Unlock the School Library

Monday, May 25th, 2015

Bryan Caplan suggests that we unlock the school library:

By this I mean…

  1. Give kids the option of hanging out at the library during every break period.
  2. Give kids the option of hanging out the library in lieu of electives.

My elementary, junior high, and high schools all had marvelous libraries. But they were virtually always closed to the student body. You couldn’t go during recess or lunch. And you certainly couldn’t say, “Instead of taking music, dance, art, P.E., woodshop, I’ll read in the library.” Virtually the only time I entered a school library was when an entire class went as part of an assignment.

Caplan is pretty transparently promoting what he would have preferred as a kid:

Socially, unlocking the library allows students to escape pointless classes, boring teachers, and obnoxious peers. It also gives kids a chance to exercise independence and self-control.

In his mind, making kids take music, dance, art, P.E., or woodshop is simply bossing them around, because adults like that.

Michael Strong suggests something I’ve been thinking about for years:

I’ve often proposed a low-cost chain of schools in which grades 3-8 consisted of nothing but reading and playing chess (or similar self-guided, cognitively rich activities that develop intellectual focus) — with no teaching of any subjects at all. It would cost almost nothing at all to supervise because the adults need to play no active role other than keep things quiet. I predict students in such a program would, after a year or two of updating their math and writing skills in grade 9, dramatically outperform most students from conventional educational programs. We are forcing students through expensive, boring, humiliating rituals for no reason at all.

James Altucher’s 10-Step Technique for Learning

Monday, May 18th, 2015

James Altucher presents his 10-step technique for learning:

  1. Love it.
  2. Read it.
  3. Try it. But not too hard.
  4. Get a teacher (plus the 10x rule).
  5. Study the history. Study the present.
  6. Do easy projects first.
  7. Study what you did.
  8. You are the average of the five people around you.
  9. Do it a lot.
  10. Find your evil plan.

Religio Matters

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

The secular reaction’s view of religion is that Religio matters, religion not so much:

A religion’s unfalsifiable beliefs, its empirically neutral beliefs, are reverse engineered from its rituals, are rationalizations of its rituals, rather than the rituals being engineered from the beliefs. The unfalsifiable beliefs of Shinto are incoherent, since Shinto is a random grab bag of rituals, yet Shinto still worked quite well regardless, despite having very little in the way of beliefs for people to believe in.

A religion should be an effective tool for transmitting the wisdom of parents to teenagers, telling stupid people to do what smart people already know to do.

Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

A number of well-controlled studies have compared the effects of academically oriented early education classrooms with those of play-based classrooms:

The results are quite consistent from study to study:  Early academic training somewhat increases children’s immediate scores on the specific tests that the training is aimed at (no surprise), but these initial gains wash out within 1 to 3 years and, at least in some studies, are eventually reversed.  Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.

For example, in the 1970s, the German government sponsored a large-scale comparison in which the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens were compared, over time, with the graduates of 50 academic direct-instruction-based kindergartens.[2]  Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used.  In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally. At the time of the study, Germany was gradually making a switch from traditional play-based kindergartens to academic ones.  At least partly as a result of the study, Germany reversed that trend; they went back to play-based kindergartens.  Apparently, German educational authorities, at least at that time, unlike American authorities today, actually paid attention to educational research and used it to inform educational practice.

Similar studies in the United States have produced comparable results.  One study, directed by Rebecca Marcon, focused on mostly African American children from high-poverty families.[3]  As expected, she found—in her sample of 343 students–that those who attended preschools centered on academic training showed initial academic advantages over those who attended play-based preschools; but, by the end of fourth grade, these initial advantages were reversed:  The children from the play-based preschools were now performing better, getting significantly higher school grades, than were those from the academic preschools, This study included no assessment of social and emotional development.

