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The Textbook League and The Textbook Letter

The textbooks used in America's elementary schools, middle schools and high schools exert powerful influences over teachers and students alike. In many instances the books serve as ready-made courses, since many teachers depend on them to define a curriculum, to prescribe the material that students will learn, and to dictate how the material will be presented. This effect is all the greater because teachers often rely upon textbook-publishers to provide ready-made lesson plans, ready-made homework assignments for students to execute, and ready-made tests for students to take -- all keyed to the textbooks that the teachers have chosen.

One might expect, then, that textbooks would undergo considerable scrutiny before they get into schools. Indeed, one might expect that the American education community would sponsor formal textbook-review proceedings, and would disseminate the results of such proceedings to teachers throughout the country, so that the teachers would be made aware of good books and would be warned away from poor ones.

In fact, however, no national textbook-evaluation processes exist, and the "evaluations" conducted by state departments of education or by local school districts are rarely anything more than bureaucratic shams -- bogus proceedings in which books are judged by people who have no discernible qualifications for such work. In typical cases, the state education agencies and local districts approve textbooks without soliciting appraisals from persons who have expert knowledge of the relevant subject matter. As a result, classroom teachers can be stuck with biology books that have never been reviewed by any biologist, history books that have never been seen by any historian, geography books that have never been evaluated by any geographer, or health-education books that have never been reviewed by any physician.

In 1989 a group of Californians undertook to do something about this situation by founding an organization and a periodical devoted to providing the knowledgeable reviews that educators need. The organization is The Textbook League. The periodical is The Textbook Letter, which the League mails to subscribers throughout the United States. The subscribers include classroom teachers, officers of local school districts, officers of state or county education agencies, and private citizens who take a serious interest in the content and quality of the instruction offered in the public schools.

Each issue of The Textbook Letter is built around reviews of schoolbooks, with emphasis on middle-school and high-school books in history, geography, social studies, health education, and the various branches of natural science. These reviews are augmented by articles about topics that are important to educators who must choose and use instructional materials.

Nearly all of the reviews and other commentaries that you will read on this Web site were published originally in The Textbook Letter.

A typical review in The Textbook Letter is contributed by a person who has professional credentials in the pertinent discipline. A physics textbook is reviewed by a professional physicist; a chemistry text is reviewed by a professional chemist; a health-education text is reviewed by a practicing physician; an earth-science text is reviewed by a geologist or a paleontologist; and so forth.

Each review focuses strongly on the factual and conceptual content of the book in question. The reviewer's principal aim is to judge whether the book's factual information is solid, whether the book's conceptual syntheses and interpretations are up-to-date, and whether the material that the book presents will be meaningful to the intended audience.

When the editors of The Textbook Letter send a book to a reviewer, they deliberately do not furnish any list of evaluation criteria for the reviewer to use. The editors' precept is that a textbook is (or should be) a tool for promoting intellectual development, and that intellectual matters cannot be reduced to checklists or catalogues of buzzwords. Their approach is to engage an expert, then let the expert use his own judgment in deciding which features of the book deserve to be described and analyzed in a review.

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