The Textbook Adoption Mess--And What Reformers are Doing to Fix It

The Textbook Adoption Mess--And What Reformers are Doing to Fix It

Conversations about what's broken in state textbook adoption systems are increasing but still sporad

Frank Wang knew he was green to the world of textbook publishing. "A few days after I defended my MIT thesis I literally got in my Honda and started driving to Oklahoma," he says. A top seat at Saxon Publishers, where Wang had helped out since high school, awaited him during that spring of 1991.

A few months later Wang learned just how green he was when he walked into a surprise party not far from his Oklahoma home. He made his way through the balloons and streamers to the cake-cutting area, where he got an earful about the swanky restaurant where the guests of honor would be dining that night.

Only the surprise was on him.

"I just went in with the books. I didn't come in with any props. I didn't come in with any gifts," says Wang of that first foray into the textbook adoption process. The company, which produces math books based on continued practice and incremental development, was founded by John Saxon, a decorated combat veteran with a strong vision that didn't involve catering to anybody's requirements except his own.

Virtually all the books under review that month in Oklahoma got adopted unanimously. Saxon, meanwhile, got a resounding NO from committee members whose names still echo in Wang's ears. (It probably didn't help, he discovered later, that John Saxon had declared during a speech the day before that everyone on the adoption committee was an idiot.)

Flash forward to 1994 in Georgia, where Saxon had some cheerleaders in the textbook evaluation process. During the public hearing time--a slot typically allotted little agenda time and needing none--22 administrators and teachers sang Saxon's praises over about two-and-a-half hours.

By then president and CEO, Wang stood before the committee and, he says, got grilled about minute issues such as what specific math problems in Saxon books are open-ended. After some back-and-forth where the committee chairman didn't seem satisfied, Wang was asked, "Are there problems about how many Froot Loops it would take to cover the floor?"

The committee later voted down the Saxon program. "That's when I really began to realize that the adoption process is not about results," Wang explains. "I don't think any of [the committee members] ask if the program actually works in the classroom or not." Instead, it's about "playing the game, playing the politics, kissing the right rear end."

Adoption Roots

Textbook adoption systems, in which a committee selects or recommends what books and other core instructional materials reach local classrooms, are practiced in up to 22 states (depending on whom you ask). Dating back to the Reconstruction era, adoption is done mainly in the South and West.

"When you look at the process, it's broken on a number of fronts," says Justin Torres, research director at The Fordham Institute, which released the report The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption in September. "It encourages an unhealthy accumulation of power and market influence to a small number of publishers. It stifles innovation. ... It puts the whole process in the hands of fringe groups, in both the right and the left. It's not a healthy way of making choices about materials."

Adoption system success is about "playing the game, playing the politics, kissing the right rear end." -Frank Wang, former CEO, Saxon Publishers

Diane Ravitch, the report's co-author and author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003), puts it this way: "We have this process ... that's antiquated and obsolete, that causes textbooks to look like peas in a pod, that discourages competition, that dumbs down materials."

While it's not a large, organized crowd with system reform on the mind, people are certainly talking textbooks and taking serious steps toward bettering (or nixing) adoptions. Here's where they're headed.

Reviewing the Reviewers

An argument in favor of textbook adoptions is that they help take the time-consuming burden of evaluating instructional materials off the plates of educators at the local level. But who are these reviewers?

"They're lay people and they have so many books to review that they don't have time to do so thoroughly," says Ravitch. The books are "often rated by quality of binding or something else that's irrelevant."

Tracking down these reviewers is no easy task, as most of them remain anonymous. "You don't know who examined any of these books. You don't know whether they were examined. You don't know where the state evaluations came from," says William J. Bennetta, president of The Textbook League, which has published an estimated 350 reviews of books and other instructional materials since 1989.

In California, where TTL is based, Bennetta says that reviews lift phrases from the state content frameworks but never cite any specific pages or features of the book. "There's no evidence anyone actually ever looked at the book," he asserts. When reviewers remain anonymous, there's no accountability for their remarks.

But Thomas Adams, director of the state department of education's curriculum framework/instructional resources division, sees it a different way. It's assumed the districts examine materials themselves to make purchasing decisions, he says, adding that adoption report details have been pared down because more detailed ones had been used illegally for marketing purposes.

Bridget R. Foster, director of education at Plato Learning, participated in the California process six years ago. The four-month reading/language arts adoption allowed about half that time for a panel to examine materials. Foster, a former math, science and English teacher who also has an administrative credential, evaluated 16 submissions ranging "from a single book to a roomful of material." After scoring them individually, the 11 panel members met to build consensus. "Anything that's done by committee is always an interesting problem," Foster quips.

