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Questions on Quality for Textbook Selectors

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Advertising has made the concept of quality a powerful theme in the American psyche once again. Most of us are probably aware, for example, that Cadillac won the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award last year, a fact the company's television commercials hit hard. And who could not know by now that at Ford, as the slogan goes, "The quality goes in before the name goes on."

Shouldn't this concern for quality be at least as strong when it comes to educating our children as when we think of building cars, making computers, or delivering overnight packages? (Ibm and Federal Express were, after all, the two other 1990 Baldrige Award winners.)

At the center of how we educate our children is how we teach them to read. And quality in reading instruction boils down to how well we use state-of-the-art, research-based practices that have proven effective for learning.

A very fruitful decade of research has produced considerable change in the state of the art in reading instruction. These changes, well summarized in the federal study Becoming a Nation of Readers, see students as constructors of meaning rather than rememberers of details; see phonics as something to be automatic by the end of 2nd grade, rather than carrying on through the elementary grades; see students knowing how to use strategies, rather than working on isolated skills; and see assessment from a more holistic perspective, rather than as multiple-choice tests.

The delivery of reading instruction today is accomplished mainly through the use of basal readers purchased from commercial publishers. In fact, studies over the past 30 years have consistently indicated up to 90 percent of instructional time is structured by some kind of instructional material. Because of the research-driven instructional changes of the past decade, corresponding changes have been made in the more recent basal editions. Indeed, there has been much "change" in basals of late.

But is the change educationally effective? And how are teachers and textbook-selection committees to know?

This is a busy time in many school districts, as elementary teachers form not only visions of the close of the 1990-91 school year, but of what the teaching of reading will be like for them over the next six to eight years. Textbook-adoption committees in many locales are considering the pitches, promotions, paraphernalia, and promises of publishing companies. And teachers are in the process of making one of their biggest decisions--what basal reader to select for their district?

Though some would suggest that basals have been the major villains keeping us from attaining the state of the art in reading instruction, their foothold in the field is too strong to envision their being discontinued anytime soon. That being the case, certain information on the books' authorship needs to be common knowledge.

The major authors of reading series are often well-known reading experts who have built their reputations on the quality and usefulness of their research. Their work often sets the course for the field, and their prominence is used conspicuously in marketing by the basal-reader publishers.

Yet basal readers have not lived up to their claims of incorporating the suggestions of researchers they tout as series authors. This can be a perplexing discovery for selectors, who might legitimately ask: Aren't authors the ones who make or originate the ideas and materials that undergird the book? Don't they actually write what is used? How can there be (as there sometimes is) such a disparity between what their research espouses and what the final product looks like?

A glance at the construction of these multimillion-dollar ventures--the making of basal readers--suggests a process that might seem far removed from the concept of authorship that teacher teams from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, or Alabama imagine as they base the credibility of a series on the respect and reputation of the series' authors.

Textbook-selection committees commonly think that textbooks are written by experts and put together according to scientific principles of learning. As a result, committees believe they don't have to inspect texts carefully. The quality is there before the name goes on, they assume. There seems to be little awareness that these major figures in the field of reading aren't always authors in the truest sense. Their roles as "authors" vary, in fact, from publishing house to publishing house, though the unsuspecting buyer does not know this.

Many schoolbooks are not actually written by authors at all, but are assembled by editors from pieces written by teams of people. According to Connie Muther of the Textbook Advisory Service, there is irony in the fact that textbook-committee members often spend considerable time examining the credentials of authors. Most schoolbooks are written by large teams of editorial employees, with the people listed as authors sometimes serving as little more than consultants.

Perhaps realizing this can explain why one reading researcher could report in one scholarly forum that "while comprehension-skills practice still dominates, there is surprisingly little empirical support for the existence of and teaching of specific comprehension skills, " yet be the major author of a reading series that still contains a heavy emphasis on comprehension skills.