In a well-controlled experiment, begun by David Weikart and his colleagues in 1967, sixty eight high-poverty children living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were assigned to one of three types of nursery schools:  Traditional (play-based), High/Scope (which was like the traditional but involved more adult guidance), and Direct Instruction (where the focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math, using worksheets and tests). The assignment was done in a semi-random way, designed to ensure that the three groups were initially matched on all available measures.  In addition to the daily preschool experiences, the experiment also included a home visit every two weeks, aimed at instructing parents in how to help their children.  These visits focused on the same sorts of methods as did the preschool classrooms.  Thus, home visits from the Traditional classrooms focused on the value of play and socialization while those from the Direct-Instruction classrooms focused on academic skills, worksheets, and the like.

The initial results of this experiment were similar to those of other such studies.  Those in the direct-instruction group showed early academic gains, which soon vanished.  This study, however, also included follow-up research when the participants were 15 years old and again when they were 23 years old.  At these ages there were no significant differences among the groups in academic achievement, but large, highly significant differences in social and emotional characteristics.

By age 15 those in the Direct Instruction group had committed, on average, more than twice as many “acts of misconduct” than had those in the other two groups.  At age 23, as young adults, the differences were even more dramatic.  Those in the Direct Instruction group had more instances of friction with other people, were more likely to have shown evidence of emotional impairment, were less likely to be married and living with their spouse, and were far more likely to have committed a crime than were those in the other two groups.  In fact, by age 23, 39% of those in the Direct Instruction group had felony arrest records compared to an average of 13.5% in the other two groups; and 19% of the Direct Instruction group had been cited for assault with a dangerous weapon compared with 0% in the other two groups.[4]

What might account for such dramatic long-term effects of type of preschool attended?  One possibility is that the initial school experience sets the stage for later behavior.  Those in classrooms where they learned to plan their own activities, to play with others, and to negotiate differences may have developed lifelong patterns of personal responsibility and pro-social behavior that served them well throughout their childhood and early adulthood.  Those in classrooms that emphasized academic performance may have developed lifelong patterns aimed at achievement, and getting ahead, which—especially in the context of poverty—could lead to friction with others and even to crime (as a misguided means of getting ahead).

Learning to be Brave

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Real training can remove that nagging doubt about whether you could handle yourself in a fight:

It’s probably different in most martial arts, but in an MMA or boxing gym — which is to say, a real fighting gym — it’s always scary. When it’s grappling night at the MMA gym, I never go in scared. The worst that’s going to happen to me is I’ll tweak my elbow or somebody will choke me a little too hard and I’ll go to sleep for a bit. But I’m not scared.

However, you go into the real sparring nights — we call them “Punch in the face” nights — and you know you’re going to get punched lots and lots of times in the head, often by men who are much bigger and much more skilled than you are. We have a pretty small gym, and you can’t always fight in your weight class. So I’m always sparring with big heavyweights who can’t even pull a punch.

What you do in a fight gym is learn how to be brave. You’re learning how to punch and kick in a proper way, of course, but above all else, a fighter is someone who’s got courage, who’s dead game in a fight. Most guys don’t come into the world that way. You learn to be brave through that process of getting your fear and timidity beaten out of you night after night after night.

It’s an empirical question whether training makes one more or less likely to get in a fight outside the gym. In some ways, I’m probably more likely to get into a fight now, because I feel more competent, and I know what it’s cost me in the past to back down from fights, and I don’t want to feel that way.

I would amend that slightly. Experienced grapplers aren’t scared of grappling night. New grapplers are fighting panic from the moment they can’t escape the crushing weight or constricting grip of a more experienced grappler.

Everything Oafish, Violent, and Oppressive

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall’s colleagues in the English Department didn’t overreact when he started training MMA, because they knew him personally:

However, in my profession more generally, it’s not an exaggeration to say that masculinity is viewed as the root of all evil. If you were to take a literary theory course, you might think it would be about literature, but it’s really not. It’s about all the various forms of oppression on earth and how we can see them playing out in literary works. And behind all these forms of oppression is a guy.

So in a humanities department, masculinity is associated with everything oafish, violent, and oppressive. I thought that by going to train across the street, I would be seen as embracing all the worst attributes of manhood rather than doing what I should be doing, which is talking about just how awful they are.

