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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?


            Apparently, 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.


            Now 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.


            Why 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.


            There's a lot at stake: the U.S. textbook market is estimated to be worth $4.3 billion.


            The 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 contribute content.


            These 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.


            The 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.


            What 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 responsibility.


  • 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 failing schools.


  • 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.


Homework: See the Fordham Foundation article, "The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption,"


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 11 © 2008


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