Amending the Texts

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Mel and Norma Gabler have spent 40 years documenting the mistakes in textbooks

Going by the book may be a dubious practice when it comes to textbooks. A recent study by North Carolina State University documented thousands of errors in 12 of the most widely used middle school science texts: the Statue of Liberty is a lefty? Volume equals length times depth--and never mind height? It was merely the latest illumination of textbook bungling. In 1999 the mathematicians enlisted to review math books submitted for use in California said they were "shocked" by the frequency of mistakes--as many as one on every four pages. Mel and Norma Gabler, the self-anointed textbook watchdogs of Longview, Texas, have been compiling detailed lists of textbook errors since 1961; their most recent scroll of shame is 54 ft. long.

That's the bad news; the good news is that the days of teachers' having to navigate through error-strewn, out-of-date texts--and of kids' having to lug 30-lb. book bags--are almost over. The major publishers, fearful of yet another report slamming their product, have hired more fact checkers and instituted extra layers of review. More significant, this month McGraw-Hill plans to launch its first e-textbooks--online versions of its printed texts, featuring videos, interactive lab exercises and personalized assessment tools. Factual errors, once discovered, will be corrected immediately. Five years from now the visual resolution of handheld text devices should be clear enough--and the prices low enough--that one portable e-textbook containing downloads for every subject could replace a backpack full of books.

Still, fact checkers and computers can do only so much. It remains difficult to find a textbook, online or in print, that isn't shallow and tedious. Project 2061, the education-improvement initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, examined 10 of the most widely used high school biology texts last year and could not recommend a single one as satisfactory. "Although the textbooks are filled with pages of vocabulary and unnecessary detail, they provide only fragmentary treatment of some fundamentally important concepts" such as natural selection and cell construction, said Dr. George Nelson, the former astronaut who heads Project 2061.

A new study by Philip Sadler, director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, shows that students who had taken high school physics classes that used textbooks did substantially worse in college physics than those whose high school classes used no textbooks at all. Baltimore's nonprofit Abell Foundation, searching for a top-flight math book for gifted students, couldn't find one in the U.S., and turned instead to an English-language book from Singapore.

Peter Jovanovich, CEO of Pearson Education, concedes that "today's textbooks are too big, both physically and in terms of coverage." Why? Because most of the publishers' customers--especially the states that adopt textbooks for all their school districts--want them that way. Ultimate power is in the hands of these states' textbook-selection committees (especially the ones in Texas, California and Florida). The stakes are huge: the $3.5 billion in annual textbook sales is greater than the sales of all hardcover books to adults. Textbooks are superficial in part because they must conform to state standards, which are often encyclopedic in scope. But "the weakest link in the chain," according to education researcher Harriet Tyson, is "textbook evaluation." Most committee members have little time to examine texts thoroughly, frequently making decisions based on splashy graphics and frills like CD-ROMs.

Online publishing and electronic textbooks will most likely transform the industry. The Web gives content producers the tools to align their materials with state standards and assessments, and smaller, more research-based publishers should face fewer barriers to entry. But quality content will always be expensive to produce, and states will still have to decide what to buy. Says Pearson's Jovanovich: "Technology is just an enabler. It's what we do with it that will matter."