Some years ago, I signed on as an editor at a major publisher of elementary school and high school textbooks, filled with the idealistic belief that I'd be working with equally idealistic authors to create books that would excite teachers and fill young minds with Big Ideas.
I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, "The books are done and we still don't have an author! I must sign someone today!"
Every time a friend with kids in school tells me textbooks are too generic, I think back to that moment. "Who writes these things?" people ask me. I have to tell them, without a hint of irony, "No one." It's symptomatic of the whole muddled mess that is the $4.3 billion textbook business.
Textbooks are a core part of the curriculum, as crucial to the teacher as a blueprint is to a carpenter, so one might assume they are conceived, researched, written, and published as unique contributions to advancing knowledge.
In fact, most of these books fall far short of their important role in the educational scheme of things. They are processed into existence using the pulp of what already exists, rising like swamp things from the compost of the past. The mulch is turned and tended by many layers of editors who scrub it of anything possibly objectionable before it is fed into a government-run "adoption" system that provides mediocre material to students of all ages.
Welcome to the Machine
The first product I helped create was a basal language arts program. The word basal refers to a comprehensive package that includes students' textbooks for a sequence of grades, plus associated teachers' manuals and endless workbooks, tests, answer keys, transparencies, and other "ancillaries." My company had dominated this market for years, but the brass felt that our flagship program was dated. They wanted something new, built from scratch.
Credit: Monte Wolverton
Sounds like a mandate for innovation, right? It wasn't. We got all the language arts textbooks in use and went through them carefully, jotting down every topic, subtopic, skill, and subskill we could find at each grade level. We compiled these into a master list, eliminated the redundancies, and came up with the core content of our new textbook. Or, as I like to call it, the "chum."
But wait. If every publisher was going through this same process (and they were), how was ours to stand out? Time to stir in a philosophy.
By philosophy, I mean a pedagogical idea. These conceptual enthusiasms surge through the education universe in waves. Textbook editors try to see the next one coming and shape their program to embody it.
The new ideas are born at universities and wash down to publishers through research papers and conferences. Textbook editors swarm to events like the five-day International Reading Association conference to pick up the buzz. They all run around wondering, What's the coming thing? Is it critical thinking? Metacognition? Constructivism? Project learning?
At those same conferences, senior editors look for up-and-coming academics and influential educational consultants to sign as "authors" of the textbooks that the worker bees are already putting together back at the shop.
Once a philosophy has been fixed on and added, we shape the pulp to fit key curriculum guidelines. Every state has a prescribed compendium of what kids should learn -- tedious lists of bulleted objectives consisting mostly of sentences like this:
"The student shall be provided content necessary to formulate, discuss, critique, and review hypotheses, theories, laws, and principles and their strengths and weaknesses."
If you should meet a textbook editor and he or she seems eccentric (odd hair, facial tics, et cetera), it's because this is a person who has spent hundreds of hours scrutinizing countless pages filled with such action items, trying to determine if the textbook can arguably be said to support each objective.
Of course, no one looks at all the state frameworks. Arizona's guidelines? Frankly, my dear, we don't give a damn. Rhode Island's? Pardon me while I die laughing. Some states are definitely more important than others. More on this later.
Eventually, at each grade level, the editors distill their notes into detailed outlines, a task roughly comparable to what sixth-century jurists in Byzantium must have faced when they carved Justinian's Code out of the jungle of Roman law. Finally, they divide the outline into theoretically manageable parts and assign these to writers to flesh into sentences.
What comes back isn't even close to being the book. The first project I worked on was at this stage when I arrived. My assignment was to reduce a stack of pages 17 inches high, supplied by 40 writers, to a 3-inch stack that would sound as if it had all come from one source. The original text was just ore. A few of the original words survived, I suppose, but no whole sentences.
To avoid the unwelcome appearance of originality at this stage, editors send their writers voluminous guidelines. I am one of these writers, and this summer I wrote a ten-page story for a reading program. The guideline for the assignment, delivered to me in a three-ring binder, was 300 pages long.
With so much at stake, how did we get into this turgid mess? In the 1980s and '90s, a feeding frenzy broke out among publishing houses as they all fought to swallow their competitors: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bought Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Houghton Mifflin bought D.C. Heath and Co. McGraw-Hill bought Macmillan. Silver Burdett bought Ginn -- or was it Ginn that bought Silver? It doesn't matter, because soon enough both were devoured by Prentice Hall, which in turn was gobbled up by Simon & Schuster.
