Book-Selection Bills Advance In California

By Robert Rothman — May 17, 1989 9 min read

Following a fierce political battle that spread far beyond the state’s borders, California lawmakers last week reached agreement on measures revising their controversial textbook-adoption system.

If enacted, the bills approved by the education committees in both chambers of the legislature could have substantial effects on textbooks used in most states.

The legislation would “open up,” critics of the present system say, a process that has created a high-stakes competition that limits choice and makes objective evaluations of texts difficult.

It would enable publishers to submit books for review each year, rather than on the state’s current schedule, which calls for a review of books for a different subject area every two years.

California officials, led by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, have increased the national importance of this two-year adoption cycle by attempting to use their huge market share to demand that publishers change the content of their books to match the state’s curricular frameworks.

Critics of the adoption system, including Harriet Tyson, author of a major study on textbook quality published last year by the Council for Basic Education, have contended that the widely publicized confrontations between Mr. Honig and textbook publishers have failed to yield better materials.

But in a key concession to Mr. Honig, who had called the original version of the legislation a publisher-inspired attempt to destroy the state-adoption system, the bills’ sponsors agreed to drop a provision he viewed as undermining the state’s power.

As a result, the superintendent said the version approved last week enhances, rather than weakens, the state’s ability to demand changes in content.

“Our power doesn’t come from the fact that we have a big adoption,” he said. “It comes from the fact that they can’t sell in our market unless they cross the hurdle of state approval.”

Glen Thomas, director of the office of curriculum framework and textbook development, said that, despite the amendments, the bills still contain “troubling” provisions. But he added that he planned to work with sponsors to seek a compromise all could support.

‘Push for Quality’

While several other states--notably Texas and North Carolina--are considering changes in their statewide textbook-adoption system, the proposed changes in California are perhaps the most far-reaching, according to observers.

Because California purchases about 11 percent of the textbooks used nationwide, they argue, its policies often exert a strong influence on publishers who intend to produce books sold to a national market.

The concerted effort made by officials there to pressure publishers into revisions that reflect what they consider good educational practice also ups the stakes of any change in the California adoption system, they add.

“In instructional materials, thepush for quality and content picked up steam because of what we have done in California,” said Mr. Thomas.

He noted specifically these developments:

In 1985, the state board of education rejected all the junior-high-school biology textbooks submitted for adoption and demanded that publishers revise them to improve their coverage of evolution and human reproduction;

In 1986, the board rejected all elementary mathematics texts submitted, and required publishers to place greater emphasis on problem-solving and less on rote memorization;

In 1988, following a highly charged series of hearings and preliminary votes, the board agreed to adopt English and language-arts books that stressed, in the words of officials, “real literature” over word drill.

“As controversial as it was,” said Mr. Thomas of the record of rejections, “look at what we achieved: Everybody in the country got a clearer vision of what [these subjects] should be about.”

‘Absolute Standard’

But critics, such as Ms. Tyson, have charged that such confrontations amount to little more than “grandstanding” by Mr. Honig that has not resulted in genuine improvements.

“It is abundantly clear,” Ms. Tyson wrote in a letter to Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego City Schools and president of the cbe, “that the calls for ‘content’ and ‘quality’ have thus far been more rhetorical than real, and that the process intended to recognize and reward ‘quality’ is not up to the task.”

Citing a study by a group of Cali4fornia scientists, she claimed that the board-mandated revisions in life-science books did not significantly improve their content.

And, she noted, the board last year adopted a reading series that was “diametrically opposed” to the methods prescribed by the state’s curricular frameworks.

At her urging, the council took the highly unusual step of registering as state lobbyists to push for legislation that would create a “rolling adoption” system in which publishers could submit books whenever they were completed. The bill is being sponsored by Senator Kenneth L. Maddy and Assemblyman Robert Epple and backed by the Association of American Publishers.

The rolling-adoption system, Ms. Tyson argued, would take politics out of the selection process by ensuring that textbooks are judged against an “absolute standard, rather than a relative standard.”

“The publisher would get an up or down vote on whether the book is pedagogically sound,” she said.

Jack C. Crose, an independent lobbyist who was hired by the cbe but now represents Ms. Tyson, added that the measure would also work to broaden the options available to local districts.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that the system as it now works favors the very largest publishers, andthere is no incentive for new works to be submitted.”

