The BLOG: Voices

Who reviews new ELA and math textbooks? 

Because most states adopted Common Core’s standards, most school systems are investing in new textbooks for ELA and Math.  And Education Week reporters are dutifully alerting their readers to reviews of these textbooks in ELA and math—mainly from a new organization called Reviews of math textbooks were reported in March 2015 and May 2016. An earlier blog dealt with the process itself.

Three major questions come to mind after I read Education Week’s most recent article on review results, this one on’s review of English language arts textbooks. The most important one is: who are these so-called reviewers?  Their understanding of secondary literature curricula leaves much to be desired.

Here are my three big questions:

1.  Why are reviewers rating textbooks according to their “alignment” to Common Core’s standards? These curriculum materials should be judged on their capacity to prepare kids adequately for college, not for their alignment to standards created by writers with no qualifications for writing ELA or mathematics standards (in ELA, they never specialized IN or taught literature).

2.  Why is the large review team described in such a way that it isn’t clear IF any of the ELA reviewers taught secondary English (grades 7-12) or college English?  All we learn is how many years of K-12 teaching experience they had (A MEANINGLESS AND MISLEADING DESCRIPTION), and the number of years of teaching math.  What grades or subjects in math we are not told.

3.  Why didn’t the reporter note in the introduction to this latest blog that most of the corporate funders of this organization, if not all, are already highly committed to Common Core’s standards, making it unlikely that is an “independent” source of information on these textbooks, despite the fact that it ostentatiously brands itself as “independent”? (In the earlier blog on math textbook reviews, the reporter did indicate the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s sponsorship of but raised no question about its possible influence on this “independent” source of review.)

Apparently, U.S. educators are so gullible that they will believe anything they are told when it involves spending the public’s tax money.  And U.S. reporters are so naïve that they don’t bother to ask any questions about their sources of information: not just who sponsors an organization that provides “free” reviews, but also exactly who the reviewers are, especially when their judgments are puzzling.

I ask these questions because of judgments made about the appropriateness of readings for the grade levels reviewed—a particular interest of mine For example, under Expeditionary Learning for grade 7, we find: “Module 2B – Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw.” It’s not clear if students are to read the whole play or only an excerpt of the play for grade 7. As important as that question is, what is of concern first is who decided Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is suitable for grade 7? And, if it is to be taught in grade 7, why didn’t the anthology of reading selections contain a grade-appropriate story about Pygmalion from Greek mythology so grade 7 students would understand the point of Shaw’s title and his play?  (If it did, no reviewer noted it.)

The question about THE BROAD USE OF excerpts arises from the contents of Springboard English Grade 8, published by the College Board. Most of the recognizable selections are excerpts.  For example:

— Excerpt from the Odyssey, by Homer

— Excerpt from Night, by Elie Wiesel

— Excerpt from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne

— Excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

— Excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

How long is an excerpt in grade 8—four or five pages?  No information is provided in the reviews.

Two films were included IN GRADE 8’S CONTENTS:

— “Film, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

— “Life is Beautiful, film directed by Roberto Benigni”

Perhaps the films were included because students read only an excerpt from Shakespeare’s play and short excerpts about the Holocaust; maybe students are expected to understand both the play and the Holocaust from the films. But this may be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Both Benigni’s comedy/drama and Boyne’s imaginative novel have been heavily criticized for the false picture they convey about a child’s life in a German death camp in World War II, an accusation that cannot be directed to Wiesel’s autobiographical work.

As one reviewer of Boyne’s work commented: It “makes a mockery” of the basic facts. It portrays the nine-year old son of the commandant of Auschwitz taking walks to the fence surrounding this infamous camp and regularly meeting there a nine-year old inmate on the other side of the fence.  As the reviewer noted, it could never have happened; both would have been immediately electrocuted or shot.

As one negative review of Benigni’s film noted: “There are factual inaccuracies in the movie which Benigni included precisely to distance his film from the historical truth.” Despite the film’s many humorous touches and inaccuracies, the author of a synthesis of all the negative reviews points out that “the movie doesn’t really show that life is beautiful.”

The small likelihood that these subtleties and ironies can be conveyed easily grasped by grade 8 students illustrates the folly of using excerpts, rather than whole works; a jumbled mix of genres to address Common Core’s demands, not a coherent reading curriculum; and reviewers who are unable to grasp the goals of a literature curriculum. The contents of this grade 8 textbook received all four possible points on “Indicator 1a: Anchor texts are of publishable quality and worthy of especially careful reading and consider a range of student interests.” Even though the “anchor” texts are accompanied by short seemingly relevant selections ranging from: “First They Came for the Communists,” a poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, to Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, a children’s picture story by Eve Bunting, the uninformed and dead voice of whoever worked out the description of a four-point criterion for Indicator 1a betrays a misunderstanding of what a literature curriculum in the public schools is for and what can be apprehended by grade 8:

“The instructional materials for Grade 8 fully meet the expectations of indicator 1a. Texts in the majority of the chapters/units across the year-long curriculum are of publishable quality. Texts are well crafted and content rich, engaging students at the grade level for which they are placed. The texts include published texts, excerpts from published texts, and published authors. Texts can be examined multiple times for multiple purposes, such as building academic vocabulary and facilitating access to future texts. They offer personal perspectives on a variety of topics.”

Our schools might better return to older literature anthologies for middle or high school, with whole pieces in them selected for humanistic reasons by people whose interest in a literary work went beyond developing “academic vocabularies” and “facilitating access” to other works. It also went beyond arousing a sensitivity to “social injustice,” whether or not it was correctly labeled anti-Semitism or simply called “racism.” This goal, too, apparent in the contents of this grade 8 textbook, was not clarified by the reviewers or commented on at all. Maybe they missed it altogether?

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.