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The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Grant #1998-4248

Review of Middle School Physical Science Texts

John L. Hubisz, Ph.D., Hubisz@unity.ncsu.edu

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Purpose
The purpose of this grant was to review and critique the physical science in Middle School (grades 6, 7, and 8, although some schools called Junior High designate grades 7, 8, and 9) science textbooks with regard to the scientific accuracy, adherence to an accurate portrayal of the scientific approach, and the appropriateness and pedagogic effectiveness of the material presented for the particular grade level.We also noted such things as readability, attractiveness, quality of illustrations, and whether material such as laboratory activities, suggested home activities, exercises to test understanding, and resource suggestions where considered appropriate.

We want this report to be read so we have left in some of the humor, suggestions for improvement, references to available and often inexpensive tested materials, a variety of print styles, some references to aid teacher enhancement, some website addresses, and other reports of a similar nature.Early on we noted that listing all the errors would make this report much too long (over 500 pages) so we decided to set up a website dealing with errors in texts relevant to the Middle Schools. This website will be maintained after the grant ends as a service to teachers, potential authors, and publishers. We also noticed that publishers, when presented with lists of errors, suggest that their new printing or edition has taken care of those errors. Subsequent looks at these “new” books showed some corrections and often more errors. Teachers, of course, do not have access to the many printings and newer additions as they are often dealing with books from the same publishers that are five to ten years old. We can expect the same to happen with the dissemination of this report. The website should help.

Procedure

A letter was written to all the relevant publishers as determined by lists garnered from school districts that were considering or had recently considered adopting science textbooks for Middle School grades.In some instances three letters were sent to publishers at different addresses. The letter explained the project, asked for a company liaison with whom we could communicate during the project, and asked for copies of their texts at the Middle School level. No publisher responded. Several letters came back 'Undeliverable as addressed, forwarding order expired' and permutations on that theme. It appears that these addresses were temporary while decisions were being made and once a decision was made they left town. Telephone calls resulted in only two publishers willing to talk: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill and South-Western Educational Publishing. The former publisher sent a complete set of texts and the latter sent a sample (1 out of 14 slim volumes.) Neither volunteered a liaison.

The reviewers, for the most part, were quite familiar with local school districts and publishers and were able to locate not only the latest texts, but also texts seven and over ten years old that were still being used in school districts. Recognizing that some Middle School teachers may have used these same books in earlier editions we decided to include them in our survey. Each major market text was reviewed by at least two reviewers and no two reviewers reviewed the same two books. A few other books used within smaller markets were also included to determine if there were distinguishing characteristics that might indicate a trend toward newer approaches that utilized findings from physics educational research. In addition a few books being used by teachers that were at a slightly higher level as resource material were looked at in a more casual way.

The reviewers all had physics and teaching backgrounds that varied from Middle School to graduate school. All had been involved in some way with the teachers and/or the curriculum at the Middle School level for many years. Many had presented papers at national and section meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and had served on various committees of that organization including The Committee on Pre-High School Physics. In addition, over 20 individuals, prompted by several talks by co-principal investigator (JLH), volunteered their experiences with texts, authors, and publishers. Although most were oral, some were written.

General Overall Observations

Sharon Walpole in The Reading Teacher 52 (4) 358-369 (1999) "Changing texts, changing thinking: Comprehension demands of new science textbooks" points out many things that textbook authors should consider when writing at this level. In particular, she writes, "Children do not naturally respond to illustrations, graphics, and highlighted items. They need instruction in how to make sense of these features." Without such training much of the material presented is worthless, no matter how impressive the layout is to a mature reader. All our reviewers commented on the "busyness"of the texts and pointed out that a lot of the material had little to do with science.

The books have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represented impossible situations. It is no wonder that teachers and students alike find difficulty with physical science in the Middle Schools.

Some might suggest that corrections can come later, but evidence shows that many students are turned off by their Middle School experience and most never choose to take another physical science course. There is also clear evidence that it is very difficult to overcome early established information. "Hardwiring" is the common term used to describe how rigidly students (and adults) hold on to early conceptions.

The general reading level has deteriorated markedly over the last 20-40 years. The publishers, as noted later, have responded to this by dropping the level of science texts. William A. Henry, III, writes in In Defense of Elitism of Cornell professor Donald Hayes' results of sampling 788 textbooks used between 1860 and 1992. Hayes says, "Honors high school texts are no more difficult than an eighth grade reader was before World War II." On further reading, the language difficulty of textbooks has dropped by about twenty percent during the past couple of generations. "Perhaps the best measure of what has gone wrong is the fact, attested to by textbook authors and editors, that publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group than they do to check the correctness of facts. From a business point of view, that makes sense. A book is far more apt to be struck off a purchase order because it contains terminology or vignettes that irritate the hypersensitive than because it is erroneous." Publishers are much more interested in satisfying a group of selection committee members who typically have little knowledge of the subject matter, but are impressed by pretty pictures and seemingly up-to-date new information which for the intended audience is not at all relevant. Our reviewers noted the same sort of "dumbing down" in these elementary texts and all the reviewers commented on their encyclopedic nature, not only encyclopedic, but also containing topics well beyond the capacity of Middle School students.

In our experience an “author” is one who wrote the book in question. There is a rich variety of college level textbooks and many high school level textbooks competing in the market place and most are highly accurate. This situation comes about as a result of the prompt response of colleagues to errors in new editions and printings and the close association of teachers with publishers' representatives. This is not true of science texts used in grades K-8. The notion of "author" in these texts is quite foreign to us. Of the several names listed in several of the textbooks none that we contacted would claim to be an 'author' and some did not even know that their names had been so listed. Instead of authors we have a collection of people who 'checked' parts or aspects of the textbook. Some of these reviewers actually panned the material and heard nothing further from the publisher.

Without a clear-cut author or pair of authors to "define"the text or give it direction, these texts fail miserably. Committees produce mush and it is very difficult to find anyone with the authority to make corrections. Instead of being able to deal directly with authors we dealt with "editors" and got answers to our concerns about inaccuracies such as "Well we have to make the science simple," "We don't think that your qualifications are good enough," and "Our experts disagree with you."

 

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A project of NC State University funded by a grant from the Hewlett Packard Foundation
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