State’s $300,000 e-textbooks flunk out with critics

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The first batch of textbooks commissioned under a $600,000 state Department of Education grant is online and ready for Michigan social studies teachers and students with one catch: Some textbook experts and educators around the state are so disturbed by factual inaccuracies, poor grammar, overgeneralizations, clumsy word choices and cultural insensitivity, they are recommending teachers not use them in their classrooms.

Released in August, the first four books produced in the Michigan Open Book Project were written by Michigan social studies teachers. Their mission was to produce “dream” resources that teachers around the state could download to iPads and other electronic devices at no cost.

But educators who have reviewed the materials say the $300,000 spent to develop the e-books was largely a waste of resources. Teachers, even the best teachers, they say, aren’t trained to be professional textbook writers. Textbook publishers require layers of editing and professional review to produce books that have a high degree of specificity, accuracy and freedom from obvious bias — all qualities critics say are lacking in the Open Book Project works.

“It’s free, online, that’s awesome. But our kids deserve coherent, well-written materials,” says Darin Stockdill, a University of Michigan staff member and curriculum specialist, who has a UM doctorate in literacy, language and culture. He called the books he reviewed, on his own time, as “some of the most poorly designed social studies textbooks” he had ever seen.

An internal review from a Metro Detroit school district concluded that “all (the books) need significant editing and revision, if not complete re-writing.”

Oakland Intermediate Schools warned teachers to avoid downloading the e-books in its social studies fall newsletter.

“Despite the fact that these materials are free, Oakland Schools does not support the use of these materials with students,” the newsletter says, citing errors in factual content, poor grammar, conceptual inaccuracy and other problems. “We’re recommending that teachers avoid these materials,” said Amy Bloom, the social studies consultant for the intermediate school district.

Some of the books have so many errors of fact, grammar and interpretation that educators questioned whether any editors had done more than a cursory read. Problems of syntax, structure and overgeneralization abound. Cultural and racial insensitivity are also problematic, the reviewers found.

A fifth-grade American history text, for example, describes “American Indians ... getting sick and dying from heat ... so they were not hardy enough to do this work.”

It also describes slavery as a matter-of-fact adaptation to a labor shortage, without citing its human consequences: “This led Europeans to search for a new, inexpensive workforce. They found the workers they were looking for in Africa, enslaved them and took them ... to work on the plantations ... This economic exchange between continents had a huge impact.”

Another passage suggests to its fifth-grader audience: “As you read, think about why Africa would have been selected as a slavery center.”

“It makes it sound as if Africa was selected to be the site of a new shopping center,” Stockdill said.

The social studies textbook reviewer for a Wayne County school district said she is advising her district to stay away from the materials but no decision has yet been made. “I’ve been reviewing textbooks for 24 years and this is the worst I have ever seen,” she said in a Detroit News interview. “We’ve turned down a lot of books for a lot of reasons, but nothing like this.”

She said she hoped her district avoids them. “I’m recommending that the state remove them from public access,” she said.

The materials, which are presented digitally to look like textbooks, were developed in a year-long project that its director, David A. Johnson, says involved writers and editors working intensely. The writers, who spent one day in a group training session, were selected from a large group of applicants, all of them Michigan social studies teachers. They were asked to design the materials “based on what they would want their dream resource to be,” Johnson said.

He said he’d heard few complaints. Because the content is digital, mistakes can be corrected “within 48 hours,” he said. “That’s the beauty of being online.”

“We’re not Harcourt Brace, we’re not,” said Johnson, a former high school history teacher and current social studies consultant in the Upper Peninsula. “They have more resources than we could ever put into this project.” But he said he was proud of the product and emphasized that it was not intended to replace textbooks but to be an additional classroom resource.

Some critics admire the electronic bells and whistles that make the e-books fun to play with. But the links aren’t useful, they say, and children in low-income districts are those most likely to use the materials they describe as substandard. Michelle Fecteau, a member of the state board of education, says she is looking into the allegations.

“We’ve heard some concerns about the Open Book Project, and I think it probably deserves some investigation,” she said. “There probably needs to be more editing before these materials are posted.” Fecteau said she intends to bring up the issue at Tuesday’s state board of education meeting.

Stockdill, who has a 9-year-old son, agrees. “Come on,” he says. “These are our kids. They deserve quality.”


Laura Berman is the Detroit News metro columnist.

The books can be viewed or downloaded, free, at