Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Saturday, March 13th, 2010.

The Trouble With Textbooks


By now you’ve probably heard that the Texas Board of Education has adopted standards for Texas public school textbooks that only a wingnut could love. Texas public school children will now be taught revisionist “history” and fundamentalist Christian propaganda in place of actual facts. They’ve even eliminated Thomas Jefferson. See also “Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change” in the New York Times and “Revisionaries” at Washington Monthly.

As Steve M. says, actual scholars were absent from the process. I doubt they were invited.

I will be interested to see how the textbook industry responds to this. Texas is the second-largest textbook market in the nation; Number One is California. In the past, we could probably have counted on the California adoption committee to nix the Texas revisions and demand a normal textbook. But I understand California public schools will not be buying new textbooks anytime soon.

Of the other 20 or so other states with textbook adoption policies, none have the market clout to countermand Texas, and most are in the South and Midwest anyway. The liberal northeast and Pacific coast states mostly allow local school boards to make textbook purchase decisions. Right now upper-level managers of U.S. textbook publishers no doubt are having long, intensive meetings and phone conferences trying to decide what to do about Texas.

For many years, textbook publishers have cranked out state-specific editions that meet individual adoption states’ guidelines, but the differences between state and national editions were mostly minor tweaks accommodated by black plate changes in the press run. Usually this meant that all editions had the same layout and illustrations, but where there had to be state-specific text, the black plate would be changed for the state print run, and the magenta, cyan, and yellow plates would stay in place. (See explanation of four-color process if this is confusing.) Years ago I did work on a social studies series in which the Texas and national editions had one chapter entirely different, but that was unusual.

However, since black plate changes are avoided as much as possible for the sake of economy, what Texas and California want in their textbooks influences everyone’s textbooks. Text is carefully written (by contracted development houses that work for all the publishers) to mince around anything that would piss off adoption committees, insuring that the text is thin, tasteless but non-controversial gruel. But the pictures are nice.

But this time the Texas revisions are so extensive I don’t see how the black plate change dodge alone would work. Publishers are likely to end up with books that are unsalable anywhere but in Texas and a few other, mostly rural, states. It is possible publishers will choose to publish Texas editions that are substantially different from national and other state editions. This will crank up the cost of individual textbooks even more than they are already, but the publishers may feel they don’t have a choice. I doubt anyone will choose to opt out of the Texas market.

I also think that someday big, behemoth textbook series will become as extinct as dinosaurs, and instead teachers will rely more on electronic content and on-demand printed literature, small print runs printed with newer digital technology instead of the big honking CMYK web presses. We’re not quite there yet, though.

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