Social studies teachers rely heavily on instruction dominated by textbooks. They organize their courses around textbooks, and they spend a good deal of class time on textbook assignments. They conduct recitation sessions on the textbook pages assigned the previous day; they introduce the next day's reading and allocate class time for students to get started doing it. To ensure that it does get done, they may direct students to read the text orally to one another in class. And periodically they administer quizzes and tests based on textbook chapters.
This tendency persists despite heavy criticism from within the profession. Leading social studies educators deplore the pattern of instructional minimalism it exemplifies. The pattern seems especially perverse in light of alternative possibilities. Possibilities for technologically enhanced instruction are more various and accessible than ever before, and research about the effects of several instructional innovations suggests they have much to offer.
Why, then, do social studies teachers hold fast to the routines of textbook-driven instructional minimalism? Are they, in this respect, irrational and uninformed? We address these questions in the study reported here. Beginning with a brief review of the record of practice, and the explanations ordinarily given for it, we introduce a new hypothesis and discuss the hypothesis in light of results obtained from a survey of teachers' thinking about the uses of textbooks.
Instructional Minimalism and Textbooks
Studies of instruction in American high schools generally report that teachers rely heavily on a narrow range of familiar practices.1 The practices are those of whole-group instruction, directed by teachers. Using the chalkboard or overhead projector, the teacher leads the class in a lecture-discussion routine, focused on assigned textbook readings and on handouts (which may also be associated with the textbook). The students' role typically is to respond to questions and to take notes.
Decades of studies show that social studies teachers are among those who depend heavily on textbooks. Their tendency to do so has fostered close scrutiny of the textbooks in question. Generally, the textbooks draw serious criticism. Beck and McKeown summarize a pattern of recurring complaints:
For example, in 1960, Alexander found history textbooks to be dull and lifeless, and lacking in critical interpretation and representation of different points of view. Palmer had similar complaints in 1967, citing "the absence of the analyses, the interpretation, the explanatory hypotheses and the conflicting points of view" (p. 141). Twelve years latter, FitzGerald saw textbooks as demonstrating "a fairly consistent level of dullness" (p. 150), lacking in explanation of ideas and "written without conflicts" (p. 155). Similar themes were sounded in 1988 by Sewall, who found texts to be drained of "voice, drama, and coherence" (p. 554) and devoid of explanations of the facts presented. White summed up the attributes of textbooks taken from a decade of reviews in Theory and Research in Social Education with the words "biased, bland, superficial and dull."2
Despite these criticisms, however, textbooks still dominate social studies instruction.3
While the complaints about social studies textbooks are well known, little has been written about why teachers actually persist in using them. Some impressionistic explanations are offered. For example, Shaver, Davis, and Helburn suggest that social studies teachers use textbooks because they view them as authoritative-something not to be challenged.4 They suggest that the socializing role played by teachers-to indoctrinate young people into American values-plays an important role in textbook use. The same authors also suggest that few teachers have experienced models of inquiry teaching which would constitute an alternative approach to textbook use.
Engle observes that expository teaching based on textbooks and teacher talk is done "without thinking too much, because it is assumed as the natural and traditional way to teach."5 Tyson-Bernstein and Woodward blame a "litany of anachronistic legislation, empty bureaucratic rituals, unresolved dilemmas and unintended side effects" which created a "textbook machine" which took on "a life of its own."6 Onosko, in seeking to explain why teachers do not pay more attention to higher level thinking skills, identifies barriers such as lack of planning time, poor student motivation, large class size, and expectations above coverage of content.7
The subtext of these explanations is that social studies teachers who use textbooks are:
It is a serious charge. But it rests on untested assumptions regarding textbook use per se. No theory has been formulated as a coherent framework for the assumptions, and no theory-driven research has been carried out to verify the claims in question.
