Warning to Middle-School Teachers: Science Texts Unreliable

Published September 1, 2001

Almost everyone knows East from West, so it’s unlikely any middle-school science teachers or their students would be misled by the compass displayed in the 2000 and 2001 editions of Prentice Hall’s Science Explorer, which has East and West reversed.

But what about the statement in the 1996 edition of Addison-Wesley’s Science Insights that the magnetic pole located in the Arctic is the Earth’s magnetic north pole? In fact, it’s the magnetic south pole.

Unfortunately, these are not the only errors to be found in middle-school science textbooks. A recent study of the 12 physical science textbooks most commonly used in U.S. middle schools turned up not just one or two mistakes but hundreds of factual errors–in each book. And each contained diagrams representing impossible situations, plus descriptions of experiments that couldn’t possibly work.

“The science textbooks found in most American classrooms are, in a word, atrocious,” concluded the study’s author, North Carolina State University physics professor John L. Hubisz. “They are riddled with errors, sloppy thinking and glitzy illustrations that illustrate little in the way of actual science.”

If all middle-school teachers were trained in science, these errors could be noted and corrected for students, but that’s hardly the case. Four out of five middle-school science teachers didn’t take any physical science courses in college and so are unlikely to correct the kind of nonsense or sloppy expression that appears in many textbooks:

  • Nonsense: According to the Bernoulli principle, air moves faster over the top of a wing in order to arrive at the back end at the same time as the air that went under the wing (page 98 of Science Insights).
  • Random meanings of the word “electricity:” In one sentence, it means “energy,” in another it means “electric current,” and elsewhere it means “electric charge” (Chapter 11 of Science Insights).
  • Nonsense: Birds aren’t electrocuted when they perch on high voltage wire because each of the bird’s claws is in contact with only a small portion of the wire (Science Links, South-Western Educational Publishing, 1998).
  • Inconsistency: On page 422, readers are informed that “sound travels faster through warm air than through cold air,” but on page 434 they are told “sound travels faster in colder air” (Focus on Physical Science, Merrill Publishing Co., 1989).

It’s particularly important to get the facts correct at the middle-school level, says Hubisz, because students and adults hold firmly on to conceptions–or misconceptions–they learn early in life. With so many errors in what are supposed to be authoritative textbooks, it’s hardly surprising that U.S. eighth-graders rank poorly in international science and math tests, such as the Third International Math and Science Study.

Critical Thinking Impossible

Even some of the critical thinking exercises involve solutions that are impossible to carry out. For example, Prentice Hall’s Exploring Physical Science poses the following problem: “A barge filled to overflowing with sand approaches a bridge over the river and cannot quite pass under it. Should sand be added to or removed from the barge?” The teacher’s manual says to add sand, but if the barge already is “filled to overflowing,” that cannot be done.

Surprisingly, Hubisz found textbook publishers remarkably uninterested in his study, with none responding to his letter about the study and none willing to name a company liaison for him to work with. Reviewers also indicated publishers often did not correct reported errors from one edition to the next. In some cases, company officials insisted incorrect diagrams were accurate, and that mis-statements of fact also were accurate.

“States and school districts should not have to provide quality control measures for private enterprise publishers whose own procedure is so poor,” wrote one reviewer. “However, only those prospective buyers who now check the content have a chance of avoiding the really dumb errors.”

Hubisz delivered his final report to the study’s sponsor, the Packard Foundation, last October, after reducing some 500 pages of errors to a more readable 98-page report. When news of the study was broadcast in an Associated Press story in early January, Hubisz received 840 requests for copies in the following two weeks. Since posting the report to the Internet in mid-January (at http://psrc-online.org/curriculum/book.html), there have been almost 90,000 accesses.

The study may have raised concerns about other textbooks, too. The Texas Education Agency recently contracted with Texas A&M University for the University’s College of Science to produce a detailed report by the end of August on the factual accuracy of the 60 or so textbooks planned for use in the state’s middle-school and high-school classrooms in the 2002-2003 school year.

What Teachers Should Do

Hubisz’s report offers suggestions for what middle-school science teachers can do. His suggestions include forming a network with other teachers and local experts, checking the publisher’s Web site and other relevant sites, subscribing to “The Textbook Letter” at [email protected], and contacting Hubisz himself at [email protected] for further information.

For more information . . .

The full text of John L. Hubisz’ textbook report is available at http://psrc-online.org/curriculum/book.html.