Then, in the late '90s, even bigger corporations began circling. Almost all the familiar textbook brands of yore vanished or ended up in the bellies of just four big sharks: Pearson, a British company; Vivendi Universal, a French firm; Reed Elsevier, a British-Dutch concern; and McGraw-Hill, the lone American-owned textbook conglomerate.
This concentration of money and power caused dramatic changes. In 1974, there were 22 major basal reading programs; now there are five or six. As the number of basals (in all subject areas) shrank, so did editorial staffs.
Many downsized editors floated off and started development houses, private firms that contract with educational publishers to deliver chunks of programs. They hire freelance managers to manage freelance editors to manage teams of freelance writers to produce text that skeleton crews of development-house executives sent on to publishing-house executives, who then pass it on to various committees for massaging.
A few years ago, I got an assignment from a development house to write a lesson on a particular reading skill. The freelance editor sent me the corresponding lessons from our client's three major competitors. "Here's what the other companies are doing," she told me. "Cover everything they do, only better." I had to laugh: I had written (for other development houses) all three of the lessons I was competing with.
The Cruelest Month
In textbook publishing, April is the cruelest month. That's when certain states announce which textbooks they're adopting. When it comes to setting the agenda for textbook publishing, only the 22 states that have a formal adoption process count. The other 28 are irrelevant -- even though they include populous giants like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio -- because they allow all publishers to come in and market programs directly to local school districts.
Adoption states, by contrast, buy new textbooks on a regular cycle, usually every six years, and they allow only certain programs to be sold in their state. They draw up the list at the beginning of each cycle, and woe to publishers that fail to make that list, because for the next 72 months they will have zero sales in that state.
Among the adoption states, Texas, California, and Florida have unrivaled clout. Yes, size does matter. Together, these three have roughly 13 million students in K-12 public schools. The next 18 adoption states put together have about 12.7 million
Though the Big Three have different total numbers of students, they each spend about the same amount of money on textbooks. For the current school year, they budgeted more than $900 million for instructional materials, more than a quarter of all the money that will be spent on textbooks in the nation.
Obviously, publishers create products specifically for the adoptions in those three key states. They then sell the same product to everybody else, because basals are very expensive to produce -- a K-8 reading program can cost as much as $60 million. Publishers hope to recoup the costs of a big program from the sudden gush of money in a big adoption state, then turn a profit on the subsequent trickle from the "open territories."
Those that fail to make the list in Texas, California, or Florida are stuck recouping costs for the next six years. Strapped for money to spend on projects for the next adoption period, they're likely to fail again. As the cycle grows vicious, they turn into lunch meat.
Don't Mess with Texas
The big three adoption states are not equal, however. In that elite trio, Texas rules. California has more students (more than 6 million versus just over 4 million in Texas), but Texas spends just as much money (approximately $42 billion) on its public schools. More important, Texas allocates a dedicated chunk of funds specifically for textbooks. That money can't be used for anything else, and all of it must be spent in the adoption year.
Furthermore, Texas has particular power when it comes to high school textbooks, because California adopts statewide only for textbooks for grades K-8, while the Lone Star State's adoption process applies to textbooks through to 12th grade.
Credit: Monte Wolverton
If you're creating a new textbook, therefore, you start by scrutinizing "Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills" (TEKS). This document is drawn up by a group of curriculum experts, teachers, and political insiders appointed by the 15 members of the Texas Board of Education, currently five Democrats and ten Republicans, about half of whom have a background in education. TEKS describes what Texas wants and what the entire nation will therefore get.
Texas is truly the tail that wags the dog. There is, however, a tail that wags this mighty tail. Every adoption state allows private citizens to review textbooks and raise objections. Publishers must respond to these objections at open hearings.
In the late '60s, a Texas couple, Mel and Norma Gabler, figured out how to use their state's adoption hearings to put pressure on textbook publishers. The Gablers had no academic credentials or teaching background, but they knew what they wanted taught -- phonics, sexual abstinence, free enterprise, creationism, and the primacy of Judeo-Christian values -- and considered themselves in a battle against a "politically correct degradation of academics."
Expert organizers, the Gablers possessed a flair for constructing arguments out of the language of official curriculum guidelines. The nonprofit corporation they founded 43 years ago, Educational Research Analysts, continues to review textbooks and lobby against liberal content in them.
