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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Textbooks, Reading Scores? Is there a correlation?

Reading scores have plummeted again? Is anyone surprised? Let me tell you a personal story. Twenty-five years ago, disturbed by declining SAT scores and what I was seeing as a parent, a teacher, and a journalist, I decided to write a history book for young readers. As I wrote I did something that seemed logical, I gave manuscript to children and asked them to be my editors. (I turned it into a job and actually paid them.) After all, they were my potential readers.
A few years later, when the book was done and I was trying to get it published, I mentioned those child editors. At publisher after publisher, I heard the same mantra; “You don’t write books for children because children don’t buy books.”
I’m not making this up. It really happened, again and again. Finally the books got published; I now know something about schoolbooks from a publishing perspective. I’ve learned that textbooks today are a huge business. A few behemoth publishers dominate the field. They are the same organizations that control the testing industry. The professors whose names are on the covers of most elementary and middle school texts rarely write the books, low-paid freelancers usually ghost for them. And they write according to formulas designed to appeal to teachers. They don’t work with children. The books treat reading as a skill to be achieved through drills, not something you do because it is fun, or exhilarating, or enlightening. Many textbooks are filled with snippets from real books; it helps sell them. But children do not get to read the whole books. Most children do not read these excerpts gladly. They don’t produce eager excited readers. In good part because the textbooks in our classrooms are designed for teachers, not for young readers.
The Common Core curriculum is attempting to change this; I’m in a wait and see mode. The big stakes testing adds incentives for sabotage.
Is there any way other way to help get good books, not standardized textbooks, into classrooms? There’s an easy answer. Eliminate big city or countywide adoptions. They involve too much money to allow for innovation or variety. A city could pick a group of books that meet standard requirements and then let each school choose its own (while considering student’s reactions to the books). The textbook publishers will howl, so will some administrators who live in synergistic ease with the publishing industry. But children might get to read a variety of exciting books. And reading scores might actually rise.

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