In truth, authors for many basal readers don't write but, rather, get together to present what they think should be included in new or revised series. All the authors present their ideas on important features for the series and, through discussion, compromises are made on what actually ends up in the final product.

In this system, well-intentioned "authors" whose ideas on how to teach reading have a concrete foundation in their own and others' research can often lose out to compromise weighted toward what will appeal and sell in the marketplace. Educational issues can easily be overridden by market issues.

Fortunately, there are still some publishing houses where the authors are the experts who do the actual writing of the basals in their areas of expertise. But their numbers are shrinking rapidly as large corporations buy up smaller publishing firms.

Why would respected authors allow themselves to be part of an essentially market-driven process of basal-reader development? Many care deeply about the quality of reading instruction, see the influencing of publishers as extremely difficult, and believe that even small steps may shape an evolutionary change in the practice of the teaching of reading. Most realize that sales and the potential for sales inevitably drive the reading-series market. As one such author reports, sophisticated market research on reading products is done not in the controlled, experimental fashion we have come to expect in the testing of prescription drugs--with effectiveness or lack of effectiveness documented--but, rather, in the Madison Avenue approach of studying teacher groups through two-way mirrors, discerning which graphics appeal and which potential changes might be palatable.

Much, then, is amiss in the process by which we seek to obtain state-of-the-art basal readers. Is the quality there before the name goes on? It appears not. How can educators develop high-quality materials in a textbook arena that is still so market-driven? We offer the following suggestions as a start:

  • Make the process of basal-reader development common knowledge for all teachers. Perhaps publishers should prepare a prospectus describing their process. This certainly seems to have as much social relevance as the required stock prospectuses that General Motors, ibm, or Federal Express must prepare. If the current practices were known, would teachers perhaps be more discerning and have the confidence to question material they realize isn't written by the cited author?
  • Question whether it is appropriate to call the current authors, At best, they should, in many instances, be called consultants--experts whose ideas are used if they fit the marketing plan.
  • Ensure that educational leaders realize fully the impact of basal curriculum. There needs to be a reward structure that supports the use of the state of the art in reading instruction. If teachers aren't given the time to develop their own curriculum and materials, then there should be assurances that materials will be effective when used with students.

The Educational Products Information Exchange has continually called for product field-testing to verify that students are learning with the materials they are using. Surely, if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can require that prescription drugs be tested, we should be able to devise some test of the effectiveness of educational materials before students are subjected to them. This is especially crucial when researchers have documented such discrepancies between the state of the art and the state of practice.

Of particular note here would be the importance of reading materials' demonstrated effectiveness under specified conditions with hard-to-teach children. All students need the best that educational researchers, program developers, and teachers can offer. But as Jean Osborn of the Center for the Study of Reading has pointed out, for hard-to-teach students, the best can make the difference between satisfactory and unsatisfactory achievement.

These suggestions cannot, of course, be implemented in time to affect this round of basal selections. So selection teams should be asking publishers' sales representatives these kinds of questions to find out what type of quality went into their books before the name went on:

  • What were the specific suggestions that your authors made? How were they applied and which suggestions were not used?
  • What test-marketing was done to verify student learning? What other types of test-marketing were done? How did these marketing results influence the program development?
  • Who is the "writing team" for this series? What are their backgrounds? Where were all the pieces of the basal produced (at how many different locations)?

The "quality" movement needs to move into the realm of education. It's time for us as educators to look carefully at what we do to educate students and how well we do it. One area to examine closely is the educational products we use with students. We cannot afford to pass up the extension of quality into educational products, especially those in reading. If our students do not develop the skills and strategies for reading that are so necessary to function as a literate adult in our society, our efforts at corporate quality in the future will have a very hollow ring.

Randy Schenkat is a special-needs consultant for Independent School District 861 in Winona, Minn. Jeanne Ehlinger is an assistant professor of education at Winona State University.