That experience led to her next job, directing the review process for supplemental electronic learning resources for the state. In that role, Foster "was totally shocked to have publishers suggesting that reviewers hadn't even looked at the resources," she says. But with more time needed to evaluate a technology-based product compared to a print product and no requirements about technology expertise, that certainly seemed a real possibility. Foster's team helped provide tech training, and after a policy push it's now mandated that reviewers have both content and technology knowledge.

That's a mission Plato has taken on nationally as part of organizations such as the Software & Information Industry Association. A recent SIIA policy brief urges proficiency and experience as reviewer qualifications, as well as training in technology for all state curriculum reviewers.

For now, Learning.com and other companies sometimes provide that training themselves. When their EasyTech program failed to make one state's adoption list, some data digging revealed that most of the reviewers had never even logged in to the program. "I feel sympathetic to the people because ... it was sort of a perfect storm of too many products, not enough reviewers and not enough time," says Mark Tullis, vice president of business development. A re-review resolved the issue, but that doesn't mean it won't happen again.

Some states are considering shifting part of the costs associated with reviews to publishers, adds Tullis. This would help ensure there are enough reviewers to adequately look at submitted materials.

Moving Beyond Books

Digital learning companies also face a terminology challenge in simply being eligible for review. The term textbook adoption is "just an example of the legacy that's in place in terms of the adoption process starting before technology and digital materials existed," says Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy at SIIA.

Since 1980, there have been software programs covering the full curriculum for a subject area, he notes. But the first core curriculum adoption of digital material was not until 1997. Many states--including Texas and Florida--now have broad definitions that make technology-based programs eligible for adoption, but certain regulations haven't been updated accordingly.

"Adoption processes are so wound up in the very specific realities of textbook publishing and delivery, we ended up having to ask for as many exceptions or changes as we were getting benefits in each adoption," says Bill Kelly, CEO of Learning.com. Founded in 1999, the company's first adoption was three years ago.

One sticking point is the repository, where publishers are required to stock adopted products. How do you physically ship and store an online program? "In some cases we've been successful in having state legislatures waive that repository requirement," Kelly reports.

The reform-minded have also had some success in lobbying against rules on adopted materials content remaining static for the duration of the adoption period. It's a tall order for publishers, particularly digital ones, who pride themselves on offering the latest information. "You can't make changes willy nilly. You can't sell the state a bill of goods and then change what it is," Tullis says. "Yet you have to balance that with the changes that occur within the world."

The state adoption committees, however eager they may be to help out, aren't typically out presenting solutions to legislators. "Textbook administrators at the state level have more than a full-time job just running the current system," Schneiderman says. "Having them find time for an internal review and to make the changes within their state is a challenge."

Focusing on Content, Not Process

It's the era of accountability, and content is king. Or is it? When David Cappellucci, along with two Houghton Mifflin Company colleagues, left there a few years ago, their aim in a new venture was simple: Make available print and technology-based materials that focus on the endpoint of student achievement. "The adoption process is more about the process itself by its nature," says Cappellucci, chief operations officer of Cambium Learning.

One problem is the proliferation of freebies. "I don't know who fired the first shot, but this process of giving away materials in order to secure a sale has become what I call rampant," he says, adding that these practices not only sway district purchases of adopted materials but also drive up prices for everyone else.

"As customer priorities change and it becomes more important that programs work for kids, ... 'What do I get for free?' and 'How many trucks will you back up [to our schools] for the sale?' [won't be as important]. There's more emphasis on the goodies and it really ought to be on what works." The Georgia inspector general is currently investigating giveaway practices by textbook publishers.

But legislative action doesn't always help. Wang is disturbed by a Florida law (ostensibly passed to avoid the freebies issue) that prohibits pilot testing of programs up for adoption beginning 18 months prior to the decision. "This is akin to someone saying, 'Well you can go buy a car but you can't test drive a car,' " he says.

While Wang parted ways with Saxon in 2003 to begin the teaching career he had originally planned on, he still speaks up about system deficits when the chance presents itself. Being seated next to Gov. Jeb Bush at a D.C. dinner about a year ago was one such opportunity. After hearing Wang's take on the law, the governor pointed him toward another guest who might help. That guest promptly got a letter from Wang highlighting the issue.

Another issue Wang has encountered: Once a Florida adoption committee asked Wang to "show us the diversity" in a Saxon math book. Since the books have no pictures, he responded, "We feel we can best help the minorities by providing effective curriculum so they can go out and become engineers, physicists, etc." The argument, Wang recalls, "did not really sway well with them." On another occasion, Wang's joke about his "diverse" name being on the book's cover as co-author didn't work, either.

