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The Basal Conspiracy

By Susan Harman — March 01, 1992 6 min read
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The publishers of elementary school reading textbooks--the heavy, several-hundred-page “basal readers’’ and their accompanying workbooks, work sheets, and other paraphernalia--are engaged in what amounts to a conspiracy to deprive the nation’s schools of quality education.

The K-8 reading-instruction market is worth half a billion dollars a year. The big five sharers of this lucrative market are Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill School Publishing Co. (which owns Merrill, SRA, and Barnell Loft, which all publish basals); Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (which owns Holt Rinehart & Winston and the Psychological Corp.); Silver Burdett/Ginn; Houghton Mifflin (which owns Riverside); and Scholastic. Although Scholastic is the fourth largest of these suppliers of elementary school materials, at the moment it does not publish a basal. However, Scholastic has one foot in that market with a teachers’ guide that “basalizes’’ the children’s literature--real books-- the company is famous for publishing, and its other foot is rumored to be poised over a basal of its own.

Whole city and county school districts, and even some states, adopt basal series for their entire districts and keep them for many years, because having once invested in a particular series, it makes fiscal sense to keep on buying the workbooks and other “consumables’’ that come with it, year after year. So, the choice of a basal program has a serious financial impact on both the school district and the textbook publisher.

Districts are notoriously conservative. No publisher can afford to introduce much innovation in its series because the risk of being too different from the other series and losing a large-city district or even a whole state--Texas, for instance-- is too great. Therefore, each company’s basals and workbooks look almost exactly like every other company’s basals and workbooks.

All the textbook series offer thick booklets containing end-of-unit tests of children’s mastery of the vocabulary and other skills covered in that unit. In some series, these tests are planned to be given as frequently as every two weeks. The tests are indistinguishable from the workbook exercises the children do as “seat work’’ to keep them busy while their teacher listens to a group of seven or eight children take turns reading a paragraph each from the basal textbook.

Then--blighting the springtime of children, parents, teachers, and administrators alike--come the real tests, which are usually the sole means of holding schools “accountable’’ to the public. These machine-scored, norm-referenced, multiplechoice, indirect, standardized tests are held up as the “objective’’ check on teachers’ “subjective,’' “soft’’ evaluations of their students. Teachers, after all, are said not to have the distance and detachment necessary to make these important judgments.

The tests, however, are all made by the very same people who make the texts. The California Achievement Test, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, and the SRA are published by Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill; the Metropolitan Achievement Test and the Stanford Achievement Test are published by Psych Corp., which is owned by Harcourt Brace; and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is published by Riverside, which is owned by Houghton Mifflin. Of the big four basal publishers, only Silver Burdett does not publish a test. Where is the distance that supposedly sets these tests apart from the mere judgment of teachers?

Next, since the stakes riding on these tests are very high, teachers and parents naturally are under great pressure to prepare children to take them, and the publishers have come to their aid. Children as young as 3 years old are in testpreparation courses, and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill offers the two best-selling test-practice series: Learning Materials and Scoring High.

The company hasn’t made the sales figures available, but 10 million Scoring High booklets have been sold during the last 10 years, and about 2 million students have used Learning Materials over the last four years. Not surprisingly, these practice workbooks resemble the tests in both format and content, up to and including some identical questions. Isn’t this cheating?

Lately, of course, the publishers have read the blood on the wall, and are scrambling to stay alive by providing schools with “authentic’’ evaluation instruments. Both Riverside and Psych Corp. have begun producing “New Tests.’' Riverside’s are structured like traditional reading lessons, and are scripted, like the basal teachers’ guides. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Houghton Mifflin owns Riverside.

Psych Corp.'s Integrated Assessment System is just as teacher-proof as any basal reader. The company has provided us with hardware (cardboard portfolios, storage boxes, a teachers’ manual, a training tape, and trainers’ kit) and has done all the thinking for us. It has picked a few passages from real books and composed the rest; it has written the prompts; it has decided what to score and how; and-- for a few dollars more--Psych Corp. will score these “untests’’ for us.

As the publishers are well aware, these New Tests contain no items that the average teacher couldn’t dream up on a slow day. They can’t be machine-scored, and it is at least as easy to train teachers to score them reliably as it is to train publishing company clerks.

But the New Tests are worse than just unnecessary. If the process of thinking up prompts that catch and hold students’ attention, of deciding what is valuable enough to be taught and scored, and of establishing a “library of exemplars’’ has any relevance to teaching, then it should be done by teachers. If we pay the publishers to make these important decisions for us, we not only forfeit the opportunity for exemplary and efficient staff development, but we also pay in the loss of improved instruction.

So, whether the stuff our children and their teachers spend time on is called “readers,’' “workbooks,’' “unit tests,’' “test preparation,’' “standardized tests,’' or “untests,’' it is really all the same thing, perpetrated and controlled essentially by three publishing companies.

This immensely profitable enterprise is based on a model of literacy acquisition that is pedagogically bankrupt. The result of decades of the basals’ “controlled vocabulary,’' lists of words to be memorized out of context, artificial language, idiotic plots, trivial “comprehension’’ exercises, and scripted teachers’ guides is generations of children who can bark at print but don’t know that what they read is supposed to sound like language and make sense.

We now know that children learn to read and write the way they learn to talk: They each invent the rules of grammar and usage; they do this in a systematic and predictable order; they do it from the top down--beginning with intention and then discovering syntax and vocabulary; and they do it within the embrace of a supportive community that responds to the meaning, rather than to the form, of their utterances.

It is the same with reading. The reading authority Frank Smith adapted the British adage, “Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’’ to describe literacy acquisition. His version is, “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.’' This news, however, has been slow to reach teachers, perhaps because their main source of new information (aside from the teachers’ guides that accompany the basals) is the regional and local reading conferences they attend by the thousands. Many of the major speakers at these conferences are the university professors who write the basals, and whose conference expenses and honoraria are paid by their publishers. The basal companies have our teachers surrounded.

The three companies hold captive our nation’s reading instruction. And since children, teachers, schools, and districts are “held accountable’’ essentially on the basis of test scores in reading alone, “reading’’ has become the curriculum that counts; so these publishers control not just reading but the overwhelming bulk of the elementary school curriculum. Perhaps we could tolerate a benevolent conspiracy, if its attitude toward teachers were more respectful and its reading theory were sound. Since neither is the case, this conspiracy is malevolent and must be confronted.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Basal Conspiracy

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