Do Textbooks Matter?

Recently, some colleagues and I were speaking with some superintendents about how they use evidence to select educational programs. Although they had many useful insights, it quickly became clear that when we said programs, they thought we meant textbooks.

But a textbook is not a program.

A program is a set of coordinated strategies designed to improve student achievement. A hallmark of programs is that they almost invariably include a lot of professional development. Textbooks almost invariably do not. A half day inservice is typical of textbooks, while programs generally provide many days of inservice, plus on-site coaching and feedback, on line or in-school discussions, and so on. Programs may also include textbooks or other curriculum or software, but they are focused on changing teachers’ behaviors in the classroom, not just changing content.

Content is important, of course, but changing textbooks almost never changes outcomes on achievement tests. My colleagues and I have published reviews of research on elementary and secondary reading, math, and science. In every one of these reviews, changing textbooks is one category of interventions that has been studied, often in very large, randomized experiments. Yet textbooks never make much of a difference on average, and it is rare that they show significant differences in even a single qualifying study. These studies usually use standardized tests as the outcome measures, and a focus of many textbook innovations is on closer alignment with current standards and assessments. Yet that strategy has been tried and evaluated many times, and it almost never works.

What does work, in contrast, are programs, ones that provide a great deal of professional development on well-defined models of teaching, such as cooperative learning and teaching of metacognitive skills.

Not every study of professional development approaches shows increases in achievement, and there are other factors that underlie more and less effective innovations. But on average, the difference between professional development and textbook approaches is crystal clear, and applies to all subjects and grade levels.

So when your textbooks are worn out, or you are tired of them, go ahead and replace them with a shiny new textbook or digital textbook. It won’t make any difference in students’ learning, but no one wants students to have shabby or outdated material. But when you decide to do something to improve student learning, do not follow your textbook adoption cycle. Instead, find proven programs with outstanding and sufficient professional development. Your kids, parents, and colleagues will be glad you did.

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