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Curriculum Planning

Should Textbooks Still Play a Role in Schools?

Good textbooks, educators and researchers increasingly argue, offer cohesion and structure where internet-sourced curricula fall short. 

June 9, 2023

Dana Croy of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, wishes her 10th-grade daughter had more textbooks. Homework and test review involve photocopied texts and worksheet packets that aren’t clearly connected to a source, and it’s hard to make sense of the work at home. The two textbooks she did get this year—for health and English class—have never been opened; teachers don’t seem to use them. In other classes, like biology and social studies, assigned reading is digital and accessed via Chromebook laptops that must stay at school. 

“She’s struggling in her classes, and I’m at a loss at how to help,” said Croy. “She’s coming home with biology homework; there’s not even any reference material. I asked her, ‘Where do you find these answers? Are you googling them?’” 

Traditional textbooks come with a host of issues: They’re expensive, quickly outdated, and, according to recent research, may offer biased or limited viewpoints. There’s also pedagogical baggage: Some argue that textbooks can become a crutch, rigidly limiting teachers’ ability to branch out and create a rich learning experience with primary documents and other resources. Researchers say textbook usage varies greatly from district to district, between schools, and even between classrooms in the same school. About 60 percent of teachers say they still use district-adopted textbooks as “one resource among many,” according to data from the Brookings Institution, but the vast majority also look elsewhere for materials, usually online. 

The ambiguity around the value of textbooks, as well as the enormous cost of keeping up-to-date collections in schools, means that districts often don’t buy them. Or they continue to allocate funds for textbooks (paper or digital) but discourage educators from using them, leaving educators to create their own materials from an assortment of online resources. But the vast online marketplace for educational materials—with digital worksheets, projects, and assessments available for download for free or for a few dollars—comes with its own serious concerns around quality and reliability. “With a few clicks of the keyboard, a teacher can find a worksheet to practice addition and subtraction, a frog dissection kit for a biology lab, and quizzes and answer keys for all five acts of Romeo and Juliet,” write Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education for ASCD. “Yet we know almost nothing about the quality of such supplementary materials.”

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of researchers and educators assert that, in addition to embracing evidence-based reading instruction, it’s time to examine the benefits of high-quality curricula such as textbooks across all subject areas. Now, 14 states are prioritizing the adoption of evidence-based learning materials like textbooks, arguing that PowerPoint slides and lessons gathered from the internet are easy to obtain but are often low-quality. “Curriculum is a critical factor in student academic success,” writes David Steiner in a 2017 report for the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. “The cumulative impact of high-quality curriculum can be significant and matters most to achievement in the upper grades where typical year-on-year learning gains are far lower than in previous grades.” 

Textbook skepticism

When Cathy Schechter began teaching fourth grade in the Bay Area 29 years ago, she said it had been “drilled into her head” in teacher training—and later supported by district leaders—that teachers who used textbooks were “boring.” Schechter dutifully ignored the textbooks supplied by the state, spending extra evening and weekend hours putting together projects and lessons designed to be more engaging. 

Barry Garelick, a retired middle school teacher, also didn’t rely too much on district textbooks in his classroom. Lessons and practice problems were often poorly sequenced, he said, and contained lots of extra information that confused students. “Full of pictures and cartoons and all sorts of distractions, a dearth of word problems, very little explanations, and generally poor sequencing” is how Garelick described textbooks.

Skepticism toward textbooks is baked into American schooling, says Polikoff, the USC education researcher. In his book Beyond Standards, Polikoff argues that the reason why raising standards through Common Core had limited impact on achievement is that “lots of teachers don’t have curricular materials, or they have them and don’t use them, and virtually all supplement as well,” he said. Two out of three teachers, for example, reported in a 2023 survey that they didn’t have the materials or the formative assessments they needed to teach effectively; only a third said they’d received proper training to use the materials supplied by their schools or districts. According to RAND’s 2022 American Educator Panels, nearly 80 percent of teachers develop materials themselves or borrow from a colleague, and nearly all teachers—90 percent—use Google to find lessons, reporting that they spend about 12 hours each week searching for materials on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or creating their own. “It’s really ingrained in the American culture of teaching that control over curriculum is the area that teachers have the most authority over,” Polikoff said. “Teacher ed programs teach that it’s the job of a teacher to create curriculum; it’s one of the defining parts of their identity as a teacher.” 

