information can spread exponentially: the more textbooks it occupies, the more likely other textbooks will be to acquire it.”

Part of the problem is that the market’s demand for current copyright dates does not allow the publishers enough time to write legitimate books.4 Also, the big publishing firms’ desire to increase their profits requires reducing costs. Therefore, they are “moving toward a writing-for-hire production system and abandoning the royalty-based author system.”5 Instead, textbooks aren’t really written at all. They’re “developed.”

John Hubisz, a researcher who conducted a study to review current middle-school science textbooks, summarizes the process: “An editor at the publishing house finds out the topics that the states require and, for each topic, assigns an in-house person to put some material together.” 6

But this unscholarly approach is not limited to science textbooks. Gilbert Sewall explains that “some new secondary-level history textbooks have no authors at all.”7

Because many of these contributors are not scholars, or even experts, in the field, they rely on weak sources (such as dictionaries and encyclopedias) and borrowing from each other. These “copycat tactics” result in two essential problems: textbooks that all look alike and the opportunity for inconsistencies and errors.

Harriet Tyson, a well-respected education writer and researcher, explains that “there is a circularity to the national textbook market. State curriculum writers, test publishers, and textbook publishers consult one another’s documents when developing new products.”8 The resulting books have few differences. Jeffrey Mirel, a reviewer of American history textbooks, “was struck by the textbooks’ remarkable similarities . . . in structure, organization, illustrations, length, even weight.”9 Tyson explains that the circular construction of the books tends “to promote the accretion of topics, rather than greater focus and depth.” The result is textbooks that are “a mile wide and an inch deep.”10

Not only are the books superficial, but they’re also prone to error. Two textbook watchdog groups (The Textbook League and the American Textbook Council11) continue to publish reviews of current secular textbooks that seem to be full of errors. Lawrence Davis, a biochemistry professor at Kansas State University and a reviewer of textbooks for The Textbook League, explains that the errors often result directly from how the books are put together. He says, regarding high school science textbooks, “There are errors that are real conceptual errors. And some authors tend not to explore everything from scratch and they go to other books and use those same examples that are wrong. Once mistakes get in textbooks they’re very hard to get out.”12

William Beaty, author of a website that tries to correct scientific misinformation, cites many examples of errors in science textbooks. He compares the transmission of errors from textbook to textbook to the spread of a virus: “As in any disease epidemic, a particular piece of information can spread exponentially: the more textbooks it occupies, the more likely other textbooks will be to acquire it . . . . The bad information can be spread almost as easily as the good.”13

Is it any wonder then that Philip Sadler, a researcher from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, found that students in high school science classes often score “worse at the end of the year on their understanding of basic science concepts than they had before the class began”?14 Perhaps textbooks themselves are the problem.

Christian schools can do better. There are credible textbooks available, but they are not being produced by today’s leading secular publishers. It’s time to stop pretending that secular books are somehow superior. To maintain true academic credibility, Christian schools need textbooks written by knowledgeable experts and published by companies dedicated to producing Christ-centered materials.

1 Tamim Ansary, “The Muddle Machine: Confessions of a Textbook Editor,” Edutopia (November 2004).
2 Diane Ravitch, The Language Police (New York: Knopf, 2003), p. 103.
3 Ravitch, p. 103.
4 Rebecca Jones, “Textbook Troubles,” American School Board Journal (December 2000) .
5 Sewall, Gilbert. “Textbook Publishing,” Phi Delta Kappan (March 2005).
6 John Hubisz, “Middle-School Texts Don't Make the GradePhysics Today (May 2003).
7 Sewall, p. 3.
8 Harriet Tyson, “Overcoming Structural Barriers to Good Textbooks.”
9 Diane Ravitch, “A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute (February 26, 2004).
10 William H. Schmidt, Curtis C. McKnight, and Senta A. Raizen, “A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education,” Michigan State University: U.S. National Research Center for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (1997).
11 See the websites for these two groups: The Textbook League and American Textbook Council.
12 Andrew J. Pulskamp, “Big Blunders found in school textbooks,” U Magazine.
13 William Beaty, “A ‘Germ Theory’ of EducationScience Hobbyist (1997).
14 Chandler, David L. “Textbooks Flunk Out,” Boston Globe (May 17, 1999).