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The Limitations of Textbooks

“Using a better frying pan doesn’t necessarily mean you make a better omelet.” Those are the words of Thomas Kane, a professor of education at Harvard University and the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research, who just published a multi-state study, “Learning by the Book,” designed to measure textbook efficacy since the implementation of Common Core.

As you might guess from this quote, the findings did not suggest alternating textbooks made much of an impact on how well students learned. Instead, as a recent Education Week analysis of the study summed up, “None of 14 math textbooks studied was consistently linked to gains in 4th and 5th grade student test scores collected from hundreds of schools in six states.”

Although researchers are still grappling with the mammoth research report’s results, the upshot seems to be, it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. Obviously, quality textbooks are to be desired and certainly not disregarded—but equally important as having the right materials in place is having the right support systems to accompany them, in order to leverage learning resources to their fullest.

Another research project reported on The 74, a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America, backs this notion. Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson performed a randomized study in which teachers used a math curriculum known as Mathalicious, while others had access to the same curriculum with the addition of an online support system. A third teaching group was given no extra resources at all and were forced to rely on whatever curricular supports were already in place. Jackson’s finding was the students who received both the curriculum AND the extra learning support systems demonstrated the biggest gains on standardized tests.

This positive outcome for utilizing a proven learning support system and complementary technological tools, combined with targeted textbooks and teaching materials, is a result our own research has replicated at Learning Ovations, through over 13 years of rigorous development and over 2,000 hours of classroom observation.

Our A2i literacy support system varies reading resources with the individual child’s needs, in conjunction with small group learning and teacher training. We found when all parts are present and designed to work together, they produce the best results for our kids. Textbooks alone simply can’t make the difference—especially in the K-3 space where students are still mastering reading.

Emily Freitag, CEO and co-founder of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit that works with schools to improve academics, put it best in the Education Week article referenced earlier in this post. She said, “What we consistently hear from teachers is, ‘Tell me what good looks like. Because that’s what I want to do.’ And I have seen a great curriculum when supported well absolutely transform schools…I have seen those same materials, though, fall flat. So, I don’t think the materials alone can be our obsession. I think how we support great instruction needs to be the obsession.”

So, yes, a great frying pan does not guarantee a great omelet. Nor does using the finest fabric known to mankind promise a dazzling outfit. But, in both cases, they make for a great start. Now we educators must also provide a great follow-through to ensure academic success.

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