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Science texts not always by the book

By Marsha Walton

Science groups are working to improve the content in science texts.
Science groups are working to improve the content in science texts.

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(CNN) -- Science and precision should be inseparable. But physics professor John Hubisz and others reviewing many U.S. textbooks say that's hardly the case.

The information in the books is often unfocused, fragmented, and sometimes downright wrong.

With a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Hubisz examined dozens of physical science texts for middle schools, and found scores of errors.

Among them:

•A map showing the equator running through Texas and Florida, when it's actually about 1,500 miles south.

•A discussion of sound that says humans cannot hear below 400 hertz. But 47 notes on a piano are below 400 hertz.

•Details of the Statue of Liberty, explaining her "bronze outer structure." The statue is copper.

•A picture of the Statue of Liberty with the torch in her left hand. It's in her right hand.

•Pictures of prisms bending light the wrong way.

•Periodic tables not updated years after new elements have been added.

•A compass with East and West reversed.

•Chemistry formulas and physics laws that are so "simplified" they are completely wrong.

But hard core errors are not the only problem. Studies by The American Association for the Advancement of Science say kids are lugging home heavy books full of disconnected facts. They say the books don't teach them well, and don't motivate them to take more than the bare minimum of science courses.

Political correctness also complicates the situation, said Hubisz. His report for the Packard Foundation concluded: "Publishers now employ more people to censor books for content that might offend any organized lobbying group, than they do to check the correctness of facts."

How do students stack up?

For 10 years, William Schmidt, a statistics professor at Michigan State University, has looked at how U.S. students stack up against students in other countries in math and science.

"In fourth-grade, we start out pretty well, near the top of the distribution among countries; by eighth-grade, we're around average, and by 12th-grade, we're at the bottom of the heap, outperforming only two countries, Cyprus and South Africa," he said.

"You have what we call the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, where you have coverage of lots of topics but very shallow coverage of each one. And our studies suggest that that is related to how poorly our students do, especially at eighth and 12th-grade levels," he added.

Both Schmidt and Hubisz agree that part of the problem is that textbooks include charts, graphs, sidebars, and other unnecessary nuggets that make them look more like hefty catalogs. And often, they say, it seems like artists and writers never communicate.

One middle school text, for example, details the concept of refraction. Students are told to put a pencil in a glass to observe how the pencil appears bent in the water. But to illustrate this experiment is a photo of a girl with a glass that is opaque, and therefore impossible to observe the pencil inside.

The problem has an explanation

There's no disagreement with some criticisms, said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers School Division. But there are reasons for U.S. students not measuring up.

"Other countries are only educating their best and brightest," said Driesler. The student who is going to work on a farm or in the family store is long gone by eighth grade in Japan or Singapore," he said.

That's why educators in the United States believe the curriculum and texts have to serve a wide range of students -- from the brightest to the least gifted, Driesler said.

The "mile-wide, inch-deep" curriculum also is the result of the differing demands of thousands of different school districts. With only a handful of major U.S. textbook publishers, Driesler says none could stay in business if they put out a different book for every state. That's how books grow to 700 or 800 pages, because Iowa might require a section on corn, Florida a description of aquifers, and Texas a chapter on oil and natural gas.

"No publisher is ever rejected for too much content," said Driesler. But they will be rejected if they don't cover almost all of the curriculum requirements of a school district.

Fixes proposed

What's being done to fix this? Hubisz now has a site,, where teachers can post errors. He said some publishers are working with him to fix the errors, but many are not.

Schmidt is trying to streamline the information in the texts.

"Instead of 16,000 local school districts each defining science, the country needs to come up with a common set of definitions of what is important for kids to learn," Schmidt said. "Then one needs to involve the science community so that these books are written without error, that they're written focused around important ideas."

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