Education Letter to the Editor

Textbook Industry Thrives on ‘Pendulum Swings’

October 12, 2004 2 min read

To the Editor:

Bravo to California’s movie-star governor as he tackles the school textbook travesty (“California Textbook Bills Reach Governor,” Sept. 22, 2004). The ever-evolving K-12-curricula scheme comes at students’ and taxpayers’ expense.

In 2000, my small Ohio district prepared to buy new math textbooks for grades K-4. The choice was between two very different series: one that was a well-sequenced and content-rich approach by which students build a solid mastery of skills and concepts, and another that was an investigative-learning approach for students to discover math ideas. The contrast is symbolic of the “math wars” waged since the 1980s—pendulum swings in teaching styles from which publishers profit mightily.

I had taught at a private secondary school in Los Angeles, where we chose whatever textbook seemed best. In the mid-1980s, I suggested that students could benefit from a more effective Algebra 1 book, researched the choices, and convinced my colleagues.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics was busily creating a new “framework” for teaching math. Once published in 1989, it set the standards for state educrats to revise math curriculum and adopt new books. Some nctm framework participants then authored the textbooks that states adopted and districts purchased.

The new standards’ emphasis on investigative-discovery math, rather than properly sequenced, content-rich math, launched the “math wars.” That’s when memorizing multiplication tables and learning how to divide went out of style, and 1st graders were given calculators. The nctm has since retreated and now recommends that students acquire basic skills, rather than merely investigate problems.

But, oh, what an effect on publishers’ profits! When I transferred to a Los Angeles public magnet school in 1989, it badly needed new pre-algebra books. The old ones were falling apart and filled with outdated problems. But California, responding to the new nctm standards, had not adopted and would not pay for pre-algebra books. Warned that Algebra 1 books would soon disappear from the approved list, we rushed to buy those. For years, California would adopt only controversial, integrated math books, which districts were forced to buy.

In your Feb. 25, 2004, issue, you quoted Peter Appert, a Goldman Sachs analyst, as telling an annual meeting of publishing executives that “2005 is the mother of all state adoption years, with as much as $950 million becoming available.” He suggested that California and Texas, bastions of trendy textbook selection, would lead the way, and predicted “a boom time, with 10 percent profit growth.” No wonder the industry opposes the California governor’s actions.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin

Retired Los Angeles Teacher

Willard, Ohio