Widely Adopted History Textbooks


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The American Textbook Council is often asked to provide usage lists and sales rankings of the nation’s widely adopted history textbooks. The Council cannot provide such information, which is usually proprietary and not available outside textbook companies. The details of textbook volume and sales have never been easy to obtain. Today these numbers and data are harder than ever to calculate. The number of major school publishers has dropped from about a dozen to three. Major publishers do their best to keep their products and their performance opaque.

The Council's databases, developed since 1986, survey publishers’ websites, key states, and large school districts to determine what are the nation's most widely adopted textbooks in history and social studies. They track stand-alone volumes in several editions and titles.

The instructional materials that mass-market publishers develop and publish have at best tangential connections with these traditional author-based textbooks. New, radically reconstituted programs - packaged and ornamental, not authored or text-centered - and the apparent departure of most established textbooks - leave the Council no option but to discontinue lists and rankings of social studies textbooks as it has done in the past.

Textbook choice for teachers has in recent decades shrunk to almost nothing. Text-light picture books and easy readers are now almost universal; content distinctions between books are minor, and at the K-6 level, almost indistinguishable. The wide-scale shift in elementary schools to whiteboard learning and other computer-based instruction makes the standard textbook one of many media in many classrooms, not the center of teaching and learning. In high schools projects and activities frequently substitute for reading and memorization. The challenge to literacy and serious historical thought is obvious.

In roughly the last five years, since 2010, the three remaining major K-12 publishers - Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - have re-branded and scrambled earlier products. Odious new instructional materials, notably Teachers Curriculum Institute materials (TCI) have gained classroom prominence, indicating the trend toward less demanding, more progressive, multicultural classroom products favored among teachers. Compounding the problem, state textbook adoptions have lost their force.

Determined teachers with some autonomy in textbook selection can try to find and purchase copies of backlisted or “classic” textbooks with older copyrights. Teachers should keep in mind: older books used in history courses are not “worse” books, even books bought with copyrights that are ten years old. Some established older textbooks and editions are available for purchase on publishers’ websites. Teachers can buy out-of-print textbooks through third-party sellers (albeit in small numbers) on the Internet.

The Council cannot recommend any Pearson middle- or high-school social studies textbook titles. Pearson apparently has taken out of print three established Prentice Hall textbooks, Boorstin’s History of the United States, Cayton’s Pathways to the Present, and Davidson’s American Nation. Prentice Hall now issues its widely used world history, Connections to Today, with a generic World History title.

In secondary-level U.S. history McGraw-Hill’s Glencoe offers the “best” of the easy readers, the popular program, American Journey. Glencoe’s Human Heritage is an established, satisfactory middle-school world history.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Holt McDougal publishes The Americans in high-school U.S. history and Patterns of Interaction in high-school world history. These two full-service programs are the most instructionally sound textbook choices available to teachers who must choose from K-12 materials and are recommended.

Given the absence of quality and choice in standard-issue K-12 social studies textbooks, one that stands in stark contrast to textbook publishing a generation ago, the Council strongly recommends that high school teachers consider the use of a “college level” textbook of the kind employed in honors and Advanced Placement courses.

College Level Textbooks for High School Students

Fifteen to twenty-five major college-level American History survey textbooks exist, depending on one’s markers and metrics. College books - so designated - are recommended for all able high school students, not only Advanced Placement students. Many college surveys are relatively easy to read - they are designed for community colleges and made to be readable to the English challenged. College-level textbooks have stronger narrative threads and greater substance. They are more readable. They make more episodic and chronological sense than the fragmented, text-light fare in 8-12 grade offerings. Some leading U.S. history textbooks include:

Brinkley Unfinished Nation McGraw Hill
Divine America Past and Present Prentice Hall
Faragher Out of Many Prentice Hall
Henretta America’s History Bedford/Macmillan
Kennedy The American Pageant Houghton Mifflin/Cengage
Norton A People and a Nation Houghton Mifflin/Cengage
Tindall America: A Narrative History Norton

Texas History Standards and Textbook Adoption

Click for 2010 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies Code.

In November 2014 a divided Texas State Board of Education adopted new social studies instructional materials for classroom use starting in the 2015-2016 academic school year. (It has not done so for more than a decade.) This ends years of ideological conflict and political warfare over history curriculum content that has attracted national attention and stirred partisan complaints over history textbooks. 

In 2010, the Texas state board of education adopted controversial social studies standards that have determined the content of Texas state instructional materials. At the time members of the Christian Right on the state board were vocal defenders of standards that progressives in Texas and elsewhere felt strongly were outside the boundaries of acceptable history. After that, liberals charge, textbook publishers surrendered to a version of American and world history that is tainted by Christian bias, whitewashes free enterprise, soft pedals slavery, and is deficient or worse when it comes to women, blacks, gays and Muslims. 

The facts are, the Texas history standards generally conform to what is already in the nation’s textbooks. The state’s religious right does not exert unique sway over publishers. Texas is an important educational market but not make-or-break nationally and hasn't been for decades. This is true more than ever with changing instructional materials and classroom styles. 

If there is any larger meaning in Texas, it is that Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – the three publishers that have a lock on K-12 textbooks – produce nearly identical “products” to be sold in Texas and nationwide. Scrubbed and focus-tested to be “teacher friendly” and “inclusive,” today’s cartoonish, text-light, diversity-themed social studies readers are imbedded in multimedia “programs.” They are pitched to the least capable instructors and students, designed to sell in every state and district. 

Furthermore, when it comes to history textbooks, identity politics rules in Texas and the nation. The dumbing-down of general education and diversity-based learning continues, ratified in the social studies textbooks now to be used in an important state.

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