The primary-secondary textbook mill exposed

A few posts back, I wrote about the efforts by anti-evolution members of the Texas State Board of Education to emasculate the state’s science standards. It was big news, because Texas periodically buys its textbooks en masse, giving it a disproportionate influence on the content of the nation’s school textbooks.

To put it another way, if the Texas SBOE had mandated that Texas children learn about Intelligent Design in Biology or the steady-state-universe theory in Earth Science, the SBOE would then prefer to buy textbooks that cover such topics. So, textbook publishers would scramble to add this content to their existing texts to remain competitive.

If the changes were limited to Texas, it would be bad for Texas schoolchildren. But textbook publishers cannot offer 50 or more different textbooks versions, one for each state and territory of the USA. It would be neither feasible nor economic. So they target their textbooks’ content to the three biggest buyers, Texas, California and Florida.

Tamim Ansary, who used to work in the textbook field, wrote an expose of sorts about the textbook mill for Edutopia in 2004. It’s been reprinted on the Edutopia website, and well worth the read, especially if you have school-age children.

Here’s a taste:

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.

Political influence on or by state boards of education is one issue, as we saw in Texas recently. Another problem is the contraction of the publishing market; there are only a half-dozen major players in textbook publishing now, Ansary writes, and only one, McGraw Hill, is American owned. Fewer choices, fewer chances to find exceptional books.

If your child has an excellent teacher who does not use the textbook as a crutch, you are lucky. However, too many teachers, especially inexperienced ones, depend solely on the text, which are, as Ansary says, designed to be “teacher-proof.” A bad text, then, can lead to poor teaching, or misinformation.

In an ideal world, each state could have its own version of a text, or better yet, the entire nation could have the same version, free from undue political/social/religious influence. Electronic delivery of texts would be another, more ecological solution, but then each child would need his or her own computer or Kindle. Or we could chuck textbooks out entirely, which would require a quantum leap in teacher training.

It’s a bad situation, but one which we may be stuck with for a long time.

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