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Re: Review of Middle School Physical Science Texts (part 2)

John Denker wrote, responding to comments by Jack Uretsky regarding
the Hubisz Report:

Unconstructive criticism is always unwelcome and almost-always
pointless. Saying book "A" is bad doesn't help, unless you can point to
book "B" which is clearly better.

Hubisz's report condemned all the books it reviewed. It did not rank them
in order of least evil, nor even draw any comparisons among them. It did
not judge them against any systematic criteria, so the reader cannot draw
comparisons with any confidence. I hope someone will conduct a
more-systematic investigation of this important area.

I was going to be involved in this project at the beginning, but
circumstances kept me out of it (I believe Herb Gottlieb was involved
and can perhaps confirm or deny my impressions). I was asked, not
because I am or was a middle school teacher but because I had some
experience working with middle school teachers, and I believe that
was the criteria for many, if not most, of the reviewers that John
Hubisz gathered together for this project. For the most part, I
believe, the reviewers were looking not for errors in middle school
pedagogy bur for errors of fact. It is unfortunately true that all
too often the teachers themselves are not qualified to detect these
errors, especially those in the physical sciences, since most of
them, if they have any science background at all come from the life
sciences (and, unfortunately, many do have no science background at
all, and so their understanding of the nature of science, and much of
its lore, is minimal). But teachers and scientists with expertise in
their disciplines and knowledge of the middle school environment are
qualified to make the type of reviews that Hubisz was asking for,
perhaps moreso that the MS teachers themselves, sad to say.

It would have been great if the group could have found some or any
exemplary texts. It would be great to be able to say to a textbook
selection committee that book A is not acceptable but book B is a
good one and should be used. All to often there is just no example of
a "Book B." Feynman's experience, recounted in "Surely You're Joking
. . ." is probably a bit extreme, but not atypical.

Over the years, I suspect not unrelated to the way by which they are
chosen, science texts at the pre-college level have descended to a
pretty sorry lot. There is no such thing as a textbook without
errors, and as the debates that get started on this list can attest,
there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes an error. Some
are easy, others are subtle, controversial, and often of more lasting
consequences. But once errors are identified and pointed out to the
publishers, it is often next to impossible to get the publishers to
correct them. Many are inserted in the ancillary material--sidebars,
illustrations, problems, supplementary text material, etc.--over
which the authors usually have virtually no control. All too often
the author or authors of a high school or pre high school text are
little more than hired hands who do not own their work and thus have
little or no ability to influence the publishers to make corrections.
I have heard of occasions where the names of a review panel for one
book were simply placed in another, unrelated text, that the
reviewers had never even seen, and without the permission of said
reviewers. And the publishers are loathe to make the corrections
because to do so would increase their expenses and reduce their
profits, and the existence of the errors does not seem to be a
serious impediment to sales, so there is no economic interest in
making the product better. All too often the adoption decisions are
made based on criteria that have nothing to do with the accuracy of
the material, and it is in these areas that the publishers
concentrate their revision efforts. Since errors are pretty far down
on their priority list, they tend to remain through edition after
edition and just accumulate.

If the scientific community would take a serious interest in this
problem and apply pressure to textbook adoption committees to reject
books that are full of errors, regardless of how beautiful the
production is, then the publishers would find it to their advantage
to improve the quality of their books. Until that happens, the
situation will not change. The Hubisz report is an effort to move the
scientific community and the public in that direction. It may not be
a perfect vehicle, but right now it is just about the only one we've


Hugh Haskell

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