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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1995

Reviewing a middle-school book in physical science

Prentice Hall Exploring Physical Science
1995. 818 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-806969-7.
Prentice Hall, 113 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Paramount Communications,
which is a part of the entertainment company Viacom Inc.)

Educators Should Avoid This Book Like the Plague

Lawrence S. Lerner

Other than format, there's almost nothing new about Prentice Hall Exploring Physical Science. In terms of content, this book is little more than an assembly of material taken from some books of the Prentice Hall Science (or PHS) series -- nineteen slim volumes, dated in 1993, that Prentice Hall issued three years ago.

I had the unpleasant task of reviewing three of those PHS books: Motion, Forces, and Energy and Heat Energy and Electricity and Magnetism. All three of my reviews were strongly unfavorable, and all three emphasized the books' egregious conceptual and factual errors, pedagogic mistakes and editorial defects. [See The Textbook Letter for November-December 1992, January-February 1993, and November-December 1993.]

If Exploring Physical Science consists largely of material that we've seen and loathed before, then why review this book at all? One reason is to give some idea of how bad the book is, so educators will know that they should avoid it like the plague. Another reason is to share some thoughts about Prentice Hall's attitude toward students and teachers, as I'll do in the last third of this review.

Dreadfully Wrong Material

Exploring Physical Science is full of diligently preserved nonsense. I can cite only a few items in the space available here, but I think they will suffice to show how the editors of Exploring Physical Science have reused old, dreadfully wrong material. I'll begin with examples from the student's edition, and I'll include some cases that involve simple defects which could have been corrected with minimal effort. That Prentice Hall has not corrected them is an important point.

Similar cases abound in the teacher's edition of Exploring Physical Science, which reuses pedagogic tips and background notes from the teacher's editions of some PHS books. For instance:

Here is my recommendation to educators: Exploring Physical Science is as bad as its PHS predecessors, and it should be avoided at all costs. To use no textbook at all would be a far better choice than to use this one.

Meet a "V.P./Publisher"

What kind of people are responsible for books like Exploring Physical Science? I learned a little about this after my review of the PHS volume Motion, Forces, and Energy appeared in The Textbook Letter, because a Prentice Hall executive named Diana Reid issued a letter in which she tried to reply to certain of the comments that I had made.

The letter, typed on Prentice Hall stationery and signed by Reid in her role as "V.P./Publisher, Science & Health," was dated "March 1993" and began with "Dear Colleague." The vague date and broad salutation implied that this document was intended for distribution to all the educators who had seen my review and had asked Prentice Hall about it. Neither Reid nor anyone else at Prentice Hall ever communicated with me about my review, but a copy of Reid's "Dear Colleague" letter found its way to me indirectly. At the time, I put it aside with a chuckle. Now, however, after the publication of Exploring Physical Science, the letter seems most apposite and worthy of another look.

Reid began the text of her letter with some puff, such as the claim that "Prentice Hall instructional material is built with the most rigorous research and review techniques in the industry." (If true, that's a brutal indictment of "the industry"!) Then she turned to the topic at hand: "In the November/December [1992] issue of The Textbook Letter," she wrote, "there's an article that purports to be a review of the Prentice Hall Science Learning System . . . ." (In fact, I've never written about any "learning system," and my review in that issue of TTL was explicitly a review of one book: Motion, Forces, and Energy.) She went on to say that my review was "not a review" because it was "unbalanced" and "biased"; maybe she was referring to my bias in favor of teaching science rather than nonsense. Next, she told her readers to "Note our response (attached)." Then she accused me of using "offensive" language, and she closed with some more puff.

The "response (attached)" that came with Reid's letter was an unsigned, addendum, divided into items that corresponded to some (but definitely not all) of my remarks about Motion, Forces, and Energy. It presumably had been written by Reid, though it might have been produced for her by some of the informants who do Prentice Hall's "rigorous research and review" work. In any case, it apparently represented the level of scientific expertise available in the company's "Science & Health" corner. Here are summaries of a few of items that the addendum contained:

Though my review had cited various defects and absurdities in the teacher's edition of Motion, Forces, and Energy, Reid said nothing about these.

The entire episode, I believe, says much about Prentice Hall's view of education and educators. When my analysis showed that material in a Prentice Hall book was sadly defective, an executive responded with semantic gyrations, evasions and facile promises, instead of taking sound steps to ensure that the material would be corrected or discarded.

From this I infer that Prentice Hall's attitude is: Our business is selling books -- no matter if they are junk, and no matter what the effects on teachers and students may be.


Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He served on the panel that wrote the 1990 framework for science education in California's public schools, and he is a director of The Textbook League.

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