Of course, if I were writing a polemic against cage fighting, then I’d get a free pass. But I think that because my feelings about the sport ended up being pretty positive, the book may be controversial in the intellectual world.

An Elaborate Career-Suicide Fantasy

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall explains how he came to write The Professor in the Cage:

Well, I think I was 38 at the time (I’m 42 now). I’m an adjunct English professor at a small college in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been an adjunct for ten years. I make about $16,000 a year. I publish fairly well but, for various reasons, it’s pretty clear that my academic career is not going to come to anything. The tenure track hasn’t happened, and it’s probably not going to.

So I kind of reached this point where it was an authentic midlife crisis. It was like, Here I am: I’m pushing up on middle age, and I don’t quite have a real job. What am I going to do with my life? I knew the first thing I had to do was quit my job and move on to something else, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I really wanted to be an English professor when I grew up. It was my great ambition in life.

So I thought, “Well, maybe I can get myself fired.” At about that time, when I was going through this sort of crisis, an MMA gym — Mark Shrader’s Academy of Mixed Martial Arts — opened across the street from the English Department, and I thought that was just hilarious. A cage fighting gym was now as far away from my office as you could throw a snowball. The juxtaposition of the incredibly refined world of the English Department and this savagery across the street struck me as very, very funny, and I started to fantasize about going over there.

The fantasy was never about “Hey, I’m a serious tough guy. I’m going to go over there and kick ass.” It was like a joke. I thought I could make people in the department laugh. They’d see me walk over there. They’d look up from their poems and there I’d be, in the cage, getting beat up.

And then I had this other funny thought: “That’s how I’ll do it. That’s how I’ll get myself fired. That’s how I’ll get out of this job, because English Departments really don’t approve of blood sport.”

It all began as an elaborate career-suicide fantasy. But then I thought, “Maybe there’s a book in this.” So I went across the street and tried to learn how to fight and ended up writing a book.

Scrabble Expertise

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Scrabble expertise follows the usual pattern — it depends on both practice and talent:

In one study, using official Scrabble rating as an objective measure of skill, researchers found that groups of “elite” and “average” Scrabble players differed in the amount of time they had devoted to things like studying word lists, analyzing previous Scrabble games, and anagramming—and not by a little. Overall, the elite group had spent an average of over 5,000 hours on Scrabble study, compared to only about 1,300 hours for the average group. Another study found that competitive Scrabble players devoted an average of nearly 5 hours a week to memorizing words from the Scrabble dictionary.

Clearly, expert Scrabble players are to some degree “made.” But there is evidence that basic cognitive abilities play a role, too. In a study recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Michael Toma and his colleagues found that elite Scrabble players outperformed college students from a highly selective university on tests of two cognitive abilities: working memory and visuospatial reasoning. Working memory is the ability to hold in mind information while using it to solve a problem, as when iterating through possible moves in a Scrabble game. Visuospatial reasoning is the ability to visualize things and to detect patterns, as when imagining how tiles on a Scrabble board would intersect after a certain play. Both abilities are influenced by genetic factors.

Further evidence pointing to a role of these abilities in Scrabble expertise comes from a recent brain imaging study by Andrea Protzner and her colleagues at the University of Calgary. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), these researchers recorded the brain activity of Scrabble players and control subjects as they performed a task in which they were shown groups of letters and judged whether they formed words. (fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow within different regions of the brain.) The major finding of this study was that competitive Scrabble players recruited brain regions associated with working memory and visual perception to perform this task to a greater degree than the control subjects did.

What might explain Scrabble experts’ superiority in working memory and visuospatial reasoning? One possibility is that playing Scrabble improves these cognitive abilities, like a work-out at the gym makes you stronger. However, this seems unlikely based on over a century of research on the issue of “transfer” of training. When people train on a task, they sometimes get better on similar tasks, but they usually do not get better on other tasks. They show “near” transfer, but not “far” transfer. (Practice Scrabble and you’ll get better at Scrabble, and maybe Boggle, but don’t count on it making you smarter.) For the same basic reason that basketball players tend to be tall, a more likely explanation is that people high in working memory and visuospatial reasoning abilities are people who tend to get into, and persist at, playing Scrabble: because it gives them an advantage in the game. This explanation fits with what behavioral geneticists call gene-environment correlation, which is the idea that our genetic makeup influences our experiences.