The Gablers no longer appear in person at adoption hearings, but through workshops, books, and how-to manuals, they trained a whole generation of conservative Christian activists to carry on their work.
Citizens also pressure textbook companies at California adoption hearings. These objections come mostly from such liberal organizations as Norman Lear's People for the American Way, or from individual citizens who look at proposed textbooks when they are on display before adoption in 30 centers around the state.
Concern in California is normally of the politically correct sort -- objections, for example, to such perceived gaffes as using the word Indian instead of "Native American." To make the list in California, books must be scrupulously stereotype free: No textbook can show African Americans playing sports, Asians using computers, or women taking care of children. Anyone who stays in textbook publishing long enough develops radar for what will and won't get past the blanding process of both the conservative and liberal watchdogs.
Responding to citizens' objections in adoption hearings is a delicate art. Publishers learn never to confront the assumptions behind an objection. That just causes deeper criticism. For example, a health textbook I worked on had a picture of a girl on a windy beach. One concerned citizen believed he could detect the outlines of the girl's underwear through her dress. Our response: She's at the beach, so that's her bathing suit. It worked.
A social studies textbook was attacked because a full-page photograph showed a large family gathered around a dinner table. The objection? They looked like Arabs. Did we rise up indignantly at this un-American display of bias? We did not. Instead, we said that the family was Armenian. It worked.
Of course, publishers prefer to face no objections at all. That's why going through a major adoption, especially a Texas adoption, is like earning a professional certificate in textbook editing. Survivors just know things.
What do they know?
Mainly, they know how to censor themselves. Once, I remember, an editorial group was discussing literary selections to include in a reading anthology. We were about to agree on one selection when someone mentioned that the author of this piece had drawn a protest at a Texas adoption because he had allegedly belonged to an organization called the One World Council, rumored to be a "Communist front."
At that moment, someone pointed out another story that fit our criteria. Without further conversation, we chose that one and moved on. Only in retrospect did I realize we had censored the first story based on rumors of allegations. Our unspoken thinking seemed to be, If even the most unlikely taint existed, the Gablers would find it, so why take a chance?
Self-censorship like this goes unreported because we the censors hardly notice ourselves doing it. In that room, none of us said no to any story. We just converged around a different story. The dangerous author, incidentally, was celebrated best-selling science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
Turn the Page
There's no quick, simple fix for the blanding of American textbooks, but several steps are key to reform:
Credit: Monte Wolverton
Mix and Match
Revamp our funding mechanisms to let teachers assemble their own curricula from numerous individual sources instead of forcing them to rely on single comprehensive packages from national textbook factories. We can't have a different curriculum in every classroom, of course, but surely there's a way to achieve coherence without stultification.
Basals as Backup
Reduce basals to reference books -- slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.
Dull? No, because these cores would not be the actual instructional material students would use. They would be analogous to operating systems in the world of software. If there are only a few of these and they're pretty similar, it's OK.
Local districts and classroom teachers would receive funds enabling them to assemble their own constellations of lessons and supporting materials around the core texts, purchased not from a few behemoths but from hundreds of smaller publishing houses such as those that currently supply the supplementary-textbook industry.
High Tech Textbooks
Just as software developers create applications for particular operating systems, textbook developers should develop materials that plug into the core texts. Small companies and even individuals who see a niche could produce a module to fill it. None would need $60 million to break even.
Imagine, for example, a world-history core: One publisher might produce a series of historical novellas by a writer and a historian working together to go with various places and periods in history. Another might create a map of the world, using software that animates at the click of a mouse to show political boundaries swelling, shrinking, and shifting over hundreds of years. Another might produce a board game that dramatizes the connections between trade and cultural diffusion. Hundreds of publishers could compete to produce lessons that fulfill some aspect of the core text, the point of reference.
Innovate the Industry
The intellect, dedication, and inventiveness of textbook editors, abundant throughout the industry but often stifled and underappreciated, would be unleashed with -- I predict -- extraordinary results for teachers and students.
Bundling selections from this forest of material to create curriculum packages might itself emerge as a job description in educational publishing.
The possibilities are endless. And shouldn't endless possibility be the point?
Tamim Ansary writes and lectures about Afghanistan, Islamic history, democracy, schooling and learning, fiction and the writing process, and other issues and directs the San Francisco Writers Workshop.