American companies sell about $11 billion in textbooks each year. So why does social studies teacher Mark Ingerson never use them in his classes at Salem High School in Virginia?
He doesn’t assign the old print volumes, nor the fashionable new online editions. He has James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio’s much-praised “American Government: Institutions and Policies” on shelves only because he read that the Advanced Placement program requires a textbook.
His students haven’t had to lug home those doorstops in years. He didn’t use them when he taught regular world history, nor does he now, his second year teaching AP U.S. Government and Politics. AP students might actually read them, but Ingerson doesn’t want them to do that.
“I feel social studies textbooks are useless. Way too much information,” Ingerson, 46, said. “They mention everything, therefore students remember nothing.” A devotee of Daniel Willingham and Barak Rosenshine, experts on how children learn, Ingerson said, “I believe without a shadow of a shred of a doubt that if you want students to think and analyze, you have to first master the basic content vocabulary and skills, and really practice them.”
This past year teaching AP, he had each student compile 200 flash cards. They repeatedly paired up to quiz each other. “I wanted students to know the material so well that if I said “Federalist 10,” literally any student could spout off three to four specific ideas that made that document important and could use that in an argument,” he said.
Ingerson knows many teenagers will not master material on their own. Pairing up to review with friends is a popular break in every one of his classes. “They think it’s fun,” he said. “When students master content and then are able to apply it, it’s confidence-producing. It’s far more meaningful and lasting than checking how many likes they got on Instagram.”
If there are no textbooks, what do they read? “Real articles from a variety of sources and just tons of data,” he said. “We analyze polls, maps, economic data, budgets, etc., constantly.” His students do “close reads of all primary sources, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, excerpts from Supreme Court cases,” he said. Vocabulary is absorbed through repeated practice: monetary vs. fiscal policy, Federal Reserve, Keynesian, supply-side.
“I show them quarterly GDP growth going back 30 to 40 years, and I pick out low growth parts and have student pairs discuss what the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy would be,” he said. They can’t be ready for a three-hour AP exam unless “they have mastered the terms and everything they mean.”
Telling even AP students to take lecture notes and read the textbook is often not enough. Ingerson’s students study original sources and deeper articles. His high school encourages this. Trevor Packer, director of the College Board’s AP program, said the program is putting out new free materials similar to what Ingerson is using. Packer said AP teachers do not need textbooks if their curriculum is as rich as Ingerson’s.
The national average passing rate (percentage receiving grades of 3, 4 or 5) for the 2019 AP Government and Politics exam was 55 percent. The passing rate for Ingerson’s 89 students, half 10th-graders and the rest 11th- and 12th-graders, was 93 percent.
In previous years as a world history teacher, he had 120 students in four classes. Ninety-five percent passed the Virginia Standards of Learning exam, half or more with advanced scores.
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