Jon Stewart Wrong on Education in Baltimore

Monday, May 4th, 2015

The Fact Checker column at the Washington Post awards Jon Stewart four Pinocchios for this:

“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”

— Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, April 28, 2015

It’s not close to being true, Alex Tabarrok explains:

Baltimore schools spend 27% more than Fairfax County schools [which are among the best in the country] per student and a majority of the money comes not from the city but from the state and federal government.

Baltimore schools spend more than $17,000 per student per year.

College for the Masses

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Stark admissions cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment:

Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college.

And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

Strikingly, the students who initially enrolled in a four-year college were also about as likely to have earned a two-year degree as the other group was. That is, those who started on the more ambitious track were able to downshift, but most of those who started in community colleges struggled to make the leap to four-year colleges. That finding is consistent with other research showing that students do better when they stretch themselves and attend the most selective college that admits them, rather than “undermatching.”

Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.

[...]

But book learning isn’t anywhere near the full story of Mr. Escanilla’s growing up. His path also highlights another benefit that college can bring: Its graduates have managed to complete adulthood’s first major obstacle course. Doing so helps them learn how to finish other obstacle courses and gives them the confidence that they can, so long as they stay focused. Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit.

The Only Relevant Thing

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Instead of learning science, British pupils will learn about the way science and scientists work within society, because their education must be relevant to the 21st century — which reminds David Foster of this passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, contrasting Milton’s takes on Adam and Satan:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.

The only thing relevant to Satan is Satan himself:

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And by insisting that everything be “relevant” and discouraging the development of broader interests, the educational authorities in Britain are doing great harm to the children put in their charge.

The new lite-yet-relevant curriculum leads to questions on the national exam like this:

In a multiple choice question, teenagers were asked why electric wires are made from copper. The four possible answers were that copper was brown, was not magnetic, conducted electricity, or that it conducted heat.

Generally Accepted Parenting Practices

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Megan McArdle doesn’t think there’s one easy answer to why we’ve become insane:

Why has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children? Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don’t hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What’s truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids. The police are making arrests that would have branded their own parents as criminals. To hear people my age talk about the dangers of unsupervised children, you would think that the attrition rate in our generation had been at least 30 percent.

Even people who haven’t gone crazy are afraid of the Pediatric Patrol. A mom of my acquaintance whose house backs up to a school playground, with a gate that lets her children walk straight into the schoolyard, is afraid to let them go through the gate without an adult, for fear that someone would call the same nutty CPS that has taken to impounding the Meitiv children. She compromises by letting them play alone in the playground only when she is in the backyard, so that she can intervene if the police arrive.

Think about that: Kids have the priceless boon of a playground right in their backyard, but they can’t use it unless Mom drops everything to accompany them. I am running out of synonyms for “insane” to describe the state we have worked ourselves into. What on earth has happened to us?

How can we explain it? A few possible causes:

Cable news. When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you’ll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. [...] There were always stranger abductions, but they were always extremely rare, perhaps 2 or 3 per 1 million children under 12 in the U.S. each year. However, in the 1970s, you most likely only heard about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. [...] Then along came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content. These sorts of cases started to make national news, and because our brains are terrible at statistics, we did not register this as “Aha, the overall rate is still low, but I am now hearing cases drawn from a much larger population, so I hear about more of them.” Instead, it felt like stranger abductions must have gone up a lot.

Collective-action problems. When it comes to safety, overprotective parents are in effect taking out a sort of regret insurance. Every community has what you might call “generally accepted child-rearing practices,” the parenting equivalent of “generally accepted accounting principles.” These principles define what is good parenting and provide a sort of mental safe harbor in the event of an accident.

