Beyond the Textbook?
Unlikely Changes in the Curriculum
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
See also, Textbooks and True Believers
Who was it that said, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door"? It doesn't matter, because there is abundant evidence that it is not true. The QWERTY keyboard is widely acknowledged to be inferior to the Dvorak, yet it remains the standard. Lecture is the most widely used teaching method. Windows '95 is Mac '89. Edward Land invented the single-gun TV tube in the 1950s. The patent was bought from him by a company that had been developing the three-gun tube. His invention was buried in a vault, to be resurrected only after the Japanese had independently developed the one-gun tube on their own and captured a major share of the American market.
Technical innovation presumably pursues efficiency. But efficiency is only one small aspect of total cost reduction. The strength of the competition, the availability of the product, its replaceability, compatibility, and familiarity will beat out novelty, efficiency even, any day.
Parents, school boards, and taxpayers understand textbooks. They revere them, particularly in schools where reading achievement is low. Texts are part of the ritual of schooling (1) The public looks at possible replacements with concern. CDs and multimedia may be acceptable in middle-class homes with computers; but when budgets get tight, there will be far less community dispute about buying texts than buying curricularly equivalent multimedia. Reading, today, as it was in Plymouth colony, is close to a sacred act. CDs are almost . . . entertainment: ye Olde Deluder, Satan, lurks nearby.
In addition, there is the problem of sunk costs. Computer technology changes so fast that today's novelty is tomorrow's obsolescence. A computer bought this week is a loss of funds for a purchase next month. Schools, even wealthy ones, cannot keep up with the cutting edge. They cannot, as businesses do, write off or depreciate old equipment. Textbooks last as long as much multimedia equipment, cost less to replace, don't require technical assistance to install, or mandate learning new operating systems. Technology cannot usefully be imported into schools without staff development. Staff development cost, in the eyes of many taxpayers, is a perpetually hungry monster whose feeding produces no effect discernible to them.
Books, particularly the curricular hodge-podgery (2) that textbooks tend to be, may be less interesting to read and less effective than computers in helping students learn; but students are not the people who vote on school budgets. Neither students nor their teachers are, in many school districts, the people who decide the what and how of the curriculum. Textbook companies themselves, used to receiving one percent of the public school budget yearly, cannot be expected to sit idly by, watching their wares replaced. (Already, many publishers can on short notice produce hardbound texts tailored to the needs of individual classes.)
The patchwork quilt that is the American public school curriculum is not a set of finely developed instruments aimed at achieving educational goals. Rather, it is a set of compromises symbolizing the pluralism of ends pursued by members of our society. Early struggles involving the schools have left us with a salad (garbage can?) of Classical Humanism folded into Child Centered curriculum with Social Efficiency and Social Meliorism in the mix.(3)
In fact, much curriculum is counterproductive to learning. Study some modern linguistics, read about language acquisition, then wonder about using Warriner's Grammar to learn anything! Every math teacher knows that what he or she values about mathematics has very little to do with the drills that parents and school board members love to know students are burdened with. Innumeracy is perhaps the foremost intellectual disease in the United States. Many of our institutions are run by persons who presume to make policy affecting thousands, but who cannot understand simple mathematical analyses of costs and benefits.
For example, in one of my university classes, I asked a group of educators, many of whom were principals and superintendents, whether they would consider using random drug testing in their schools if the test were 90 percent accurate in separating drug abusers from non-abusers. They all said yes. I admonished them that there would be false positives, people falsely identified as abusers, for whom such a determination might have severe social consequences. Yet, they insisted they would use the test. They saw the drug problem as so important that the risk of identifying false positives was worth it. With the use of mathematics no more complex than the use of fractions, and some simple probability theory, I showed them an interesting result.(4) If one person in a hundred were an abuser, and the accuracy of the test were 99 percent, any person identified to be an abuser by the test had a one in two chance of being a false positive! After I gave them a rule for computing the probability of selecting false positives for different test accuracies and abuser populations, they decided that random testing was probably not a reliable procedure. They might have changed their minds, but would they be able to convince their boards or communities? Our standard math curricula, chosen to emphasize the "math facts" valued by mathematically illiterate school boards, offers no cure for innumeracy. Indeed, "math phobia" seems to be its only reliable outcome.
Some curriculum is mere adornment or, despite ardent attempts to be multicultural, shows ethnic and class bias.(5) Other curriculum strains so mightily, so presumptuously, at future job preparation one wonders why its writers just don't quit education and make themselves rich on the stock market. Too many curriculum developers are, it seems, perpetually abuzz and awonder at every last gizmo and gimcrack technology has to offer in pursuit of the great American panacea.(6)
This is not to deny that the educational potential of much technology is substantial. But whether or not the technology gets incorporated in the curriculum depends on circumstances normally overlooked by, if not beyond reach of, most educators. It is not merely a matter of whether it enhances learning.
1. See Edward G. Rozycki, The Textbook: Tool or Symbol? educational Horizons 70, no. 4 (Summer 1992): 159-161.
2. See Harriet Tyson -Bernstein, Improving the Quality of Textbooks (Secaucus, N.J.: Matsushita Foundation, 1987), Monograph.
3. See Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (New York: Routledge, 1987). Also, Ivor F. Goodson, Studying Curriculum (New York: Teachers' College Press, 1994) or Joel Spring, Conflict of Interests (New York: Longman, 1993).
4. See John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (New York: Hill & Wang, 1988), 66.
See, also, Edward G. Rozycki, "Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FalsePositive.html
5. See Ivor F. Goodson, School Subjects and Curriculum Change (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1987).
6. See Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea:American Faith in Education 1865-1990 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).