Public Choice Theory 101
This purpose of this study is to approach the problem of textbook use from a different perspective, drawn from economics and used in political science. The perspective is that of public choice theory, which has never been applied to the instructional practices of teachers. That might seem unsurprising, since economic analysis is most often associated with the study of financial decisions in private markets. However, in recent years, economists have begun to investigate other aspects of life. Prejudice, marriage, family life, and altruism all have been the subjects of investigation by ground-breaking economists such as James M. Buchanan, Gary S. Becker, Victor R. Fuchs, and Richard B. McKenzie and Gordon Tullock.8
Similar extensions of economic reasoning can be used in social education research, yielding new insights into the behavior of students and teachers in public schools. Public choice theory regards social studies teachers, like other people, as individuals who make decisions while facing scarcity-striving to find the best combination of costs and benefits, responding to incentives, facing competition, and participating in exchanges that offer the prospect of mutual gain. An exposition of these points might help to elaborate these theoretical assumptions.
Social studies teachers face scarcity. Time, for example, is scarce. Teachers are limited by the number of minutes available each day for instruction. Given the condition of scarcity, social studies teachers, like others, are forced to choose among alternatives. Choice among scarce resources always involves an opportunity cost. The use of scarce time to prepare a lesson, for example, means that the time is not used for other things such as individual meetings with students.
Social studies teachers, like individuals in the private sector, make decisions in order to gain the best combination of anticipated costs and benefits. These costs and benefits need not be financial. They may include other things social studies teachers value, such as reduced class size, well-organized instructional materials, or working with motivated students. In this sense, social studies teachers are self-interested and purposeful in their day-to-day actions.
Public choice theory suggests that individual behavior within schools is motivated by incentives and that these incentives are different for producers (teachers) and consumers (students). Monetary rewards certainly do matter to teachers. But teachers, like other people, also consider other incentives-including, for example, security, recognition, travel, access to information, and satisfaction derived from seeing young people learn. Because such incentives influence teachers' decisions, we can predict actions they might take.
Mutual gain, viewed by economists as the basis for exchange or trade, can also be a reason for the use of textbooks. In the marketplace, consumers demand goods and services, and producers face strong incentives to supply the goods and services demanded. In the social studies classroom, the "exchange" element in the relationship between consumers (students) and producers (teachers) is less obvious. Teachers offer instruction to students at various costs to students. Some teachers drive a hard bargain, expecting much of their students; others do not. What might this have to do with instructional minimalism-with the fact that many teachers offer instruction which makes heavy use of the textbook and little use of other innovations?
Students-the consumers-enter into exchanges with teachers. They offer teachers their cooperation or willingness to learn in exchange for the instruction teachers put before them. Their cooperation acts as an incentive. Attending class, completing assignments, participating in discussions, performing well on examinations-these student responses influence teachers' offers. If students cooperate with teachers who use textbooks, we would expect teachers to respond by providing textbook-based instruction.
Through this process of exchange in the classroom, an instructional equilibrium will be established. Teachers' offers of instruction will adjust over time to what works well with students.
Applying Public Choice Theory to Textbook Use
We conducted a survey of social studies teachers in one state, posing questions about their use of textbooks as a first step toward testing some of the assumptions of public choice theory as they might help to explain textbook use.
We assumed that teachers would report relatively high use of textbooks, judging this choice as the one providing them the best combination of costs and benefits. Why? First, textbooks assist teachers in planning courses, units, and lessons. Textbook publishers take great care to organize text material in ways that teachers find attractive. Second, publishers provide many ancillary materials. Recently published social studies textbooks are accompanied by posters, map sets, color transparencies, test banks, computer tutorials, and videos. Teachers find these ancillaries attractive. Third, teachers care about helping students learn. Teachers are likely to depend on textbooks if they believe that textbooks assist students in learning.
Five hundred randomly selected social studies teachers in one midwestern state were mailed questionnaires; 241 usable questionnaires were returned, representing 48 percent of those sent. Two-thirds of the respondents were males, and more than half (52 percent) had taught social studies for more than 16 years. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents reported being from small towns; 25 percent were from urban areas, 20 percent from suburban areas, and 13 percent from rural areas. Fifty percent reported having earned a master's degree or higher. Most (54 percent) were middle school teachers; the remainder reported teaching at the high school level. Fifty-one percent of the teachers taught U.S. history; 41 percent taught geography, 35 percent taught government, and 33 percent taught world history.
