In Defense of Textbooks, Core Programs, and Basal Readers

  • 08 January, 2008

I am often asked why I support the use of textbooks for teaching reading. It has been common in my field for those at the university to denounce the use of textbooks, and I have resisted that urge. The basic assumption seems to be that good teachers don't need textbooks, and that if you use a textbook (or core program or basal reader) you must not be a good teacher or even a very nice person.

  Of course, some observers try to split the difference: "new teachers need textbooks, but experienced ones do not" is often their claim.

  I think overall we are probably better served by teachers following textbooks, though they are certainly far from perfect. When I was director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools I wish we would have relied upon one or two basic reading programs, because it would have made it much easier to target high quality professional development in ways that would more certainly benefit children.

  The choice isn't between good teachers and bad textbooks. In fact, it shouldn't be a choice at all. We want committed well prepared teachers AND we want them to have high quality tools to support their efforts. A teacher who does not have to spend a bunch of time chasing down materials, constructing lessons, and the like has more time to focus on children's needs.

  The following is from a column that I wrote when I was president of IRA. I based it on a wonderful article by Atul Gawande. He was writing about medicine where the same argument rages: are doctors experts or do they need tools and regimentation? Gawande has a new article in a recent issue of the New Yorker that I will write about in this space in the near future:

  If a field is to advance, it has to at least consider whether deeply cherished ideas are correct or not. It might be upsetting to find out that we don’t know how to encourage kids to read successfully or that good teachers often rely on programs, but it would be even worse to proceed with the misconception that the conventional wisdom on such subjects is based on anything more than gut feeling. If we want to succeed in improving children’s reading, we can’t continue to accept “truthiness” over truth.

  Teaching expertise may be overrated. Here’s some conventional wisdom that most of us, me included, have accepted as genuine fact: teaching expertise is the key to learning. There is certainly some evidence on this one, though I suspect it wouldn’t be very convincing if we didn’t already believe in it. Maybe we’ve made teaching expertise a fetish and it’s holding us back!

  What made me wonder about this was a New Yorker article on obstetrics (“The Score,” October 9, 2006, pp. 59-67). I know, I know. That is not a blue-ribbon panel report or a scholarly article from a refereed journal. But Atul Gawande’s article caught my eye because it claimed that to improve effectiveness it may be necessary to rein in or limit expert practice.

  I know that sounds nuts, but Gawande makes a pretty good case that the transformation of obstetrics from a field that stressed skilled craftmanship to one based more on an industrial factory model has led to better outcomes for patients.

  It’s easy to reject medical analogies since they so often depend on biological processes which are so different from what we face in teaching. But let’s not reject this one too quickly since delivering babies is more like teaching than most medical specialties. A successful delivery requires extended involvement and engagement, and depends on the physician’s ability to carry out complex behavioral procedures, often under challenging circumstances.

  According to Gawande, “If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills… You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.”

  “But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. really could master all these techniques.”

  Gawande goes on to describe the ingenuity of the various delivery procedures (such as the use of forceps) that were invented along the way, and how medical schools emphasized these procedures for difficult births. These approaches were hard to master and few obstetricians ever really learned to use them well (which didn’t stop them—when the use of complex procedures becomes a hallmark of professionalism, then all professionals want to use those procedures no matter what the outcome).

  But things changed. Obstetricians adopted rules more like those of the factory floor than of a learned profession or a skilled craft. To discourage the use of complex procedures by the inexpert, even the skilled physicians who could use them well set them aside. The result of the standardized use of “good enough” practices has led to big improvements in the health and safety of babies.

  I wonder if we define teachers too much by the procedures they use. I wonder if, due to our zeal to protect educator autonomy, we have championed complex and subtle practice at the expense of overall success. Can 3.8 million teachers really do what many professional development programs push?

  The old system of obstetrics created pockets of excellence; some pretty amazing doctors at times pulled off some pretty amazing deliveries. The cost of that, of course, was high: lots of botched deliveries by doctors unable to manage the challenging procedures. Obstetrics eventually surrendered this “heroic physician” model to stress standardization—and the result has been more live births and fewer damaged children. I wonder if we are clinging too tightly to our own traditional “heroic teacher” model and our excellent, but perhaps too ambitious, instructional schemes. We, too, can point to our pockets of excellence, but then think about the very real cost this might represent to the great numbers of children for whom we are responsible.

 Two More Provocative Ideas

Two more provocative reading-relevant ideas that might disturb us came up in the same article: Gawande writes that “evidence-based medicine,” the use of randomized experiments to figure out what works (sound familiar?) has played a very limited role in obstetrics! Unlike other medical specialties, there are few of these kinds of studies in obstetrics and those that have been carried out are often ignored in practice. Obstetrics comes in last in the use of hard evidence among medical specialties, and yet it has done more to extend life than any of the others.

There are, to be sure, differences between medicine and education, but it’s interesting to see this successful use of a very different model of research than the one that I use and that is fast becoming the new conventional wisdom of much of our field.

  How do obstetricians improve practice without experimental study? That question gives rise to one more compelling idea: it may be due mainly to something else that should sound familiar. Gawande attributes the improvements to the use of informal-but-objective assessment results that are reviewed by both the doctor and principal (okay, chief of obstetrics).

  The Apgar score allows doctors and nurses to quickly and objectively evaluate a baby’s condition at 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth. That simple assessment has led obstetricians to try things out—not waiting for research—to see if they can improve their scores. Because they always know the baby’s score, the doctors can easily see the relationship between their actions and the outcomes.

  It is hard not to think about DIBELS (or PALS, TPRI, ISEL, and so on). These tests all provide quick information so that adjustments to practice can be made. But the analogy breaks down, too, since those tests give multiple scores, and don’t involve much in the way of professional judgment. In other words, DIBLERS may be onto something that could allow for more successful practice, but maybe it’s not quite the right something, since trying to keep track of 2 to 4 scores for each of 30 kids simultaneously is overwhelming and would not foster the kind of intense focus that the Apgar score seems to provide.

  Oh well. Questioning conventional wisdom is not for the feint of heart. Deflating overblown claims risks the anger of one’s friends, but it also threatens the comfort of one’s own beliefs. However, that’s the way it should be in a field that is seriously trying to improve measurable outcomes for students.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Katia Hazen Nov 01, 2017 01:32 AM

Education could use more challenges to conventional wisdom and traditional practice. I quite enjoyed the analogy to medicine (and the reference to Atul Gawande's elegant writing). Unlike medicine, universities (our teaching hospitals) have little interaction with or impact upon daily k-12 teaching. I'm a principal in the same town as a world class university (where I earned a graduate degree in education) and I have little to no exchange with the local educational professors. There's something broken with this model.

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In Defense of Textbooks, Core Programs, and Basal Readers


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.