Education

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October 01, 2003 3 min read
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Are textbook lists too limiting? Some lawmakers think so.

As a teacher, then an associate superintendent, in the Gadsden Independent School District in New Mexico, Cynthia Nava says she saw firsthand how the state’s system of selecting textbooks frustrates educators struggling to address students’ individual needs. New Mexico is one of 22 so-called textbook- adoption states, where districts can use state money to buy only instructional materials that appear on an approved list. “The state now has a standards- based curriculum, and it is less important than it used to be to have statewide textbook adoption,” argues Nava, currently a state senator in New Mexico. “We shouldn’t be so insistent on telling [teachers] every step of the way how to get students to meet those standards.”

Nava has introduced a bill in the legislature four years running to eliminate New Mexico’s book list. The senator plans to reintroduce the bill in the 2004 session if the materials rules are not reformed when the state’s public school code is rewritten this year. “I don’t plan on giving up,” she says.

Nava is not alone in attacking the tyranny of “the list.” Legislators in several textbook-adoption states are proposing changes to allow greater flexibility. In California, for example, teacher complaints have prompted state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg to suggest revamping the process. Of the thousands of instructional materials produced during the past few years to help elementary school teachers, just two reading series have earned the state seal of approval for use in California’s K-6 classrooms, she says. Such limited choice, teachers argue, hogties their efforts to find innovative ways to meet students’ needs. “We have to give teachers a lot more say in curriculum decisions,” says Goldberg.

Changing the policies won’t be easy. The prevailing attitude among many officials in adoption states is that the advantages to statewide selection of textbooks far outweigh the drawbacks. A centralized system, proponents argue, offers greater guarantees that all classrooms have access to textbooks reflecting the state’s academic content requirements. Such policies often also ensure the existence of pots of state money earmarked for instructional materials, and, they say, inherent cost savings come from purchasing textbooks en masse on a regular schedule. In addition, scrutiny of texts at the state level can free local educators from the tedious task of reviewing and evaluating materials on their own.

“In Florida, we have an efficient system and a very fair system,” says Marci Buchanan, who oversees instructional materials for the Alachua County district. The adoption system, she says, gives districts more leverage with publishers, who provide teachers with professional development and other services along with replacement books. “You are not buying just a textbook; you are buying a comprehensive curriculum system,” she argues.

From the publishing industry’s standpoint, adoption policies help ensure funding, in turn improving textbook quality. States selecting new textbooks on a regular cycle, industry representatives argue, allow publishers to devote resources to making high-quality texts in one or two subjects at a time, knowing that districts will have the money to buy them. “Adoption systems work, by and large, because states either totally or substantially help local districts pay for the textbooks,” says Stephen Driesler, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.

That argument may no longer be reliable. In tight fiscal times, state textbook money is often threatened. Texas lawmakers, for example, recently cut their state’s book budget. And some dispute the purported cost savings in state-level selections. As a member of several textbook-selection committees in California and Michigan at different points in his career, English teacher Bill Younglove says he has “felt the pressure of being hounded by publishers’ agents” to buy, even as districts maintained sufficient stocks of other suitable books.

Teachers in Florida have leveled similar complaints, leading state representative Dennis Baxley to promote a pilot program that would allow districts to direct more textbook funds to materials they choose or to negotiate with publishers and used-book dealers themselves. “We know all the benefits to being an adoption state,” he says. “But we need to ask, ‘What can we do to make the system a bit more flexible?’”

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

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