The Mad Mad World of Textbook Adoption

Roundup: Talking About History

Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, at the website of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (Sept. 29, 2004):

Statewide textbook adoption, the process by which 21 states dictate the textbooks that schools and districts can use, is fundamentally flawed. Textbook adoption distorts the market, entices extremist groups to hijack the curriculum, enriches the textbook cartel, and papers the land with mediocre instructional materials that cannot fulfill their important education mission. The adoption process cannot be set right by tinkering with it, concludes The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, the latest release from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Rather, legislators and governors in adoption states should eliminate the process and devolve funding for and decisions about textbook purchases to individual schools, individual districts, even individual teachers.

The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption is the first of a new Fordham Institute series, "Compact Guides to Education Solutions," that provides practical solutions to K-12 education problems for policy makers, legislators, school leaders, and activists. These concise guides are meant to help drive reforms at the local, state, and national levels by offering actionable policy recommendations.

Executive Summary

Textbook Adoption: The process, in place in twenty-one states, of reviewing textbooks according to state guidelines and then mandating specific books that schools must use, or lists of approved textbooks that schools must choose from.

Textbook Adoption Is Bad for Students and Schools
It consistently produces second-rate textbooks that replicate the same flaws and failings over and over again. Adoption states perform poorly on national tests, and the market incentives caused by the adoption process are so skewed that lively writing and top-flight scholarship are discouraged. Every individual analyst and expert panel that has studied American K-12 textbooks has concluded that they are sorely lacking and that the adoption process cries out for reform.

Textbook adoption has been hijacked by pressure groups. The textbook adoption process has been a feature of American education since Reconstruction, when former Confederate states issued guidelines for school materials that reflected their version of the Civil War. In the present day, special interest pressure groups from the politically correct left and the religious right exert enormous influence on textbook content through bias and sensitivity guidelines and reviews that have dumbed down textbook content in an attempt to render them inoffensive to every possible ethnic, religious, and political constituency.

Textbooks are now judged not by their style, content, or effectiveness, but by the way they live up to absurd sensitivity guidelines. Do literary anthologies have more male than female story characters? Do textbooks portray stereotypes such as female nurses or male mechanics? Do history textbooks suggest that religious strife has been a cause of conflict in human history? Do they mention junk food, magic, or prayer; suggest that the old are wise or the young are vigorous; or leave out any ethnic, racial, or religious group, no matter how small? If they do, that is grounds to have a textbook rejected.

The adoption process encourages slipshod reviews of textbooks written by anonymous development houses, according to paint-by-numbers formulas. Textbooks are not actually carefully reviewed—and sometimes are not read at all by those who act as "reviewers." They are scrutinized instead with a superficial "checklist" approach that identifies whether textbooks have presented key words and phrases without viewing the entire textbook for quality, accuracy, and content. States often apply "readability" formulas to ensure that textbooks use simpler words and phrases, resulting in a lowest-common-denominator approach. Reviewers almost never have to sign their reviews, and the entire process is cloaked in secrecy laws. Meanwhile, textbooks are almost never field tested to gauge whether they are effective in raising student achievement.

Finally, textbook adoption created a textbook cartel controlled by just a few companies. Requiring publishers to post performance bonds, stock outmoded book depositories, and produce huge numbers of free samples have all raised the costs of producing textbooks. This has frozen smaller, innovative textbook companies out of the adoption process and put control of the $4.3 billion textbook market in the hands of just four multi-national publishers.
The Bottom Line
There is no evidence that textbook adoption contributes to increased student learning. In fact, the vast majority of adoption states are also in the bottom half of all states when it comes to NAEP reading and math scores.

Click here to read the rest of the Executive Summary:

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Jim Lynch - 10/18/2004

Things may have changed since the late Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feyman agreed to vet science and math textbooks for California during the early 1960's. But his account of the process, related in his autobiography ('Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feyman'), offers a hilarious look at those chosen to pass judgement on our nations schoolbooks. Suffice to say, Feyman was a very, very popular guy with those publishing companies that had submitted books for him to review.

And he actually read ALL of them.