Big Bang for Just a Few Bucks: The Impact of Math Textbooks in California

February 9, 2017

CEPR-Affiliated Researcher Morgan Polikoff co-authored the following EdNext article, which investigates the impact of textbooks in California. Polikoff will continue his evaluation of textbooks through the CEPR project, National Evaluation of Curriculum Effectiveness. 

Executive Summary

Textbooks are one of the most widely used educational inputs, but remarkably little is known about their effects on student learning. This report uses data collected from elementary schools in California to estimate the impacts of mathematics textbook choices on student achievement. We study four of the most popular books in the state from 2008-2013 and find that one—Houghton Mifflin California Math—consistently outperforms the other three. The superior performance of California Math persists up to four years after adoption and shows up in grades 3, 4, and 5.

The textbook impacts we identify are educationally meaningful and come at an extremely low cost. With regard to cost, textbooks are relatively inexpensive and tend to be similarly priced. The implication is that the marginal cost of choosing a more effective textbook over a less effective alternative is essentially zero. In terms of achievement impacts, our findings suggest non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials. The effect sizes we document are on par with what one could expect from a hypothetical policy that substantially increases the quality of the teaching workforce. But whereas there is much uncertainty about whether commensurate increases in teacher quality are attainable, and how they might be attained—at least in the near term—choosing a more effective textbook is a seemingly straightforward policy option for raising student achievement.


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