Fixing Textbook Adoption

Fixing Textbook Adoption

Some readers may remember that last year I joined the school board in my suburban Connecticut town. Recently I've been embroiled in a debate about the district's health curriculum, what's proper to teach, and more importantly, when it's appropriate to teach it. This issue has occupied my community for years; in fact, the board thought it was settled almost a year ago. It resurfaced recently (in the curriculum committee I chair) as the board tried to create specifics within the general agreement that had been reached.

I'll spare you the details, but I will say one of the main reasons this is such a delicate issue to solve is because of the complexity of views involved. (Obviously, the values people have and how they match, or don't, to various parts of this curriculum is the main reason this topic gets a lot more debate than, say, math curriculum.)

I mention this because, in short, this is the same problem facing textbook adoption. As Features Editor Melissa Ezarik ably describes in our cover story, "The Textbook Adoption Mess--and What Reformers are Doing to Fix It," this issue is not only a many-headed monster, but groups involved are so splintered that it seems hard to envision a way where people will agree how to fix the problems.

The only thing everyone agrees on about textbook adoption is that the process is broken.

Start with the idea of statewide adoption itself. Should states have the ability to put certain books on an approved list? (In some states, this approval means the state will pay for part of these books when districts buy them.) Like many parts of our educational system, this may have been a good idea when it started, but it seems to have outlasted its effectiveness. Critics say panels are overwhelmed, members don't always have the expertise to judge materials, and that, in fact, sometimes they may not even examine the materials before rendering their opinion.

Yet people who have spent a lot more time examining this problem than I have remained split on this basic question. Some call for tweaks, some for overhaul and some for eliminating the whole process. Keep in mind, this group includes experts who know the problems first-hand, but don't have a financial stake in the process, as well as people who know the problems but do have a financial interest in how everything gets sorted out.

Now imagine the same type of argument about whether any textbook deserves a one-size-fits-all type of adoption, how electronic materials should fit into this system, and the ability of special-interest groups from the right and left to have undue influence over a book's content and you begin to understand the magnitude of the problem.

So how should the textbook mess be cleaned up? Well, sort of the same way I'm trying to handle the health curriculum questions in my district. On every point, my district's plan is to forge a consensus and then move onto the next issue. I don't expect the result to be perfect, but I hope it will allow us to approve a curriculum to teach. If the board, or the community, feels a need to revisit one part or more in the future, that's OK.

Hopefully, in the same way, the bigger problem of textbook adoption can edge toward some solutions. Start with one question, get consensus, and move on. And while many administrators may feel like they are on the sideline for this debate, you don't have to be. Tell your state officials what you think of the process and any ideas you have to improve it. But, in the meantime, realize that the process is flawed so do the work needed to make sure your district gets the materials it needs and deserves.