" You don't know who examined any of these books. You don't know whether they were examined." -William Bennetta, president, The Textbook League

"In many states we have been rejected even though we could furnish evidence of schools in that state that have achieved success with the program," he adds.

Georgia, for one, has made in-roads in allowing non-traditional programs. After news that its committee rejected Saxon--despite educator support--got out and caused an outcry, the state legislature passed a law requiring approval of any textbook requested in writing by five or more superintendents, or by 20 or more teachers from different districts, within one year.

And in Texas, a grassroots effort helped pass the "Saxon Law," creating a second list of adopted materials, so those meeting 100 percent of the requirements are on one list and those meeting at least 50 percent of requirements can make a second--albeit less beneficial to publishers--"non-conforming" list.

Still, Wang is frustrated by adoption because "it's a process that forces everyone who's involved to go through all these different contortions," such as deadline, copyright and weight limitations.

Bennetta goes further in his assessment of adoption and the resulting textbook content, saying it "retards, undermines and even destroys education. ... We have documented again and again the repetition of stuff that was discredited, not just a decade ago but how about a century ago."

Why aren't textbook authors catching these errors? "The dirty little secret of publishing is that the scholar on that book has very little to do with it," says Joan DelFattore, a professor of English at University of Delaware who has done a lot of research on what goes into textbooks.

Tailoring Programs

The "one size fits all" mentality associated with adoptions concerns Cappellucci, as well. "There are some legit and very real concerns about the dumbing down. There's nothing I'm going to add to that argument. But basically textbooks are fine for a certain number of students. We're concerned about what happens to the others."

That's why he says he believes each state or district should be able to get a customized product based on what they want, provided there's a sound research base. That's already done, of course, when districts create programs by piecing together bits of many curricula--but the process is onerous. In Connecticut, Cambium is piloting a custom math program aimed at solving this problem.

Another way to tailor materials is with training and services. "The existing adoption process ... is more characterized by drive-by training," says Cappellucci, pointing to research suggesting that products and services are of equal importance to student achievement. "You can not dump books outside a classroom and run." A 2001 California bill funding professional development related to existing adopted materials in language arts and math is a step in the right direction, he says.

Bruce Wilcox, formerly of Harcourt Education Group, hopes to also see adoption rules differ based on levels of student learning. "There needs to be some delineation between the adoption process as it relates to foundation skills of pre-literate kids [with] considerably different learning experiences than middle or secondary students [who are] given choices for their own instruction," says Wilcox, who is currently CEO of Project Inkwell. The consortium of global vendors is working to accelerate the deployment of appropriate technology onto K-12 desktops.

Foster points out another issue at odds with the individualized instruction trend and No Child Left Behind: Adopted books aren't always broken down into what can be used for remedial students, English language learners and other special groups.

Exposing Special Interests' Influence

The content of textbooks, however, are often broken down--by special interest groups, that is.

In The Language Police, Ravitch covers the ways in which feminist, conservative, religious, ethnic groups and--as she says in the Fordham report, "any other imaginable self-designated spokesmen for any other conceivable organization or aggrieved victims"--influence textbook content.

"Adoptions ... give state agencies power over the content of the books to the extent that they can demand the inclusion or exclusion of anything--the inclusion, no matter how ridiculous, the exclusion, no matter how important," says Sewall. He's seen pressure groups of all kinds, from the religious and racial to the environmental and nutritional, fight to make sure their concerns are incorporated into the final product.

It's all "a temptation toward ideological preference, and [states] haven't been very good at resisting that temptation," notes DelFattore.

Ravitch says she has talked to many publishers, off the record, whose editors were trained to remove anything potentially controversial before submitting them for adoption. "If you say, 'Take this out and put this in because we don't like the views,' that's censorship," argues Ravitch. And when publishers anticipate problems and create non-controversial content to begin with, she says it's self-censorship.

From Wilcox's experience with Harcourt, he says, "The edit teams and instructional designers there are just terribly frustrated that they're not allowed any liberty with instructional design," and with "every extremist point of view" in the debate, the result is a bland instructional process.

Front and center in the special interest group arena is a case currently being decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Daniel Chiras, the author of an environmental science textbook, and the mother of an Advanced Placement science student are suing the Texas Board of Education for rejecting the book.

Anyone in Texas can review books up for adoption at offices throughout the state, and then there's a deadline for public comment. After that date, Chiras' book was accepted and placed on the non-conforming list.