Some of the additional options may not match the curriculum framework exactly, he conceded, adding: “If they want precise, word-for-word agreement, they might as well write the books themselves.”

‘Stop the Revolution’

The proposed measure sparked a heated reaction from officials and educators in California and around the country.

“I’m not saying the process works perfectly,” said Mr. Honig. “But it is working. We’ve made our point. They do change books for us.”

Mr. Honig added that he thought the publishers were trying to win in the legislature what they failed to win in the adoption process.

“They would rather spend a couple hundred-thousand dollars lobbying than a couple million dollars making books better,” he charged.

Diane Ravitch, the Columbia University education historian and an author of California’s new history/social-studies framework, said the legislation represented the publishing industry’s attempt to scuttle the state’s textbook-adoption system before next year, when California is expected to review history textbooks.

Ms. Ravitch cited in particular a provision that would have required “In instructional materials, the push for quality andcontent picked upsteam because ofwhat we have donein California."--Glen Thomas

“It is abundantly clear that the calls for ‘content’ and’quality’ have thus far been more rhetorical than real."--Harriet Tyson

“The market said ina very loud tone,'We want better textbooks,’ and they are intervening to change the market."--Diane Ravitch

the state board to name a commission of experts to explain why they rejected a textbook. That provision, she said, would have created a substantial hurdle that would have effectively destroyed state adoption.

“Publishers always say they produce what the market will buy,” said Ms. Ravitch. “Here, the market said in a very loud tone, ‘We want better textbooks,’ and they are intervening to change the market.”

“California is creating a revolution in writing textbooks,” she said. “What the publishers are trying to do is stop the revolution.”

Ms. Ravitch wrote letters to Senator Gary K. Hart, chairman of the Senate education committee, and an op-ed piece in the Sacramento Bee, outlining her views. Other educators--including Chester E. Finn Jr., director of the Educational Excellence Network; Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council; and John Seel, administrative director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation--also wrote letters expressing opposition to the bills.

Conflict of Interest?

The escalating war of words reached a crescendo last month, when Mr. Honig and others accused Ms. Tyson of a conflict of interest. They noted that the chief financial backer for her cbe study, Mary Bingham, the Louisville newspaper publisher, is also a stockholder and board member of the Open Court Publishing Company.

Open Court’s math series was one of those rejected by the state board in 1986, and its reading series was approved by the board last year after initially being rejected by the curriculum commission.

Ms. Tyson and A. Graham Down, the council’s executive director, vehemently denied any conflict.

“Neither in my mind when I asked for money, nor in her mind when she gave it, was there any connection” between the study and the firm, said Mr. Down.

Ms. Tyson acknowledged that the arrangement was “not ideal,” but said that she had never met Ms. Bingham and was not told what to write.

“If the publishers are going the same way I’m going, fine with me,” she said. “I’ve been going my way a long time.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Payzant, in a letter to Ms. Tyson, warned that the perception “that cbe is being unduly influenced by the publishers in general and Open Court in particular ... can sully cbe’s traditional reputation for detachment,” and he withdrew the organization’s support for the legislation.

He added that he thought the existing adoption system had produced improvements in instructional materials, and said that the legislation ''may be appropriate for other states which have had different experiences from those California has had with Bill Honig’s leadership.”

In response to his actions, Ms. Tyson severed her connections with the council and retained Mr. Crose to continue lobbying for the legislation.

Compromise Reached

Despite the controversy, sponsors and state officials worked together to hammer out a compromise.

The new version would allow textbooks to be submitted annually for adoption in each subject area. But it requires the board, not a panel of experts, to explain why a program was rejected.

In addition, the amended legislation specifies that materials must reflect “the standards of quality established in the state board’s adopted curriculum framework.”

Both Ms. Tyson and Mr. Honig predicted that the compromise could help lead to better textbooks.

“I’m hoping it will clear the way for publishers to say they’ll take a shot at the social-studies adoption,” said Ms. Tyson.

Mr. Honig added that the measure would ensure that textbooks meet state standards while providing “flexibility” that might allow smaller publishers to enter the market.

Regardless of the outcome of the legislation, Mr. Thomas said, districts will remain free to buy whatever books they choose, whether or not they are on the state-approved list.

“There’s nothing magical about the list,” he said. “But I do think it’s important that the state come out with a strong statement of whether materials meet its framework. The state has a legitimate role to do that.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 1989 edition of Education Week as Book-Selection Bills Advance In California