The questionnaire used in the study was designed for this project. It was developed and piloted with a group of teachers enrolled in a graduate course. It included a four point Likert-type scale which invited the teachers to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with questions associated with textbook use.
The survey data were first analyzed by examining average scores reporting the level of and reasons for textbook use. Table 1 shows that the social studies teachers in this survey, like teachers responding in other studies, reported fairly high levels of textbook use. They also plan to continue to use textbooks. When asked if they planned to use the textbook next year, the average was 3.17 on a four point scale.
Table 2 shows average scores for reasons teachers gave regarding textbook use. The teachers were asked about the expectations of others regarding textbook use. For example, the participants were asked to respond to such statements as: "I use a textbook because my students seem to expect it" or "My principal expects me to use a textbook." The average scores regarding the expectations of people outside the classroom were relatively low, showing that teachers disagreed that these were important factors. The teachers rated student expectations (2.16), parents' expectations (2.23), and principal expectations (2.26) lower than the instructional reasons.
Teachers' views on the instructional use of textbooks were reflected in responses to statements such as: "Textbooks help me organize my teaching activities." The average scores regarding the instructional value of the textbook were higher. The scores were found on items which addressed additional materials that come with texts (3.06); the assistance textbooks provide in organizing for instruction (2.99); and teacher confidence in books to help students learn (2.91).
The relationship between reported levels of textbook use and reasons for use was also examined. Reasons for use fell into two categories. One included external reasons for textbook use-expectations from students, parents, and principals. The second category included variables more directly related to instruction-organization for teaching, access to additional instructional materials, coverage of content, knowledge of the textbook authors, the ability of students to learn from textbooks, and the encouragement of other members of the social studies department. Table 3 reports a series of correlations between reasons having to do with instruction and those having to do with expectations of people outside the classroom. Overall textbook use correlates highly and significantly with variables related to instruction. Similarly, the expectation of using a textbook next year is highly and significantly correlated with variables related to instruction.
Finally, statistical tests were run to check for differences regarding teachers' gender, years of teaching experience, age, location, grade level, courses taught, and highest degree earned on the frequency of textbook use and reasons for use. Two significant differences were identified. Both were unexpected. First, there was a significant difference (f=3.029, df=4, p.02) between years of teaching experience and teachers' rating of external reasons for textbook use. Teachers with more years of teaching experience assigned greater importance to external reasons for textbook use than did teachers with less teaching experience. Second, there was a significant difference (f=10.28, df=1, p.01) between male and female social studies teachers. Male social studies teachers assigned more importance to external reasons for textbook use than did female social studies teachers.
The survey results, while not definitive, generally support the predictions made according to the assumptions of public choice theory. The results suggest social studies teachers believe that textbooks provide them with instructional benefits. Teachers report that textbooks are an important tool for organizing class activities. They report that the additional materials that accompany textbooks-testbanks, worksheets, maps, and posters-are important sources of satisfaction to them. Teachers express confidence in the knowledge and authority of textbook authors. Finally, teachers are convinced that textbooks help young people to learn social studies.
The teachers surveyed here assigned less importance to the concerns of people other than teachers, such as principals, parents, and students. In other words, the survey results suggest that teachers use textbooks because they choose to use them-not because they are pressured to by others.
These results, when examined from the perspective of public choice theory, suggest that teachers find textbooks an attractive tool for instruction. The benefits derived from textbook use-help with organizing for instruction and the confidence that textbooks are fundamental to learning-outweigh any concerns about the criticisms of textbooks, and the pattern of instruction associated with them, expressed so frequently by critics. In other words, social studies teachers teach with textbooks because that is their preferred mode of instruction. The textbooks they use are the textbooks they wish to have.
In reporting that the teachers surveyed here hold favorable attitudes toward textbook use, we do not endorse the implied pattern of instructional minimalism. We seek merely to understand why social studies teachers make the choices they do. If the results reported here are credible, then critics of textbook use, or of the content and organization of textbooks, must come to grips with this fact: until the reward structures in schools change or until curriculum developers come up with instructional materials which are more attractive to teachers than those produced by current publishers, little is likely to change.