Then detailed objections to the book were lodged by "an advocacy group whose members have strong ties to the oil and gas industry," says Adele Kimmel, a staff attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice who is representing the plaintiffs. One objection concerned the book's treatment of the effects of oil on the environment, explains DelFattore, who submitted a brief for the suit along with Ravitch.

Another public comment period was added, and in the end, the book was rejected without explanation.

A different work did pass muster, however. "The book that got approved without any editing was something underwritten by the oil and gas industry," says Kimmel. "The courts have to make sure board officials are ... not imposing their own political agendas on students and authors."

Adding to that argument: A 1995 Texas law prohibits rejecting books based on an ideological viewpoint. Only texts with factual errors and those not meeting state requirements can get the no vote, Kimmel explains.

"We filed this lawsuit to vindicate free speech rights of the author and for high school students who have been denied access to the book," she adds. "We wanted to make sure special interest politics doesn't trump merit in the textbook process."

Vocalizing Non-Adoption State Concerns

The Chiras case is especially groundbreaking because of the influence that Texas in particular, but also California and Florida, have on books available to districts elsewhere. In some instances publishers will create a separate version of a book for a single state, but "most of the time the Texas books are used by the rest of the country," DelFattore says.

Democrat Boyd Marley of the Maine House of Representatives is not taking that fact lightly. "As a parent, educator and legislator, I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that textbooks contain factual and complete information," he says, referring to how special interest groups try to limit and tailor content. "No one state (or special interest group) should influence the textbook market. That would place one state in control of another state's curriculum. That is unacceptable."

" The courts have to make sure board officials are ... not imposing their own political agendas on students and authors."- Adele Kimmel, staff attorney, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice

In response to the abstinence-only push in Texas sex education programs, Rep. Marley and a fellow educator wrote a Portland Press Herald editorial urging districts to demand from publishers materials providing "adequate and accurate information about sex, including contraception."

Wang provides a less controversial example of how one state's interests can influence content nationally. In 1966, a North Carolina textbook committee member insisted that the Revolutionary War battle of Moore's Creek Bridge be included in a history textbook. "That bridge was on his property," Wang says.

And soon after, it was on the pages of U.S. history books. (It's still mentioned in at least one recent book, as a battle that's "sometimes called the Lexington and Concord of the South.")

Uncovering Favoritism

No doubt, adoption is a costly process for any creator of instructional materials. First the content must meet each state's standards, which requires having a person or team monitoring adoption processes. Publishers must also be prepared to send out thousands of samples and spend time appearing before state committees.

For electronic publishers, there's the added burden of sometimes having to provide (including delivery and pickup) computers for the reviewers. In addition, says Wilcox of Project Inkwell, customers often demand both a print version, per usual, and a robust electronic version thrown in.

Once a state does adopt a particular program, the local sales campaigns, costly in and of themselves, begin. "Even if you're adopted in Texas, California and Florida, that doesn't guarantee that you're going to sell a single book. All that basically gives you is a hunting license," says Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers' school division.

"If you're a huge company and place a bunch of bets on this year's campaigns, [and then] two or three don't pan out, you're protected," says Learning.com's Kelly. "If you're a small publisher [working on] three or four adoptions, if none pan out you're in deep trouble." In any case, losing an adoption is a big blow to the bottom line. And adoption costs likely cut into product development funds.

"You really have to analyze whether you're going to go into all the states," says Foster. Tullis knows of companies that "have basically just washed their hands of the adoption process," he says, by targeting only non-adoption states. "I guess I can understand their frustration, but they remove themselves from the chance to make any change ... and I think that's a shame."

As those playing the adoption game know, winning is crucial to an investment payoff. "That's why the process is very important to these large companies, and at the same time why they view it as an obstacle," notes Wilcox.

No matter what their frustrations may be about the rules and regulations, the large companies apparently aren't outwardly looking to drop the system. "They've made it pretty clear that they're committed to textbook adoption," says Torres. (AAP, meanwhile, doesn't take a position on the matter. "We are actually agnostic when it comes to how our customers select their textbooks," Driesler says.)

Smaller companies, despite having some of the same interests as the larger players (such as adequate state funding for textbooks), wind up feeling on the outs. "Your ability to understand the rules, how to get to the people who write those rules and make decisions, is really inhibited because you're an outsider," Wilcox says. "Calls go out to publishers: Are these people any good? Do you know them?" Driesler concurs that "there's a certain degree of brand comfort." In that regard, it's like any other industry.

Kelly, who has partnered with the major publishers and sits with them on the AAP board, finds it frustrating. "Innovations are going to come primarily from small, innovative publishers," he argues.

But Wilcox notes that major publishers have extensive, polished programs. "When an upstart or digital company shows up, the bar is quite high."

