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.

18 thoughts on “The Trouble With Textbooks

  1. Maha, I just read this and the Huffington Posts’ version of the story that highlighted some new changes (loads about how the “conservatives” [again – I don’t think today’s conservatives are conservative at all – they are nihilistic and dogmatic theons] have been in the midst of a “resurgence”, some nonsense about preserving McCarthy’s legacy(!) [who knew?], something about how the Constitution does not prevent the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others, refusing to call hip-hop a “culturally significant accomplishment” [do they know any black or latino people? not to mention white people who like hip-hop] Rush Limbaugh inspired garbage about how America isn’t a “democracy” but rather it is a “constitutional republic” [note–a republic is a specific form of democracy, just like a parliamentary system is–why are they so dumb?] and finally a de-emphasis on the separation between church and state…) So here are the significant changes. I just hope teachers are smart enough to make some copies of the Thomas Frank books explaining what a load of poo platter the text book is. Heck – kids can read blogs like this one too – my point is I doubt any of this matters. I never really read my text books in high school or at least don’t remember much about them. I recall a while ago on All things Considered they talked about how the Governator in California actually hopes to get rid of text books for wikipedia and the Internets. I’m not worried.

  2. Texas what a shithole wasteland, didn’t they want to secede? I say let it rip. I remember when I was in the Army (Ft. Sill OK) we would go down to Wichita Falls to party or the Dallas area to see a concert, I never had any fun in that dustbowl of a state, the people there were for the most part real asswipes, dimwitted and dull.

  3. Things could devolve into a situation where there will be a Red State edition and a Blue State edition, helpfully denoted by color coded covers. This bifurcation will simply mirror the two views of reality in this country. The next step will be to cut loose the red states from the Union (undoing Lincoln) and checking back in a few years to see how that conservative “education” is working out.

    I’m reminded of all those 1950-60s sci fi movies that were premised on an atomic holocaust followed by a bifurcation of the human race into troglodytes vs semi-human survivors. Texas proves you don’t need an atomic bomb.

    I read on a comment board somewhere that Texas libs are working to infiltrate, unseat, or otherwise change the balance of power on this Board, and so, of course the battle isn’t over, but it looks near term, like Texas is going to be an interesting conservative experiment over the next few years. I hope academics are getting ready to measure the social consequences, and I hope colleges and universities will beef up their entrance requirements to weed out those kids who never heard of Thomas Jefferson, etc.

    Given the massive retrenchment in education currently underway nationally because of the wrecked (conservative) economy, young Texans should be able to blend right in with the rest of the country in terms of academic underachievement in the years to come.

  4. If it makes any difference, even the Republicans down here in Texas seem to be getting fed up with the craziness. The March primaries have already gotten rid of some of the most “conservative” members of the Board of Education. Unfortunately, they still get to muck up the works for the remainder of their terms.

    And for the record…Not even most Texans are “real asswipes, dimwitted and dull.”

  5. Why not a consortium of states buying textbooks. CA s already larger than TX. How many more states have to adopt a standard to offset Texas stupid?

    And what the hell was NCLB for if this is still possible for anyway?

  6. I worked in scientific and legal publishing and have a idea about the textbook writing process. I do not envy the people having to develop a text book for Texas right now or the executives who have decide on how to proceed.

  7. In a yeah-it’s-awful-but-maybe-good-kinda way, I’m kinda, sorta glad it’s finally come down to this.

    For as many years as I can remember, Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas, reigned supreme as the final determinators of what passes for acceptable text books in the nation’s public schools. Goes even farther. They and their religious kin also worked their butts off to ban such books as “Catch Twenty-two”, “Huckleberry Finn”, and other “unsavory” books from assigned reading lists.

    Mostly they were dismissed as an irritant. And the text books they okayed were not alarmingly deficient in facts and content and did not–at least overtly–promote any particular idiological agenda.

    But the Texas Board of Education has now tipped the scales into a WTF territory that can no longer be ignored. Teachers can only pick and choose from those texts which are available. It is now an open market for any publisher worth his/her salt to wade in with a good product and put an end to the Texas cartel that has controlled education for so many years..

  8. And for the record…Not even most Texans are “real asswipes, dimwitted and dull.”

    Well I hate to generalize, and my comment was meant more as sarcasm, but you people did elect and re-elect again George Bush and Rick Perry consecutively, so…….

  9. I work for a textbook development house, and based on what I’ve seen, I would say that Texas basically rules the industry right now. A lot of publishers do their Texas editions first, then base the National edition on TX. Changes are made—reading selections are swapped out, some content is changed—but making changes costs money, so only the most essential changes are made, which means a lot of what is done for TX winds up going national.

