How do Textbooks Fit Into Evidence-Based Reform?

In a blog I wrote recently, “Evidence, Standards, and Chicken Feathers,” I discussed my perception that states, districts, and schools, in choosing textbooks and other educational materials, put a lot of emphasis on alignment with standards, and very little on evidence of effectiveness.  My colleague Steve Ross objected, at least in the case of textbooks.  He noted that it was very difficult for a textbook to prove its effectiveness, because textbooks so closely resemble other textbooks that showing a difference between them is somewhere between difficult and impossible.  Since the great majority of classrooms use textbooks (paper or digital) or sets of reading materials that collectively resemble textbooks, the control group in any educational experiment is almost certainly also using a textbook (or equivalents).  So as evidence becomes more and more important, is it fair to hold textbooks to such a difficult standard of evidence? Steve and I had an interesting conversation about this point, so I thought I would share it with other readers of my blog.


First, let me define a couple of key words.  Most of what schools purchase could be called commodities.  These include desks, lighting, carpets, non-electronic whiteboards, playground equipment, and so on. Schools need these resources to provide students with safe, pleasant, attractive places in which to learn. I’m happy to pay taxes to ensure that every child has all of the facilities and materials they need. However, no one should expect such expenditures to make a measurable difference in achievement beyond ordinary levels.

In contrast, other expenditures are interventions.  These include teacher preparation, professional development, innovative technology, tutoring, and other services clearly intended to improve achievement beyond ordinary levels.   Educators would generally agree that such investments should be asked to justify themselves by showing their effectiveness in raising achievement scores, since that is their goal.

By analogy, hospitals invest a great deal in their physical plants, furniture, lighting, carpets, and so on. These are all necessary commodities.   No one should have to go to a hospital that is not attractive, bright, airy, comfortable, and convenient, with plenty of parking.  These things may contribute to patients’ wellness in subtle ways, but no one would expect them to make major differences in patient health.  What does make a measurable difference is the preparation and training provided to the staff, medicines, equipment, and procedures, all of which can be (and are) constantly improved through ongoing research, development, and dissemination.

So is a textbook a commodity or an intervention?  If we accept that every classroom must have a textbook or its equivalent (such as a digital text), then a textbook is a commodity, just an ordinary, basic requirement for every classroom.  We would expect textbooks-as-commodities to be well written, up-to-date, attractive, and pedagogically sensible, and, if possible, aligned with state and national standards.  But it might be unfair and perhaps futile to expect textbooks-as-commodities to significantly increase student achievement in comparison to business as usual, because they are, in effect, business as usual.

If, somehow, a print or digital textbook, with associated professional development, digital add-ons, and so forth, turns out to be significantly more effective than alternative, state-of-the-art textbooks, then a textbook could also be considered an intervention, and marketed as such.  It would then be considered in comparison to other interventions that exist only, or primarily, to increase achievement beyond ordinary levels.

The distinction between commodities and interventions would be academic but for the appearance of the ESSA evidence standards.  The ESSA law requires that schools seeking school improvement funding select and implement programs that meet one of the top three standards (strong, moderate, or promising). It gives preference points on other federal grants, especially Title II (professional development), to applicants who promise to implement proven programs. Some states have applied more stringent criteria, and some have extended use of the standards to additional funding initiatives, including state initiatives.  These are all very positive developments. However, they are making textbook publishers anxious. How are they going to meet the new standards, given that their products are not so different from others now in use?

My answer is that I do not think it was the intent of the ESSA standards to forbid schools from using textbooks that lack evidence of effectiveness. To do so would be unrealistic, as it would wipe out at least 90% of textbooks.  Instead, the purpose of the ESSA evidence standards was to encourage and incentivize the use of interventions proven to be effective.  The concept, I think, was to assume that other funding (especially state and local funds) would support the purchase of commodities, including ordinary textbooks.  In contrast, the federal role was intended to focus on interventions to boost achievement in high-poverty and low-achieving schools.  Ordinary textbooks that are no more effective than any others are clearly not appropriate for those purposes, where there is an urgent need for approaches proven to have significantly greater impacts than methods in use today.

It would be a great step forward if federal, state, and local funding intended to support major improvements in student outcomes were held to tough standards of evidence.  Such programs should be eligible for generous and strategic funding from federal, state, and local sources dedicated to the enhancement of student outcomes.  But no one should limit schools in spending their funds on attractive desks, safe and fun playground equipment, and well-written textbooks, even though these necessary commodities are unlikely to accelerate student achievement beyond current expectations.

Photo credit: Laurentius de Voltolina [Public domain]

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.