Some of my very favorite books are the literature textbooks that I used in school during the 1950’s and 1960’s. One-by-one, I have found them, scouring used bookshops across the country. Not only do I love the stories, essays and poems, I love the feel of well-made books. These books are especially impressive for they are still beautiful and intact, even with print dates from the 50’s. Since quality literature is timeless, there was little need to frequently update such books, and so they were used for many, many years — in and out of lockers; to and from classes; carried home every night with homework — assignments that students once actually completed and turned in on time! My, how things have changed.
We don’t see books like these any longer, and so I strongly encourage parents to monitor their children’s textbooks; assessing them from numerous perspectives.
Begin by checking the quality of the covers; the bindings; the paper. Note that today’s textbooks, despite their exorbitant prices, quickly begin to fall apart. Gone are the solid cloth covers, made stronger with clear fixatives; covers that 50 years later look much as they did when purchased. Today’s books have a glossy sheen that gives the impression of car wax over a flimsy print that has been lightly glued to layers of soft paper. That gloss is short-lived. The ‘finish’ soon begins to crack; color chips away; spines weaken with little stress. The books soon appear aged, worn and out-dated. Such ‘quality’ makes for brisk ‘replacement’ sales at the textbook companies.
Next, check the content of the books. Check history, government and social studies books searching for accurate information on history and government. Be alert to possible rewriting and downplaying of historical happenings; to inaccurate, non-proportional representations of gender and race. Look up the famous people you recall from your own studies, and see how those individuals are represented in current books. Watch for bias and slant in the writing. Is the Constitution discussed fully and accurately? Consider whether the books were designed to provide academic instruction, or to ‘mold’ a new society.
Look at the math books. Is your first impression that they look more like ‘reading’ books, or more like math books? Visit the Mathematically Correct website to research the publisher and the editions of the math books your children are bringing home; to carefully read the evaluations and comments. It is likely that you will discover that your children are being dumbed down with some faddish new-new math; that they are being trained to be calculator-dependent; that they are being denied opportunities to develop strong and automatic foundational skills in math operations and functions. Notice that the books are filled with colorful photos that will cause the book to quickly appear out-of-date as hair and clothing styles change. This gimmick also speeds the rate of repeat book sales — as schools rush to find better looking, more modern, more appealing books to purchase. Note the number of assignments dealing with topics such as saving rainforests, recycling trash, encouraging the conservation of the Earth. Check to be sure that long division is being taught and taught thoroughly.
Consider the weight of today’s textbooks! They much thicker and heavier — thanks to all of the politically correct new-new stuffing — than the books that we had in school. It should not be surprising that students avoid taking their books home. Consider the weight that will drag from a child’s shoulders if they use a backpack! But carrying a stack on their arm, as we once did, is out of the question. Take all of one child’s books and weigh the stack to assess the abuse the spine will suffer if homework is assigned in each subject.
Throughout the year, keep track of how far and how fast teachers are moving through the books in each subject, teaching the most important concepts and chapters. Some math teachers never complete more than 42% of new-new math books prior to the end of the school year. June arrives; books are turned in; students never see the other 58% of the lessons (which, in some cases could be a blessing in disguise…).
This lackadaisical instructional pattern is not specific to math. Monitor all of your children’s books and note just how much information goes untaught, thereby denying your child a full year of instruction. Many teachers feel no pressure to make much progress through the books — books that, at best, are already academically compromised. English teachers often have some decent literature anthologies available, but only assign a few early American essays, then stop using the books, causing students to miss the experience of reading selections from a broad array of authors and writing styles. Instead, the ‘literature’ teacher will go ‘whole-language’ and have the class read a couple-three novels, taking the remainder of the semester to do so. The outcome of this mental starvation can hardly be labeled ‘an education.’ Keep records — right on your calendar! Note the exact percentage that has been covered in each book, compared to the percentage of the school year that has passed.
Make sure that your district has a book for every child and that each child is welcome to take their book home anytime they choose or need to do so. Many parents will find that their districts only purchase enough books for use by one class at a time. If your child does not have his/her own book, demand that your child be assigned a personal copy of each book for the entire school year.
It is time to hold districts accountable for the money they receive. Consider: If a classroom has twenty-five students, and each student’s enrollment brings in a minimum of $5,000 of state aid (a figure low by most standards), the school is earning $125,000 from just that classroom! That figure does not yet reflect additional monies from the feds; from lunch programs; from special education; from the hidden aspects of school finance that superintendents keep as close to their chests as used car salesmen keep trade-in values and bargaining methods. The teacher’s salary and benefits do not account for the usage of that much money, although the salaries and costs for superintendents, assistants and other office staff probably leaves little money left over to actually be put towards the education of children. It is time for that uneven division of educational monies to be righted. Why should your child not be provided with well-written, well-constructed, accurate textbooks that will be theirs, and theirs alone, to use for the entire school year?
Come on, parents! It is time to crack the books and study long into the night — just as we used to do when schools not only turned out readers, but focused on turning out scholars, as well.
Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.