The Textbook Adoption Process:
How a Few States
Influence Us All
Q. Why do
so many states even have central purchasing of school textbooks, in this day
and age of rapid-fire marketing and distribution? I've heard that central
purchasing forces most school districts into accepting textbooks that otherwise
they would not want to purchase on their own. Shouldn't textbook purchasing
decisions be a local matter, for the educators that we parents and taxpayers
have some say-so over? What can we do to get rid of that practice?
it all started after the Civil War. The Southern states wanted to control how
the Civil War was depicted in school textbooks. They were the first to put
"spin" on history, in other words. But it mushroomed from there.
21 state education departments control textbook adoption in one form or
another. Since these include some of the most populous states, including
California and Texas, it's a de facto
nationalized textbook system, with only about three publishing companies big
enough to bid.
do you have to be a big company to bid on the textbook business in a given
state? Most state education departments or state textbook commissions require
expensive practices such as posting performance bonds, stocking book depositories,
and providing huge numbers of free samples.
a lot at stake: the U.S. textbook market is estimated to be worth $4.3 billion.
pressure to win these big states has caused the textbook publishers to have
their textbooks "developed" instead of written, however. Instead of a scholar
or small group of scholars researching and writing each textbook as a cohesive
whole, they are put together by a marketing committee, drawing from the "star
power" of numerous guest editors, usually college professors, who usually
haven't even read the textbook but still have their names placed on them and
committees cull through the content and remove "objectionable" words and story
scenes, using a "checklist" approach to keep any content that the government
textbook adoption specifications ban. They also work with a "readability" index
which prevents the use of interesting and complex vocabulary or syntax, thereby
dumbing down the textbook content to the least common denominator.
publishers shouldn't really be blamed. They're in business to make money, after
all. And you can't blame the people on these textbook adoption commissions or
in the state education departments; they're just following protocol.
should happen, to open up the lucrative textbook business to more diversity and
quality, is for legislators to change the way textbooks can be adopted. Here
are some ideas from the Thomas Fordham Foundation:
- Textbook guidelines should create incentives for
quality rather than quantity.
- State officials should eliminate their bias guidelines
in general and California should abolish its "social content"
guidelines in particular. Generally, state adoption processes should
abandon the checklist approach—including the use of computerized key-word
searches and correlational analyses.
- Abandon the use of readability formulas.
- Adoption state officials should drop policies and
practices that discourage small, high-quality publishers from competing in
the textbook market.
- State education officials should reform the adoption
process to reveal the names of reviewers and encourage personal
- Districts, or groups of school districts, should be
authorized to petition the state education department to add specific
textbooks to the state-approved list.
- These additional recommendations represent an effort to
bring the textbook sector into better alignment with the No Child Left
Behind act and the premium it places on rigorous scientific research and
proven instructional programs.
- State lawmakers, private foundations, and professional
associations should create a book review industry for textbook authors.
- Fund new research centers to appraise textbook
effectiveness—and substantially expand textbook research and evaluation at
the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse. Federal,
state, and private dollars could be used to fund pilot tests of the
effectiveness of different textbooks on student achievement.
- Adoption state lawmakers should create a textbook
"safety net" that will prescribe instructional materials in
- Congress should consider modestly expanding federal
funding to assist states in purchasing effective instructional materials
in math, science, and history—as it has with the "Reading First"
program. But funds should only be provided for the purchase of materials
shown to be effective in increasing student achievement.
the Fordham Foundation article, "The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption," www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=335