The Textbook Tango

Washington Monthly has a new article on how the Texas textbook adoption board is dictating the nation’s textbooks. This is nothing new, but if the article is right, the Texans are crazier than ever.

“Adoption” in this case is, of course, the practice of a state board of textbooks approving which textbooks may be used in public schools in that state. Obviously, textbook publishers go all out to please adoption committees so as not to be shut out of a chunk of the market.

What frustrates me about these articles on whackjob textbook committees is that no one ever goes to the textbook industry to find out what the industry plans to do to accommodate ever more elaborate demands. There is an assumption that the textbook industry will respond as it has in the past, by publishing national edition books that are mostly sterilized mush. And if a state requires something that would make the book unsalable in another state, usually these specifics involve rewording of a few paragraphs here or there, worked into state editions by means of a black plate change on the printing press.

In other words, the national editions are made as bland and unobjectionable to conservatives as possible without making them completely unusable in less-conservative markets. That way, the publisher needs to do only a little minor tweaking in the state editions. All the textbooks nationwide are still pretty much alike. However, the kinds of changes the Texas board is talking about are far more radical and pervasive than what I have seen in the past. I can’t see how the old strategy is going to work.

I found a chart showing which states are adoption states and which are not. This was compiled in 2005, and I’m not sure it’s up-to-date, although it could be. If you look at the list, you will notice that most of the adoption states are conservative. These also are states that tend to rank lower in achievement scores, although some are better (or worse) than others.

There are a number of non-adoption states that have big populations and lots of schoolchildren. These include Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The kinds of textbooks the Texas adoption committee wants would be laughed out of a large portion of school districts in those states, especially in high-population urban areas. So it seems to me the publishers will have to come up with big chunks of original material for Texas. The old trick of tweaking a blandly inoffensive national edition for sale in Texas ain’t gonna work.

And this would mean that the national editions finally will be less constrained by what Texas wants. I venture to guess that if the Texas economy remains weak in 2013, when the crazier rules go into effect, some publishers might consider sitting out the adoptions rather than throw tons of money into creating a unique textbook for an anemic market. I’m probably wrong about that, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

There’s a lot of interest in digitally published textbooks as the way to both bring down costs and easily accommodate the quirky requirements of the adoption committees. I understand there already are some downloadable textbooks that students can choose to read on their iPhones, kindles, or computers, or print out. I could see that working very well at college level, but I doubt many primary or secondary schools are equipped to provide all students with whatever technology they need to read digital textbooks.

Maybe someday a publisher will offer a school free kindles or nooks if it subscribes to their digital textbook series. But I can’t see handing out kindles to packs of third-grade boys and not expect most of them to be smashed or lost within a month.

8 thoughts on “The Textbook Tango

  1. I am a Texas teacher and am embarressed by the State Education Agency. Fortunately some of the worst members have been voted out. Your point about the Texas market is appropriate. We have a huge budget shortfall, and no matter what textbooks are approved, most districts are not buying new books.

    • most districts are not buying new books.

      And that’s significant. In the late 1980s I worked for the now defunct Silver Burdett, and then I went on to Prentice Hall, Scholastic, and McGraw Hill, mostly doing textbook and teacher’s edition production. So I know something about how textbooks get published. The publishers had worked out a way to accommodate Texas and other adoption states that probably added only a few pennies to the cost per book. But if Texas demands something that’s going to take a significantly larger investment on the publisher’s part, and the marketing research people don’t anticipate that many districts buying new textbooks, it’s possible some of the major publishers will sit out the next round of Texas adoptions. And the staffs of those publishers will let out a hearty hoorah, I can tell you.

      One of my Silver Burdett projects was a mathematics K-12, I think, series being written per the specifications of the California textbook committee. This committee had been taken over by some educators with some “cutting-edge” ideas about how to teach math, very much out of the mainstream. It was like New Math 6.2. They kept rejecting what publishers were submitting, so entire print runs were tossed, and staffs started over again. I understand the books that finally were adopted were a huge flop nationwide, and publishers lost a ton of money. And by the next round of adoptions, the California board had gone back to a more conventional approach to math.

      So anyone who has been in the industry long enough might remember that it doesn’t always pay to give the adoption committees whatever they want.

  2. So, while Texas’ coming budget crisis may hurt schools budgets there, it may aid education not only in that state, but in the rest of the country.
    I can live with that.

  3. Speaking as a high school social studies teacher, almost all textbooks are garbage. The basic format is antithetical to what is considered ‘best practice’ or good teaching. You’ll rarely find your best teachers using a textbook extensively. With the internet there is just so much else to use (and cheap copy machines) that decisions made in Texas just shouldn’t have the same impact on teaching in other states than they may have. As per electronic texts; it’s the future. I’m envisioning a different type of textbook that uses the internet almost exclusively with a tablet. The ‘textbook’ would simply be a set of links and activities associated with those links. Mucho moro fun for kids and learning will skyrockets. I know learning about important people is REALLY important in Texas, why not give the kids the list and ask them who should be included (I know, it’s 450+ people so it would need to be appended some). I’m guessing even the kids are smart enough to know that Phyllis Schlafly shouldn’t be on the list. Unless the list is of ‘dumbshit rightwingers’, then I think she’s good.

  4. Actually, here’s what’s happening now: Obama’s Race to the Top program was implemented last year, and it purports to be education reform, but it kept a lot of the worst parts of No Child Left Behind. However, it created national education standards (called the Common Core State Standards) which all but two states adopted. (The two abstentions are Texas and… Alaska? I don’t remember the other state off-hand, but I’m fairly certain it’s a red state.) So. Textbook publishers are all rushing to get national books based on the Common Core out now (most states are transitioning to the Common Core over the next couple of years). This is good news insofar as there was a trend for a few years there to do the Texas editions of textbooks first, because TX is by far the biggest adoption state, and then make the national based on TX. Which meant a lot of crazy TX nonsense was making its way into the national textbooks. So now I’m guessing most publishers are going to release two editions: Common Core and Texas. (There’s still some state customization, but now we—by which I mean the textbook industry—are doing a lot of supplements and “transitional guides” because a lot of states are still doing assessment/testing based on their state standards until 2012 or 2013 and need books in the meantime. So not even customizing books, but instead printing shorter booklets or replacement chapters if states are calling for them.) Still, nobody has any money, so a lot of the Common Core books are going to be based on old base programs, and yadda yadda—it’s not really starting over from scratch.

    States don’t have any money either, except for TX. Until a few years ago, CA was also a big adoption state, but they’re broke and not buying books for a while.

    I think etextbooks are totally the next wave, but publishers haven’t really figured that out yet. A good friend of mine is an elementary school teacher in CT who basically cobbles together her own textbooks from stuff she finds online (and some companies are making some pretty good money selling hand-outs and lesson plans as a single-shot deal instead of as part of a gargantuan textbook program). The Kindle/iPad pilot programs haven’t been that successful, but I think it’s only really a matter of time.

  5. You know what might be helpful?
    If we went back to before the 1980’s when we had the best public education system in the history of the world, and see what worked and what didn’t.
    Before Reagan and his ‘faith-based initiatives,’ and privatization, before vouchers, NCLB, ‘Race to the Top,’ before all of the BS of the past 30 years.
    We’re trying to reinvent something that worked pretty well before.
    Not perefect. But pretty damn good…

  6. Great info fshk. We’re in the process of adopting the common core in Social studies, but actually there’s not that much there. Essentially, make an argument and support it, no wonder TX is dragging its collective feet.

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