Males and teachers with more years of teaching experience rate external reasons for textbook use higher. What might explain this outcome? We can only speculate. Rutter reports that social studies teachers assume many responsibilities in schools.9 Social studies teachers, most of whom are male, are often involved in coaching athletics or other extracurricular activities. Such activities bring them into frequent contact with members of the community and the school administration. Perhaps relationships beyond the classroom magnify the importance of expectations from students, parents, and administrators regarding textbook use. In a similar fashion, additional years of experience may deepen teachers' relationships with the families of students and school administrators. Perhaps these relationships over time increase teachers' attention to the expectations of these groups regarding textbook practices.
This study has limitations. The teachers surveyed represent teachers from one state. The data were collected by means of a mailed questionnaire calling for a self-report of practices and explanations. There were no on-site observations to examine how well teachers' responses conformed with actual instructional choices. Also, the analysis of the data is relatively straightforward. More elaborate questionnaires with larger samples might yield different results. Finally, some results, such as those involving differences related to years of teaching experience and gender, are, as yet, not well explained.
Still, the data are consistent with two conclusions. First, social studies teachers make thoughtful choices about textbooks, based on anticipated costs and benefits. Teachers are not a separate band of humanity whose behavior is somehow unique or irrational. Second, social studies teachers do not appear to be victims of misguided school bureaucracies or coercive communities. Bureaucracies may be misguided, but even when they are, we think, teachers who work in them strive to make the best choices possible, given the rules of the game and the available alternatives.
These conclusions suggest the need for a new perspective on reform activity in social education. Critics who wish to change textbooks and textbook-related teaching strategies will continue to be unsuccessful until they come to grips with the fact that teachers use textbooks because that is their preferred approach. Teachers are aware of their alternatives and will seek different teaching materials and strategies if they believe they can gain by doing so. Thus, the task of reformers is a daunting one. Better textbooks and more adventurous instruction will not be developed until teachers demand to have them.
Rating of Textbook Use (n=234)
Average ScoreStandard Deviation
Rating of use2.87.792
Use next year3.17.461
Variables Influencing Textbook Use (n=231)
Average ScoreStandard Deviation
Students' expectations 2.16.849
Confidence in authors2.72.617
A score above 2.5 indicates an overall tendency by teachers to agree that their textbook use is influenced by the reason cited; a score below 2.5 indicates their disagreement that their textbook use is influenced by this reason.
Correlations of Textbook Use and External and Instructional Variables
Frequency of UseUse Next Year
1. See, for example, Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 1993); John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw, Hill, 1984); James Hoetker and William Ahlbrand, "The Persistence of the Recitation," American Educational Research Journal 6 (1969): 145-167.
2. Isabel L. Beck and Margaret G. McKeown, "Substantive and Methodological Considerations for Productive Textbook Analysis," in Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, edited by James P. Shaver (New York: Macmillan, 1991), p. 115.
3. See, for example, Larry Cuban. "History of Teaching in Social Studies" in James P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991); James P. Shaver, O. L. Davis, Jr., and Suzanne W. Helburn, "The Status of Social Studies Education: Impressions from Three NSF Studies" in Social Education 43 (February 1979): 150-153.
4. Shaver, Davis and Helburn, op. cit.
5. Shirley H. Engle, "Late Night Thoughts About the New Social Studies" in Social Education 50 (4), 20.
6. Harriet Tyson-Bernstein and Arthur Woodward, "The Great Textbook Machine and Prospects for Reform" in Social Education 50 (January 1986), 43-44.
7. Joseph J. Onosko, "Barriers to the Promotion of Higher-Order Thinking in Social Studies" in Theory and Research in Social Education, 19 (4), 341-366.
8. See James M. Buchanan, Constitutional Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991); Gary S. Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1976); Victor R. Fuchs, How We Live (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Richard B. .McKenzie and Gordon Tullock, The Best of the New World of Economics (Homewood, IL: Irwin, 1989).
9. Robert A. Rutter. "Profile of the Profession" in Social Education 50 (April/May, 1986): 252-255.
Mark C. Schug is Director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Richard D. Western is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Larry G. Enochs is Director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The authors wish to thank Wayne Walker, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee McNair Intern, for his assistance in developing this manuscript.