Taking History Texts to Task: Comprehensive Expert Review Finds Many High-School Textbooks Lacking in Depth

By Leischer, Jennifer; Fordham, Thomas B. | Curriculum Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Taking History Texts to Task: Comprehensive Expert Review Finds Many High-School Textbooks Lacking in Depth


Leischer, Jennifer, Fordham, Thomas B., Curriculum Review


When it comes to high-school history textbooks, beauty is indeed only skin deep, reports a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Masked behind colorful illustrations and bright graphics, a distinguished panel of reviewers finds, the most widely used texts are shallow, bland and bulky. Their conclusions, summarized by historian Diane Ravitch in A Consumer's Guide to High School History Textbooks, are doubly worrisome considering that 80-90 percent of students read from a history textbook at least once a week and that many teachers depend heavily on them for content and curriculum. The full text of the report can be found at http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=329.

"The facts are there," says Ravitch, "but if history textbooks are not consistently interesting and enlightening, they won't do a good job of teaching history to their readers. This review, we hope, helps to explain why students aren't learning much history."

Ravitch, a scholar at New York University and the Brookings Institution who recently wrote The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, served as lead author and editor of the new Fordham textbook review. She described the findings of a panel of nine experts who evaluated a dozen of the most widely used high school textbooks, six in U.S. history, six in world history.

"The books reviewed in this report range from the serviceable to the abysmal," observed Fordham president Chester E. Finn Jr. "None is distinguished or even very good. The best are adequate. And because textbook publishers bend over backward not to offend anybody or upset special interest groups, so much in today's history texts is simplified and sanitized. No judgments need be made. The result: fat, dull, boring books that mention everything but explain practically nothing."

Why? Ravitch concludes that because California, Texas, Florida and 19 other states with textbook adoption processes pre-select books en masse for use in their public schools, they effectively dictate the content of the textbooks that are published and sold throughout the country. "This power is too easily compromised by pressure groups and by bureaucratic demands. The present system of statewide textbook purchasing," she finds, "has warped the writing, editing and production of textbooks and should be abolished." Instead, "states should set their academic standards, align their tests to those standards, and leave teachers free to select the books, anthologies, histories, biographies, software and other materials that will help students meet the standards. …

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