In case you haven't noticed, this is the year we are FINALLY going to start improving American high schools, where progress in raising achievement has been as slow as a teenager's response to a request that he clean his room.
I know this because I have been reading speeches by President Bush, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and National Governors Association Chairman Mark Warner, the governor of Virginia. They have all put fixing high schools at the top of their to-do lists. Warner's association and several other groups have come up with detailed recommendations of what must be done.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have read these important documents carefully and have yet to find one that gives any prominence to what would be one of simplest, least expensive, most popular and most useful changes, that is, getting states to stop telling high school teachers which textbooks to use.
The formal name for this very old practice is textbook adoption. At least 21 states, including large and powerful California, Texas and Florida, have committees that decide which books can be used in public schools. Some of these states give schools and teachers some leeway in book selection, but often they can only make contrary choices if they submit a lot of paperwork and spend their own money.
The scrubbing and sanitizing that is imposed to satisfy the big states has affected all the commercially produced textbooks. That means that even states without adoption laws end up using the same books as the ones written to please California and Texas. For example, Virginia is a state with a textbook adoption policy, but Maryland is not. Yet, there does not seem to be much difference in the quality of the textbooks between the neighboring states. The District of Columbia does have an adoption committee.
Why do I think it should be easy to get rid of state adoption committees? Because so few intelligent people like them. Their decisions have been excoriated by spokespersons for both the right and the left. Their fear of offending any politically connected group means the textbooks they approve are often the dumbest and dullest of the bunch.
And yet the system survives because it brings in $4.3 billion a year to the four big publishers. They pay lobbyists to keep state legislatures from derailing their gravy train, critics argue.
If you don't believe me, may I suggest you read a book by Diane Ravitch, our nation's most literate and interesting educational historian, called "The Language Police," only $9.75 on amazon.com, or at your local library for free. And if you want a quick and bright summary of the work of Ravitch and other textbook critics, go to the Web site of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute|http://www.edexcellence.net and download a 77-page guide written by David Whitman called "The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption."
You will find there many bizarre explanations for why we have decided to tell our best teachers that we won't pay for what they know are the best textbooks for our students. I did not know, for instance, that the textbook adoption process began because Southern states after the Civil War did not want their children to read the Yankee version of what that conflict had been all about. "Northern publishers obligingly complied," Whitman said, "publishing separate textbooks for schools in the South and North."
Today's most marketable textbooks are often not the work of committed scholars who want to explain the intricacies of their subject in the most engaging way. Instead, Whitman says, "textbooks are hurriedly put together by teams of hack writers from 'development houses,' known as 'chop shops.' Publishers are preoccupied with scrubbing textbooks of any references that adoption panels in California and Texas might object to."
I have personally observed an even more depressing habit of state and school district textbook committees. They select books not because of their depth, literary quality or effectiveness in the classroom, but because a quick scan of their chapters indicates that they cover the largest number of items on their state's official list of teaching standards. Sometimes it comes down to making sure the textbook in question has what Whitman calls the proper "state-endorsed keywords, figures from history and visual aids."
In his foreward to the Whitman guide, Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn Jr. notes that this system is "astonishingly under-examined." Newspapers like mine, for instance, rarely write about textbooks. We think the subject is too dry, and it is hard to find human victims with good quotes that will please our editors because students rarely understand why their academic gruel is so thin and tasteless.
"It's a lot easier for a parent or taxpayer (or, for that matter, a teacher) to get good consumer information about food processors and CD players than about this ubiquitous classroom 'technology,' " Finn said. "Considering that the textbook is to the teacher what the hammer is to a carpenter or a knife to a chef, one might suppose it would be thoroughly scrutinized and susceptible to accurate comparative information. Not so."
My own attempts to explain the textbook adoption problem have centered on the adventures of the late John Saxon, a retired Air Force officer who wrote a series of mathematics textbooks that proved to be very effective with children from low-income families. When Saxon tried to persuade states to adopt his books, he was ridiculed by the big publishers and the math teaching experts for his failure to fill his books with colorful pictures and his unfashionable insistence on frequent review and learning computation without the assistance of calculators.
So many private schools and teachers in non-adoption states ordered the Saxon books that they became a success anyway. Harcourt Achieve, a division of the textbook giant Reed Elsevier, bought the company. Some teachers hope these purchases of effective little textbook series by big publishers will mean a new day, while others suspect the big dogs just want to swallow up the little ones so they will stop yapping. Harcourt Achieve spokesman Rick Blake said, "We are investing heavily in the Saxon product line and have every intention of continuing both the product line and the brand."
Adoption committees still get cranky with educators who argue they should only approve textbooks that have been proven to work. Frank Wang, who as a teenager helped Saxon write his first book and later served as company chairman, recalled the chairman of the California curriculum commission speaking out after several Saxon teachers testified how much the books had raised their students' test scores. "Effectiveness, while certainly something that we all look at as consumers, [is] not a criteria [here] and I think it is important that we keep that in mind," the chairman said, according to Wang. "Test scores [are not] part of the criteria."
In her introduction to the Whitman guide, Ravitch said she once thought textbook publishers yearned to free themselves of the pressure groups that forced them to dumb down their books in the state adoption process. At a 2004 meeting of the Association of American Publishers, she called on the industry to take a stand.
"But the organization itself, I discovered (by reading its reports on lobbying activities in the states) was actively working to block any legislative efforts to weaken or abandon state textbook adoptions," Ravitch says. "At the AAP meeting, some publishers worried that states might reduce their textbook spending if there were no adoption process, but there is no evidence that adoption states spend more per pupil than non-adoption states.'"
Stephen Driesler, executive director of the AAP school division, denied that the association is lobbying to protect state adoptions. "Publishers can and will work within whatever process the state chooses," he said. "Our main goals are to make sure any system is open, fair and most importantly has an adequate level of funding to insure that every student has the instructional materials they need for a quality education."
Ravitch, Finn and Whitman say it would be better to improve the quality of teachers, by making sure they are well educated in the subjects they teach, and let them pick the textbooks. Over time, this would motivate the publishers to produce better books.
I asked Ravitch a couple of days ago if there has been any progress lately. She said California, Florida and Texas have all considered bills that would weaken the adoption process, but so far there has been little change. She said she thinks the best hope is that the Internet and electronic publishing will eventually render obsolete the textbook giants and their adoption panel co-conspirators.
Then I asked if she had seen any of the major education organizations put textbook improvement high on their lists of necessary reforms in the great campaign to improve high schools.
No, she said. It was, she added, that elephant in the room that everyone tries not to notice.