Watch Out for America 2000;It Really Is a Crusade

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 35, May 22, 1991, pp 36, 27

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Watch Out for America 2000;It Really Is a Crusade

By George R. Kaplan

If there's one thing that history tells us about crusades it's that lots of people kill and get killed in them. Should it ever catch on, the Bush Administration's "America 2000: An Education Strategy," which Lamar Alexander calls "a crusade, not a program," could litter the battlefield with collateral damage. Out of its grab bag of educational jingoism, fanciful thinking, and right-wing boilerplate could come a dark time for America's public schools.

The timing of America 2000's unveiling was masterful. For a conservative Administration in panting need of a domestic agenda it offered exciting prospects: a shot at pre-empting a powerful Democratic Party issue 18 months before the 1992 national elections, the chance to prove during a recession that money isn't everything, and, perhaps most unsettling for school leaders, an ideal moment in history for reappraising democratic control of public education through no-holds-barred parental choice.

Reinforcing America 2000's tempting political pluses is Secretary Alexander's track record as an accomplished and unflappable pitchman for "reinventing" the schools. (Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" commented: "Wash. swoons over Ed. chief. Lamar, honey, you're on the CW honor roll.") In our post-McLuhan age of information overkill and sloppy thinking, the messenger who speaks convincingly in grammatical sentences possesses a telling advantage. To education-oriented Americans beyond the Washington Beltway, Lamar Alexander's reassuring voice comes as a welcome relief from the banalities of Lauro Cavazos and the outbursts of William Bennett. He is George Bush's new home-front weapon, quietly certain of his case, tenacious in pressing it--and ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The propelling theme of America 2000's 34 pages is the highly dubious proposition that our public schools are beyond hope or repair. Their rotten performance, swollen bureaucracies, and outdated methods consign them to education's junkyard. But they will need replacing, preferably by something really grabby, goes the reasoning. So let's enlist the services of our successful brethren in business. They know how to get things done, and they're great at research. Then each senator and congressperson will get a brand-new million-dollar school, our children will conform to tougher new standards and face new batteries of modern-era examinations, and Ozzie and Harriet will spring back to life with a ready-made family of clean-cut kids prepared to face a color-blind world bursting with opportunity.

Season the mix with an unleashing of "America's creative genius" and a couple of recognition and training programs, and, voila, education's brave new world is upon us. Best of all, it will take until at least the end of the century before anyone can really check on how it is faring.

This biased oversimplification doubtless does a disservice to Mr. Alexander and his energetic brain trust. But not too much of one, for America 2000 is simplistic educational ideology run rampant. Implicit in it, and explicit in the pronouncements of members of the Secretary's kitchen cabinet, is a set of abiding convictions that concerned citizens and professional educators must be prepared to weigh. To buy in to the crusade's most prominent feature is to believe, as the Secretary does, that we have already made our choice in favor of choice. Only the details need working out for private education to move from bit player to center stage in the nation's school play. But what details! For starters, let's try constitutionality, civil-rights laws, parental roles in private for-profit enterprises, and, towering above all others, ticketing millions of low-achieving poor children for education's scrap heaps.

Maybe these "details" can be worked out. But not by promoting unproven assumptions that far exceed the premises of carefully designed public-school choice.

To the gurus who helped inspire Mr. Alexander's crusade, public education's information base is badly skewed. Though Mr. Alexander's band numbers several certified social scientists who surely understand how learning happens and how public institutions react to social change, they prefer to treat federally sponsored research in education as another lost cause that government need no longer support. Even though federal R&D was making an admirable recovery from the chaotic 1980's until Christopher Cross was dumped as assistant secretary for educational research and improvement a few weeks ago, they now propose to hand educational research over to private interests. Remember, you saw it here first: If it ever gets off the ground, this turkey is headed for a bumpy flight and a crash landing, possibly accompanied by hints of arm-twisting and super-creative financial shenanigans.

