Bell Calls on Educators To Push Publishers for Better Materials

By Thomas Toch — March 07, 1984 5 min read

Washington--Asserting that current efforts to reform the schools will “fall flat and fail” if textbooks are not improved, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell has called on educators to join together to pressure publishers to improve their classroom products.

These same consortia, he said in a Feb. 25 address to a group of educators in Las Vegas and in an interview last week, should establish regional centers to develop and evaluate textbooks, computer software, and standardized tests.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education, in its report of nearly a year ago, said that “textbooks and other tools of learning and teaching should be upgraded and updated to assure more rigorous content.” That recommendation “isn’t getting the urgent attention of the education community that it ought to get,” Secretary Bell said last week in the interview.

In his speech before the American Association of School Administrators, he said the textbook issue “has been largely ignored” and he urged his audience to “make this matter an item of high priority.”

The Secretary said last week that he applauds a move begun recently by several Florida political leaders to establish an interstate consortium on instructional materials very similar to the arrangement he envisions. That group, which includes Gov. Robert Graham, will convene its first meeting at Florida State University in Tallahassee on March 19 and 20. (See Education Week, Feb. 29, 1984.)

Mr. Bell said he has tentative plans to sponsor a national meeting also aimed at promoting consortia among state and local educators. If held, it would serve as a “follow up” to the Tallahassee meeting, he said.

‘Dumbing Down’ of Texts

As evidence of what he described as the “dumbing down” of textbooks in America, Mr. Bell cited a study conducted for the excellence commission that found a majority of the students involved earned scores of 80 percent or better on tests of material from their textbooks--before they used the textbooks.

He also attributed the problem to the widespread use by educators of “readability formulas,” which are ways to measure and predict the difficulty of reading material on the basis of the kind of vocabulary and syntax used.

In his address to the aasa, he also cited figures from the Association of American Publishers noting a 50-percent decline (from 1.4 percent to around 0.7 percent) in the proportion of school budgets spent for books and supplies over the past 17 years. And he said that methods used to select textbooks and influence their content are “slipshod.”

Efforts to reform the schools cannot succeed unless these problems are resolved, Mr. Bell said, because textbooks are so influential in determining what is taught in the schools.

“Textbooks drive content, set the level of rigor, and influence the degree of intellectual challenge to students,” he said in Las Vegas. According to testimony before the excellence commission, he noted, up to 95 percent of classroom instruction in the country is based on textbooks and related materials.

“If the textbook is 95 percent of the curriculum and if the content of the textbooks has been declining dramatically, then you have a serious problem,” Mr. Bell said last week. “The education publishing industry has had an enormous influence on the school curriculum.”

In turn, the Secretary noted, the textbook-selection committees in a handful of large states that have laws requiring centralized textbook adoption wield an inordinate amount of influence over the standards of the publishing industry. Twenty-two states have central committees for textbook adoption, the Secretary said; they include Texas and California.

“There is little doubt that textbook-adoption officials in the large states are unwittingly setting the standard for the rest of the nation because publishers must meet the demands of the large markets if they are to remain economically viable,” Mr. Bell told the aasa

“If two or three large textbook-adoption states demand the language simplification complained of by publishers, the introduction of short and overly simplistic sentences and limited vocabulary geared to the slowest groups of learners, then all of American education is saddled with the results,” he said.

Cooperation Is Key

Mr. Bell said state and local educators should address these problems cooperatively, to bring pressure on the publishing industry and to do a better job of writing and scrutinizing instructional materials. “There is too much separate, go-it-alone action going on all across the nation,” he said in Las Vegas.

“On top of this, we have the chaotic scene of school systems struggling alone to develop and evaluate computer software,” he noted in the interview.

“Textbooks of the future need to be developed in such a way that along with the textbooks that you buy you have some computer software that ties into it, and that makes it increasingly important that we do more in instructional-materials development,” Mr. Bell said.

The Secretary, who said he intends to “get on” the issue of textbook quality, last week urged the creation of several, large-scale regional centers to carry out these activities. But he suggested only a limited role for his department.

“Evaluating materials and communicating the need for more rigor ought to be a state and local job. The federal government should not have a thing to say about that. We are treading on dangerous ground if we do. The content of what’s taught in our neighborhood schools shouldn’t be decided in Washington,” he said.

He added, however, that the federally supported regional research laboratories of the National Institute of Education might appropriately serve such a function, because their policies are determined by state and local educators, not the federal government.

The U.S. Education Department will offer “advice and encouragement” in the creation of the recommended consortia, Mr. Bell said, but probably not much money.

“I have a very limited budget,” he said, “and most of what I do have is tied up. I wouldn’t slam the door on requests for funding, but I wouldn’t want to say, ‘Hey, apply for a grant, we’ve got lots of money and we are ready to rush in and fund this,’ because we just don’t have the funds. I would consider proposals along with other priorities that we have.”

Mr. Bell was scheduled to discuss the textbook issue further at a press conference in Washington this week. He said he would also use the occasion to give a “progress report” on the number of states that have moved to implement incentive-pay plans for teachers and would announce $1 million in grants of $20,000 to $50,000 each to help states and school systems develop such plans.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as Bell Calls on Educators To Push Publishers for Better Materials