    There is a set of national core standards that has been put together, and all but two states have adopted them (I forget which, but I think they are TX and AS?). The industry types I know are not fond of the national standards. I think they will be revised a few more times before they’re taken seriously.

    And don’t even get me started on NCLB.

    I agree, though, that the model will shift (and is already shifting, albeit slowly) away from big textbooks to more electronic resources. But, yeah, we’re not quite there yet.

  10. These are text books that tax payers will be paying for. That would be each and everyone one of us. I believe our tax dollars should be spent on quality.

    Texas Board of Education should deliver quality for our money or get out of the market and stop wasting our tax dollars.

    No tax dollars for crap.

  11. And for the record…Not even most Texans are “real asswipes, dimwitted and dull.” If anyone wants to read some good community plans check out the City of Austin’s Planning Website – they have really awesome planning in Austin.

  12. The Texas Board of Education deserves all the scorn heaped on it, but the elimination of Thomas Jefferson – admittedly for dumb, right-wing reasons – is kind of being overblown on the liberal blogs I read. From what I’ve read, Jefferson was eliminated from the list of influential political philosophers to be discussed in the world history textbook. My son is taking an AP World History class (in Maryland) and I’ve read parts of the textbook. As expected for a single book that tries to cover 6,000+ years of history of every region on the planet, the historical details are woefully incomplete. (And don’t get me started on AP classes, a profit-making scam foisted by the Educational Testing Service on gullible parents, gullible guidance counselors, and principals who like to advertise the number of AP students they have as a feather in their cap. Grrr …)

  13. The solution, as I see it, may be expensive, but it’s easy:
    1. Textbooks – for states that want their children to learn history and facts.
    2. Tex-books – for states that want a Soviet-like reinterpertation of history to bend to their feelings.
    And trading Thomas Jefferson for Phyllis Schlaffly just shows how stupid they are. That’s like trading a ’52 Mickey Mantle card for a ’78 Mario Mendoza (they named “The Mendoza Line” after him for batters who can’t reach .200 on their batting averages).

  14. The last time I was in Texas was driving cross country due to a Navy PCS in 1974. The time previous that I was in Texas was 1962. Same reason. Went thru Amarillo on the main route west and never stopped.

    The military unit, of which I am a member, is having a reunion in San Antonio this year. Sorry, I will not attend, specifically because it is in Texas.

    Speaking of the Navy, I was stationed with a guy once who, like most sailors, occasionally used four-letter words. And in that string of cuss words always appeared the word “texas.”

  15. Many years ago I worked in the school division of Houghton Mifflin, one of the largest K-12 publishers in the country. We also published the American Heritage Dictionary, which includes drawings to accompany many of its entries. The adoption committee objected to our inclusion of the drawing of a gorilla because its genitals were displayed, so in order to get past the adoption committee we had to ‘erase’ said genitals. They also objected to our definition of the word ‘lesbian’ and insisted that we change it solely to ‘a resident of the isle of Lesbos.’

    I can’t tell you the dozens of other changes they insisted on, but publishers in those days caved in repeatedly because the Texas adoption is so important to sales. Obviously, it has not changed very much in 30 years. When I moved to New York City in 1982, one of my colleagues said, ‘I always know when someone is from Texas; they don’t know who Charles Darwin was.’ Now it’s Thomas Jefferson who has been slimed. I wonder if we are going to have to rename the hundreds of high schools across the country, the capital of Missouri, and that Memorial with the Dome in Washington, DC.

    As someone who has returned to Texas after nearly 30 years, it is mortifying to me for the rest of the country to see how a few wing-nuts can hold education in this state hostage for teachers AND students. The Texas republican party and the current governor are a long-time party to this and should be held accountable too.

  16. High school social studies teacher here. Most social studies textbooks are such monoliths that there’s no way you can teach the entire thing. Maha is right, the movement toward electronic media is the wave of the future, but we’re not there yet. The most current idea is that the textbook is just one of many resources that are used. If anything on Phyllis Schlafly was in a textbook I was teaching out of, I just wouldn’t assign it. The real key is that the teachers have control of the education in their classroom, ultimately. My state doesn’t have a state test so there would be no reason to teach some of the more controversial content. It may be different in Texas where there might be a question on the state test on the Moral Majority. In which case, Texas is screwed.

  17. @ fshk

    I work for a textbook development house, and based on what I’ve seen, I would say that Texas basically rules the industry right now. A lot of publishers do their Texas editions first, then base the National edition on TX. Changes are made—reading selections are swapped out, some content is changed—but making changes costs money, so only the most essential changes are made, which means a lot of what is done for TX winds up going national.

    Texas leading the way in education – We are ALL at the ALAMO now.
    Kindle anyone?

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