Ray Wolters’ The Long Crusade

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Ray Wolters has written an excellent and fascinating book about education, John Derbyshire says — and he’s flattered to be included among the dramatis personae:

In his final section, Wolters covers “Contrarian views of school reform.” He gives a chapter to Diane Ravitch, who argues an interesting combination of Kozol-style social reform with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge instruction.

He then ventures into taboo territory with a chapter on race realists. The intractability of the race gaps, and the fact that they remain constant even when overall achievement rises, strongly suggests that they have a biological origin.

The names here will be familiar to readers of VDARE.com: Murray and Herrnstein, James Watson, Bruce Lahn, Jason Richwine, and … me.

Wolters describes my address to the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, in a panel discussion of the question: “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?”

Derbyshire began his remarks by stating that he thought the question before the panel was based on a false premise. He did not think racial disparities in education could be eliminated … According to Derbyshire, these disparities were “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets.”

He also gives a fair, even-handed account of my roughing-up by the Thought Police in 2012, and the discussion that followed.

The last contrarian Wolters presents, in the final chapter of The Long Crusade, is our own Happy Warrior Bob Weissberg.

Bob’s 2010 book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools was a fresh breeze in the cobwebbed halls of education theory.

Elite Anti-Elitists

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A modern textbook tries to “sell” students on physics as a source of “new technologies for leisure” and tries to humanize physicists as regular people, but, Matthew B. Crawford laments, it makes no effort to resuscitate the ideal of ancient science, learning for its own sake:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices…. that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

The author’s cynicism is ultimately rooted in a common confusion, a false conflict between democracy and elitism, one that forgets the ways in which these two human ideals actually depend on one another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” made possible by the liberation of talents that comes with equality of opportunity. He suggests that democracy not only makes such a natural aristocracy possible, it is also peculiarly in need of cultivated human beings who can exert a leavening effect on society, giving our common freedom the character of liberty rather than license. That distinction seems to turn on the objects toward which freedom is directed. It is a distinction that allows us to speak of liberal pursuits, such as music, science, literature, mathematics, and so forth. If liberal democracy requires a critical mass of liberally educated citizens, it would seem to require a regime of education guided not only by the love of equality but also by the love of thinking. Happily, such a love is requited by those beautiful things that unveil themselves before a powerful and disciplined mind working at full song. Here is a logic that reconciles the private good of the student with public felicity. It is the logic of liberal education, classically understood.

A great teacher once said that precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy, we are not permitted to be its flatterers. With its confused anti-elitism, this book flatters the lowest elements of the democratic spirit. This is unfortunate because it is precisely the democratic spirit that, at its best, provides the most fertile home for the spirit of scientific inquiry. Glencoe Physics takes a very dim view of the educability of students, never venturing to lead them beyond the narrow concerns of comfort and entertainment. This is not so much meeting the students on their own terms as capitulating to the terms offered to students by mass commercial culture. Cowed by the times, our author lacks political courage on behalf of thinking, something that is incumbent on all teachers.

The Problem with Textbooks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) examines the problem with textbooks:

One can learn a great deal by surveying the physics textbooks now in widespread use, as I recently did as part of a project directed by the Environmental Literacy Council. Begin with some superficial impressions: On nearly every page one finds boxes, insets, three-dimensional marginalia in four colors, and all manner of gratuitous graphics. It is difficult to discern any rank order to the different kinds of information presented. Since physics depends on coherent argument, this manner of presentation is clearly ill-suited to the books’ purpose.

Naïvely, I initially thought the formatting of the books might be intended to suit the cognitive peculiarities of today’s students. I recently taught a course (not physics, but Latin) in a suburban public high school. I was shocked to discover that relatively few students at this “Blue Ribbon National School of Excellence” (so says the Department of Education) seemed capable of real concentration. My impression was confirmed by veteran teachers who speak of a dramatic change in students over the last fifteen years. The culprits they name are familiar enough: the near-complete demise of reading, coincident with the rise of video games and the Web. The ability to follow a monological narrative or argument from beginning to end seems to have been diminished, along with the habit and taste for reading. So surely the textbooks are adapting to this sad fact in a principled way, out of necessity, guided by the latest findings of cognitive science? Not so, it turns out — as becomes all too apparent when one learns how textbooks get produced.

