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Physics Textbooks Rife With Errors

How good are the textbooks used to teach physics to middle schoolers in the United States? Deplorable, according to a 2-year study funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation of Los Altos, California.

The study examined the 12 most popular textbooks used to teach 6th through 9th graders in the United States. It found "a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represented impossible situations." One experiment, for example, depicts a pin attached to a tuning fork to reveal the fork's oscillations. But the pin is shown in the wrong orientation and is supposed to be attached with candle wax, which wouldn't work. Another text confuses "force" and "acceleration" in describing the effect of gravity.

The authors of the 96-page report also complain that textbooks try to cover too much material and contain too much distracting fluff and flash, including irrelevant career information, attempts at multiculturalism, and photos of pop stars. A bad textbook is "one of the reasons that students get turned off by science," says physicist John Hubisz of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who headed the study.

All these ailments reflect a fundamental problem with the way the books are written, notes Uri Haber-Schaim, a former theoretical physicist and author of one of the few textbooks recommended by Hubisz. Most are composed by in-house publishing teams, with no individual accountable for the final product. In fact, Hubisz found few of those listed as authors actually considered themselves as such. He and Haber-Schaim agree that the committees that select textbooks for schools should be trained to be more critical. "If you educate the decision-makers, the market will force better textbooks," says Haber-Schaim. "Publishers may be greedy, but they are not evil."

Related sites
The full report is available online
The Textbook League, an advocacy group for better textbooks
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation