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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education

A former schoolbook editor parses the politics of educational publishing.
By Tamim Ansary
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

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.

Not so.

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.

Content Lite

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.

Bon Appétit

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.

Go to "Foreign Textbooks Teach a Lesson in American History."

Comments (53)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

MadScientist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This all reminds me of one of Matt Groening's Life Is Hell cartoons in which there was an allusion to the state's proscribed mandate to churn out uniform "obedient little sheep".

My own revisionist history goes something like this: Once upon a time, some loud lout with an ego bigger than Alaska (sorry Lone Star State, you're not the biggest) convinced not-too-bright politicians (citizens of "Sniddler's Gulch"?) that mandating One True Text would be beneficial. This absurd assertion was taken on fiat and over the years people have been trained to believe that "that's the way things are done" and that there is no reason to change - the laws have been set in stone by (insert sky fairy of choice here) himself. Any change would be an "unamerican" attempt to "fix what ain't broke".

I agree with the author and I have often commented, as long ago as 2001, to friends of mine in educational institutions that modern technology makes it possible to establish educational projects where a large free repository of material is kept and updated by professionals and peer reviewed and available for use by any school around the world. The usual response is "that will never work" but some people have said "that sounds nice" which of course I have interpreted as "when pigs fly".

Thank you for an excellent article and your descriptions of the world of textbook publishing.

Mark Grayson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a good analysis, given that it had to fit into a magazine. Some large issues are glossed over here: about how funding is organized, about "free-with-order" materials, and about interlocking demands that inadvertently drive quality down, etc. But they are covered in another source: a small and older (1988) book called "A Conspiracy of Good Intentions" by Harriet-Tyson Bernstein (check inter-library loan, it's out of print) is far more comprehensive than the study here, and includes a more detailed discussion of ways to change the industry.

Catholic School Teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading the "steps to reform" I am baffled that teachers are not already doing this. I know so many colleagues that purchase loads of ancillary materials to spice up their lessons. That is how companies such as Teacher Created make money.

But I teach both History and Technology and my lessons are far from sterile. The textbook is merely a road map and my class takes many scenic routes along the way. Online there are numerous places to find editorials, primary sources, interactives and lessons from talented teachers. All of it is free, easy to access and weighs less than the text book that my students leave in the classroom and do not carry home.

James Gates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

About ten years ago I met a man who told me HIS story with textbooks. He had two masters, one in Physics. When his daughter came to him asking how the textbook arrived at a particular answer, he worked the problem and did not get the answer that the text had cited. So he began to browse through the book. In all, he found over 1100 errors, ranging from graphs showing different data than the text says it does, to a picture of Linda Ronstadt instead of a picture of whatever the text indicated. When he tracked down the author(s) they all told him that they had no idea that their name was attached to the book, and that they had NOT written it.

When he approached the publisher they suggested that he send them his list of errors and they'd check them out. He said he would, provided that they pay him for being an editor. Of course, they declined that option.

He took his story to the Baltimore Sun newspaper which then published a three-page story about it.

The real issue is that the entire state of Texas had adopted that text.

Think about this - what would our nation's reaction be if we discovered that this kind of shoddy work was an intentional effort of a hostile country trying to sabotage our education system?

Anne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been a textbook editor for ten years, and I'm very proud of the work I do, as well as the programs our company produces. I feel privileged to work with leading scholars in education to create programs that are based on the best "philosophies," as the writer puts it. One of the thrills of my career was working with a team of renowned mathematicians who carefully reviewed the math lessons I wrote. They wrote many of the lessons themselves, but because they are human, they simply did not have the time to write all of the content for a large basal textbook. That's where editors and freelance writers come in. But as with all of the programs I've worked on, there are quality and accuracy checks in place. I really appreciate the writer's comment about textbook editors having "intellect, dedication, and inventiveness," but she seems to suggest that we're complicit in some scheme to pass off poor quality educational programs to unsuspecting schools. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have the highest standards for myself in my work, and I love contributing to children's education. I work diligently to put together creative, effective lesson plans for teachers who don't have the time to do it themselves. So, while not all content in textbooks is perfect, you can be assured that there are many intelligent people behind the scenes who are striving to get as close to perfect as possible.

James Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Throughout a twenty year teaching career I encourage my district to move away from Textbook purchases in English and Reading instruction.
My first effort was to rid our Reading teachers of Basal reading programs that classified kids according to how many skill workbooks they completed in a grade rather than by how well they read.
MY first year I had kids who were placed in a level 5 reading class in a 6-8 grade Middle School. I had in that class students ranging from 10-15 years old. A comparison of basal classification to student achievement on the
California Achievement Test (CFT) performance in reading showed that many of the students assigned to this class, as reader on a fifth grade level, read as high as a tenth grade level on their CFTs, and further showed that very few of the students read on or below fifth grade level.
When I inquired about this discrepancy no one from my building to my district level could explain how this could happen, nor had they a plan to correct it. With-in two years we were out of basal readers and into a "Literature based system."
I had tried to convince the district to stop buying reading textbooks and move to a teacher selected classroom, trade book library that allowed students to read books they selected during Sustained Silent Read (SSR) time provided in class. I was informed that the state funded textbook purchases and required a new textbook adoption in each major subject area every five years and that those funds had to be used to buy textbooks.
I found other ways to accomplish the trade book approach which evolve into a Reading Workshop approach that did more to enhance reading skills and develop student enthusiasm for reading than any other approach I have ever seen or heard about.
My subsequent attempts to change the direction of those "State funds" to trade books, computer programs, etc. continued to bear no fruit. My solution was to teach twenty years with a classroom set of the same grammar and literature textbook I had use after my first text book adoption. These books had he same, and in many cases superior content, to the subsequent text book that the state wasted money on only to have them sit in the book room used (hey, the funds had to be used whether they accomplished anything or not). "And so it goes:)"

InSubordinateTX's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to add that as a former member of one of the tribes of an editorial department, that some of us tried often to supercede the dialectic. Companies, like teachers, are not all built equally. I highly suspect that since my old company laid off 60+% of its original staff of 50-strong motley crew of PhD's who were mismatched for academia, Sunday school teachers, and educational iconoclasts that invested real time into the nature of a good textbook, that culture is probably already gone.

Teacher's teaching today have to balance constant assessment practice with what used to be called teaching and now requires worksheets. Worksheets are the bread and butter of educational publishing, my friends. Gives teachers some freedom from the constant assessments and need to document curriculum and representing their teaching process to third parties, and the business of educating may not continue out to sea.

I am sorry to say that publishing itself may be going out to sea, and maybe instead of changing narrators in textbooks, we could figure out how to take all of the people in the educational (separated by the not-for-profit/profit fence) schoolyard and figure out what the modern classroom needs to succeed.

Thank you for starting such a lovely conversation.

Leo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is interesting, and perhaps telling, that none of the most potent complaints in the original article are responded to directly in the textbook writer's comment. She says nothing about the influence of political organizations or the existence of self-censorship or whether Texas really does indirectly determine what content appears in a good portion of the nation's textbooks (and whether this is a good or a bad thing).

Marian Cochran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is sad. But have you read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by J Lowen, which is not really about teachers, but about history texts.

david's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd heard about Texas being the big, go-to state for textbook publishers to try and sway. This was even back in the late 1970's. And, um...I'd heard from many of my old high school teachers grumble about outright bribery that occurred. College professors I'd had who wrote, or lent their name to some of the public school textbooks also divulged that Texas held sway because of economy too. Many states decided not to invest in a vetting process and would just adopt whatever Texas did. Their neglect in figuring out the best textbooks lead to Texas' power.

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