Not surprisingly, the textbooks offered by publishers are products of market demand. Like any market, the market for textbooks does not exist in a political vacuum. In the U.S. there is no omnipotent ministry of education that sets standards for curriculum; the states set their own standards. There are a number of well-meaning, semi-official organizations that try to bring good sense to bear on the chaos. For example, in 1993 the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued its “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” and in 1996 the National Research Council issued its “National Science Education Standards.” But these efforts have had little real effect. The movement toward states setting their own standards received a sort of federal blessing with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which linked federal funding for schools to states’ efforts to set content standards and assess academic performance.

The problem is not so much federalism itself as the way most states actually operate. Each jurisdiction sets out standards in excruciating detail, including long lists of topics to be covered. These lists are given to the publishers as “bid specs.” Publishers can maximize the likelihood that a book will be widely adopted by including everything in the bid specs of the ten or fifteen biggest markets. It is no surprise, then, that textbooks often run as much as 900 pages long. The reason this simplistic business strategy is successful, and the reason publishers’ salesmen push for allocating an ever greater share of a book’s development costs to graphics, has to do with the way textbooks are adopted.

The members of a state’s textbook adoption committee are often appointed so as to obtain geographical and political representation (they come from different congressional districts), not because of any expertise in the subject matter. In most states it is a one-time appointment, and a form of political patronage. Members generally have other jobs. In a typical scenario, they come away from their first meeting with a couple of documents from the state’s Curriculum Task Force to help them: a list of several hundred “behavioral objectives” to be accomplished by the state’s schooling in general, and another list of perhaps a hundred topic items specific to the subject. The coverage of these topics is to be checked off on a form, ranked on a scale of one to five for each textbook and the mass of materials that go with the book: teachers’ editions, consumable workbooks, wall charts, ready-made transparencies and exams, demonstration materials, lab manuals, and all manner of classroom pizzazz. Committee members had better have a spare bedroom available. As one close observer put it, “Back in their homes, committee members leaf through the mass of materials aimlessly, not sure of what to look for. Some members alight on pages they don’t understand. Some of them conclude that things must have changed quite a bit since they were young, and others conclude that they are too tired to tackle the task and go to bed.”

Even for a diligent committee member, the best that can be accomplished under such a system is merely to ascertain the presence of requisite topics, not the clarity or depth with which they are presented. The reality is that nobody involved in the selection process is actually reading the books, so from a publisher’s perspective, the important thing is that every conceivable topic be mentioned and, just as important, listed in the index for quick reference. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that the average U.S. science middle school textbook covers 50 to 65 topics, while texts in Japan include only five to 15 topics and German textbooks cover an average of seven topics. The superficial treatment of dozens of topics comes at the expense of students’ conceptual understanding.

In the end, the question whether students can get any pleasure or meaning out of the text is never really brought to bear on this process. And the superficial nature of the selection process dictates a coffee-table approach by the publishers, leading them to produce a lavish physical product that is heavy on impressive-looking graphical clutter. “Thus the de facto national curriculum is a thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes and charts,” as Harriet Tyson-Bernstein puts it in A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. Teachers, of course, needn’t follow such texts slavishly, and in fact those teachers who have real mastery of their subject typically depart from the text and conduct their own classroom investigations. But textbooks are relied upon quite heavily by less-experienced and less-knowledgeable teachers. More generally, research conducted as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates that textbooks have a major impact on teachers’ decisions about how to present their subject material. In a survey of 16,000 science teachers conducted by Education Market Research in 2001, over 80 percent of science teachers reported using a traditional science textbook.

In many middle school texts, questions at the end of each chapter require students to do no more than repeat some definition verbatim from the text. Students generally have deeply held prior beliefs about natural phenomena, often wrong, and they can easily answer such textbook questions without recognizing the inconsistency between their understanding and the text they are memorizing. The result is that students work their way through the material without being changed by it, and often without really seeing the point of the questions asked or the answers given.