On average, high-quality curricular materials like textbooks would serve students much better, Polikoff insists, even if teachers also supplement with videos and online lessons. Textbooks provide a “spine,” a through line for what students are expected to learn—but when teachers don’t receive good materials from their districts or are told not to use them, they’re left to do the next best thing: scour the internet for resources. “All we do in education is make the job of teaching harder,” Polikoff said. “It’s empowering for teachers to give students the tools that they need. Not giving teachers good materials sets them up for failure.” 

Building a Broad Base of Knowledge

In an end-of-year survey, former AP U.S. History teacher Ron Franchi asked his busy high school students in the Detroit suburb of Novi, Michigan, a question: If you were the teacher next year, would you assign the textbook reading? Without fail, his students resoundingly answered yes.

Textbooks, Franchi’s students explained, provide a foundation: It’s hard to understand complicated historical concepts like the New Deal, for example, without the story behind its inception. Writing essays, his students said, was easier once they’d done the reading—there’s a “reservoir of knowledge” to draw from and the ability to look back through the content in an organized, sequential way. “Knowledge is so important in learning,” Franchi said. “I don’t feel like students can get what they need from a slide deck. They need more.” 

Franchi’s observation is supported by a growing body of research connecting high-quality textbooks, background knowledge, and student achievement, and especially reading comprehension. A 2023 study comparing two groups of Colorado elementary students, one in a school with a textbook-based knowledge-building curriculum and the other in a school not as focused on content, found that by third grade, the knowledge-building group had substantially outperformed the control group on state reading tests. 

Lead study author David Grissmer, a research professor at the University of Virginia, believes textbooks played an important part in students’ success in the Colorado study because they provide a “base layer” of knowledge. Textbooks on geography, history, science, and the arts were packed with facts, he said, well-organized, and interesting. After surveying the textbooks himself, Grissmer said, he grasped why teaching from them is producing better grades for students. “It encourages a broad base of knowledge, history, geography, science, arts—whatever kids need to understand the world they live in,” he said. 

A similar effect has been found in math. A 2016 study found that after controlling for student and teacher differences, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers using high-quality textbooks made a substantial difference in student achievement. “More effective curriculum materials can yield outsized bang-for-the-buck,” wrote lead study author and Harvard researcher Thomas J. Kane. While urging caution on the results—how individual teachers use textbooks varies, as does textbook quality—Kane emphasized that greater attention should be paid to which textbooks produce better student results. 


In Sumner County, Tennessee, “teachers were spending 15 to 20 hours a week building curriculum and still feeling they were missing the assessment piece,” said Scott Langford, chief academic officer of Sumner County School District. Langford said the state’s move to high-quality materials—part of the 14-state effort to adopt high quality textbooks and other learning materials—is designed to take pressure off teachers. In 2019, Sumner County piloted a knowledge-building curriculum that they later adopted throughout the district. 

Sumner County saw almost “immediate gains” in reading performance, Langford said, and teachers said they felt relieved to use assessments aligned with what they were teaching instead of having to create them from scratch. Checkpoints built into the curriculum made it easier for teachers to recognize gaps in learning and address them consistently. 

For new teachers especially, textbooks can provide a road map through a complex curriculum, said Zach Groshell, a Seattle instructional coach, though he quickly acknowledged that “there isn’t a perfect textbook.” But even experienced teachers say that textbooks can be valuable. Veteran Twin Cities, Minnesota, high school English teacher Eric Kalenze said that in spite of tech becoming ubiquitous in classrooms, he kept on designing his units around an anthology textbook, supplementing with stories, poems, and other materials but using the textbook as “home base.” Textbooks, Kalenze said, continue to form the curricular backbone, giving coherence to the learning trajectory that students are expected to follow across the semester and school year. 

After years of creating lessons for her students from resources gathered from the internet, teacher Cathy Schechter discovered the impact of textbooks while homeschooling her son during the pandemic: “I was blown away; it was so much richer than my PowerPoints and projects,” she said, recalling how her son learned and gained confidence as he worked through textbook-based lessons. Now she’s changed her approach with her students. Using a high-quality textbook, she said, frees her up to focus on other instructional areas, like “asking effective questions, previewing the lesson, scaffolding difficult elements, and checking for understanding.”

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