Thursday, November 19, 2015

Report about better textbooks is timely and insightful, but makes exaggerated claims

A recent Center for American Progress report, The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform, points to very real problems with textbook adoption, including poor alignment with standards and lack of attention to impact. A new review of that report offers praise but also cautions that the report overreaches in its conclusions and in its use of other studies.

Sarah Lubienski, professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reviewed The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? for the Think Twice think tank review project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

Professor Lubienski’s review points to clear merits of the report. For example, it presents a study of textbook adoption processes and costs, finding that textbooks are rarely chosen based on evidence of effectiveness and true alignment with standards, and that elementary mathematics textbook prices vary little, regardless of quality or whether or not a state recommends particular texts for adoption.

The review, however, also points out that the report overreaches. Based on a single prior study of first and second grade math curricula in some high-poverty schools, it draws general conclusions about the Return on Investment (ROI) for good versus weak textbooks, ignoring key findings within the original study and also ignoring other research showing that curricular effects vary, depending on context and implementation—that is, a good book is no guarantee of benefits. The report then compares its estimated ROI for textbooks with another study’s reported ROI for other interventions, while ignoring nuances of that second study’s calculations.

Overall, Professor Lubienski concludes, Hidden Value is timely and provides important insights about the need for evidence-based curriculum selection. But its conclusions are marred by highly optimistic claims about curricular ROI.

Find Professor Lubienski’s review on the NEPC website at:

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