Another adoption complication: "When you make the stakes so high, whenever ... few make decisions for many, you're just inviting a system that encourages corruption," says Wang.

"As far as I know, from my firsthand observations, state-level adoption procedures are simply marketing carnivals. Their purpose is to generate ... state approval for books produced by the powerful publishers," Bennetta says.

For example, in reading Florida's 2000-2001 catalog of adopted materials, he noticed that the descriptions--which are stated to be "condensed and adapted from materials developed by the publishers and the state instructional materials committees,"--sounded like meaningless marketing-speak. One text, for instance, "informs and excites students"; another "is designed to address changing curriculum needs."

"That's what got me to call the state of Florida and bounce around from bureaucrat to bureaucrat until I got the one who admitted [that the descriptions] are provided by the publishers," he says. He would prefer to see direct comments from reviewers about whether the product achieves its goals; if not, a disclaimer that the descriptions are not endorsed by the department of education should be there.

Wilcox maintains that, while at Harcourt and Simon & Schuster, he "never saw evidence of lack of integrity. They are paranoid about any hint of inappropriate behavior."

Calling the process corrupt, with "a cartel of publishers controlling it and doing so for very greedy, very selfish reasons," Tullis says, is a distorted view. "If you just look at it on paper, they have benefited pretty nicely from the textbook adoption process." But, he adds, their interests and ideas about reform, in particular reforms that can help any publisher of digital materials, are similar to what the smaller companies want.

Driesler argues that the larger publishers "have an advantage only to the extent that perhaps they have the capital to put at risk, to play in a high-stakes poker game, whereas the smaller publishers, they would be betting the ranch."

Shifting Responsibilities

What's the alternative to state adoption systems? The most logical answer is local control over textbook selection. After all, that's what non-adoption states do. And, whether it's a result of adoption or not, recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores have adoption states appearing toward the bottom of "who scored best" charts. Almost all of the top-performers are non-adoption states.

As they stand, adoption systems "discourage any critical examination of any of these books at the district level," says Bennetta. Administrators think, if they're on the state approved list, they must be good. "It provides a justification for buying books without ever reading them," he adds. "The idea of a school district picking a book in, say, earth science, [and then] not sending the book out to some paleontologists for evaluation is a laugh."

Administrators depend on the adoption process, notes DelFattore. She started looking into adoptions in the mid-1980s, after discovering that many of her graduate students were using high school texts of Romeo and Juliet with 400 potentially controversial lines missing. "It's easy to criticize district people--why don't they do something about this? ... [But] they've got the school roof falling down, the teachers threatening to strike. ... They can't spend all day on this."

" Adoptions ... give state agencies power over the content of the books to the extent that they can demand the inclusion or exclusion of anything." -Gilbert Sewall, director, American Textbook Council

Time isn't the only issue. "Some people present the local adoption as a textbook cure-all," says Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, which reviews history and social studies books. Consolidation in K-12 publishing has meant less textbooks being produced. "My outlook is that state adoption has become something of a sham. This idea of going to local adoption making everything better is an open question," he says.

Still, Ravitch insists, administrators "should be demanding a better range of materials and just better content."

California, for one, is getting educators more involved. Its adoption system, which has covered K-8 only, is being expanded to include high school materials. But what gets reviewed will be what districts, not publishers, submit. "This could save [evaluation] time ... and it would give the districts a certain level of involvement," Foster says.

As for parents giving their two cents on textbooks, fights tend to be short, Bennetta says. "No matter how corrupt ... that biology book Junior is using in ninth grade [or] how incensed a parent may become [after reading a bad review], at the end of the year Junior finishes the biology course win, lose or draw. And Mrs. Jones doesn't care about the biology books anymore."

Working with Momentum

With the outpouring of response Ravitch has had from her book, one question comes up again and again: "What can we do to stop this?" Unfortunately, she says, "I haven't had any real suggestions other than to keep up the fight."

Part of the problem: There's no organization behind the effort. Bennetta says the informal communication he's involved in "doesn't even constitute a network. It's just people who are outraged by what's going on."

Still, it's a fight with some passionate people behind it who plan to persevere. "I find it terribly exciting to see sort of a spotlight shining on these policies that have been static for so many years," Tullis says. "I like to think we're some small agent of change."

Fordham is working with a publisher on distributing its textbook report to legislators and schools in adoption states, Torres says. In addition, he and others are "taking a textbook adoption show on the road" this spring in a push for legislative changes in Texas, California and Florida.

"Reforming the adoption process could lead to an evolution in the offerings of publishers," SIIA's Schneiderman says. "And that will benefit everybody."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.

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