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.