Education Opinion

Questions on Quality for Textbook Selectors

By Randy Schenkat & Jeanne Ehlinger — May 22, 1991 9 min read
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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.

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, 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.

    A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 1991 edition of Education Week as Questions on Quality for Textbook Selectors


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