And who nominated American business for beatification? Where did we get the idea that industry and commerce are doing so much better than the schools? From Lee Iacocca? Donald Trump? Ivan Boesky? The banking business? Secretary Alexander's devotion to the free-enterprise system is well known, and it's genuinely heartening to see so many corporations so constructively involved in helping schools. But, as the political economist Robert Reich has pointed out, "the suggestion that the private sector is taking--or will take--substantial responsibility for investing in America's work force is seriously misleading." It might be diverting to see whether General Motors or Montgomery Ward can design and run a decent inner-city school, but who really trusts them? They have had trouble enough keeping themselves afloat.

While most of the content of America 2000 is disturbing, what's missing is downright distressing. Even though it accords brief nods to current projects and practices, its heart and mind are elsewhere. As an educational strategy, America 2000 is a plan for Middle Class America, where pride in academic achievement still runs high much of the time and most people like their community's schools. That some of these schools are performing below expectations is lamentable, but jettisoning them in order to conform to a market-driven, private-school-oriented vision of schooling in a responsible democratic society is palpable nonsense. And very dangerous.

It is hardly a secret that the truly ominous crunch in our schools is in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the rest of urban America. If these systems fail, we're in deep trouble. It seems that the only people in American education who prefer to downplay that truism (unless a few grant dollars come their way to track it) are the architects of American 2000. How can a landmark federal document on redefining and reconstituting education in American sail serenely past the issues of race, class, and economics in our cities as though they scarcely existed?

Presumably, the new crusade is another rising tide, destined, like supply-side economics, to lift all vessels. Try telling that to such big-city school leaders as Joseph Fernandez, Constance Clayton, or Ted Kimbrough. Or to several million parents of children who attend decaying urban schools. They have somehow managed to contain their enthusiasm for the prescriptions of American 2000. What they need, of course, is tangible help--and now--and not the Governors' Academies, New World Standards, and New American Schools Development Corporation the Bush Administration proposes to give them.

From its gratuitous and irrelevant kudos to Operation Desert Storm (''a triumph of American character, ability, and technology") to its six pages of unlikely questions and answers, America 2000 is easy to dismiss, even to ridicule, as a sophomoric catchall of Reagan-era bromides about the schools. It is that and less, but, as Secretary Alexander has noted, "there will be more to it than meets the eye, rather than less." His is the voice to heed, even when, as at the recent San Diego seminar of the Education Writers Association, his replies to tough questions are formulaic or evasive.

What America 2000 heralds is something radically different from the pretentious latter-day educationese of the document itself. Flawed though it may be, it is not unreasonable to view it as the vanguard of a concerted attempt to complete the domestic agenda of the 1980's, possibly as the opening blast of a renewed government wide effort to eradicate what remains of the compassion of the New Deal and Great Society. And who better to carry the flag than a widely admired and successful governor who knows the subject matter inside out, is busily cultivating James Baker-type relations with the national media's heavy hitters, and may have a political eye cocked to 1996? Lamar Alexander is not a man who expects his life's work to end when the American Achievement Tests are in place.

The tone of the Bush-Alexander crusade is not offensive. No one is fighting old wars. But it proceeds from a belief system that educators should be most skeptical about accepting. The omission of civil rights and equal opportunity, for example, is probably intentional; like its predecessor, this Administration would like to see laws affecting them rolled back or eliminated. Private education, an already strong and generally elitist presence in our national educational profile, is clearly viewed uncritically in larger perspective as a solution or even as a replacement for failing public schools. And most of a decade's work in school improvement is implicitly dismissed as immaterial to the new strategy. What ever happened to restructuring?

These are legitimate subjects for debate. But it will be frustrating to discuss them intelligently in the context of America 2000. In addition to killing people, crusades don't offer much room for negotiation. Though traditional left-right divisions in educational policy have blurred slightly over the past 20 years, discernible philosophical differences remain. In offering us America 2000, the Bush Administration is attempting to define and arrogate the middle ground. But this crusade is not a mainstream educational strategy. It proposes a major doctrinal revolution, one that should concern anyone connected to children and schools.

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