Here’s a heretical thought: do we need to revamp school textbooks as often as we do?
This Edutopia post by a former school textbook writer and editor lays bare how the school textbook sausage is made. It’s not pretty, and in states like Texas, the process is highly partisan and dominated by religious fundamentalists. What the article does is begin to describe Big Ed, a lucrative industry/interest group that may or may not serve students well in the process of supplying textbooks to the nation’s kids.
These parts of Tamim Ansary’s confessional piece had me wondering if the school textbook industry, especially when it comes to reading and language arts, is a self-perpetuating, self-justifying money machine. Ansary describes how bits and pieces of existing textbooks are mashed together with the “latest” educational trend:
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?
The overall product then gets pushed through a sieve of both politically correct (thank you, California!) and religiously conservative views (ugh, Texas). The result is bland. And a highly consolidated textbook publishing industry profits handsomely. Like many other industries, this one also experienced extreme winnowing:
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.
Just as we have Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Oil, it could be said we also have Big Ed. Here, textbook publishers and educational researchers combine forces to tap the state and federal billions spent on educating our kids. We’re in the unusual position of more dollars spent per student than ever before, with mediocre-to-bad results. Looking at this US Department of Education chart (first on the page) we see that we spend almost as much as Switzerland per student, and almost a third more than South Korea, but lag far behind both in overall student proficiency.
So we have to ask where the dollars are going and if they’re being spent wisely. Are we getting the most educational bang for the buck?
In 2004, the date of Ansary’s original article, he says $4.3 billion were spent on textbooks. Yet there’s little oversight or evaluation of how effective a tool either the textbooks are or the pedagogical trends are that supposedly differentiate the textbooks from one another. Where is the check on this system to make sure states purchasing these textbooks are getting the best materials, and students are indeed learning from them? Maybe the issue is not the frequency of updates, but the quality of updates. I’d hate to think we taxpayers shell out for “updates for the sake of updates,” as opposed to actual changes in information (hello, Pluto is no longer a planet) or proven approach.
Not to mention, with such anodyne source material that states mandate instructors to use, often teacher creativity and connection to the material flies out the window.
The solutions that Ansary proposes are intriguing but I can see how they’re an uphill climb.
- Strike a better balance between state-mandated curriculum (that can live in the “basals”–textbooks, teacher’s manuals, worksheets, teaching guides, etc) and teacher-chosen materials.
- Use basals as a resource and launching point, and instead budget for teachers to choose their own materials.
- Let small publishers fill the void with creative, engaging books, games, and high-tech modules that elaborate on the core material.
But the most important thing undergirding what Ansary has to tell us is this: trends in teaching philosophies serve more a marketing function for textbook publishers than they do a basic pedagogical one. New is not necessarily better, especially if the result is shiny, ever-expanding bureaucracy that blankets the classroom and stifles student and teacher excitement about the subject.
Is this true for math and science textbooks too? What study has been done comparing successive cycles of textbooks cross-culturally? Likewise, what do we know about other countries and the curriculum they follow? What is the rate of change of textbooks in the countries the U.S. considers its main competitors?
I wonder how much of the reliance on standardized textbooks is a way to avoid the fact that consensus on what American students should know is hard to come by. We shouldn’t let textbook publishers decide, de facto, what common core standards are in collusion with the handful of states that are the largest buyers of schoolbooks.
Instead, maybe if we can hammer out independent of market pressures a common core standard in reading and math, that will free up states, school districts, and teachers in the ways Ansary has indicated. That day may not be far off; in another post I’ll investigate voluntary adoption of the Common Core Standards Initiative by the states.