States To Work on Improving Text Selection, Adoption Policies

By Anne Bridgman — March 28, 1984 9 min read

Talahassee, Fla--Education officials from 22 states, convened here last week to form “a cartel for excellence” that would pressure publishers into improving instructional materials, instead turned their criticism mainly on themselves.

Agreeing with publishers that there is a discrepancy between what the education community says it wants and what it actually buys, the 140 participants focused their attention on the need to improve their own selection and adoption procedures as a way to raise the quality of textbooks.

They also tried to determine what form a continued discussion of textbook improvement should take, and they spent considerable time sorting out the meaning of early reports from the conference stating that three of the largest participating states had already formed a multi-state effort.

Called together by Gov. Robert Graham of Florida and members of the Florida Senate Education Committee, the state educa-tion officials, leaders of national education organizations, researchers, and publishers were charged with determining how to reverse what Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell earlier this month termed a “dumbing down” of textbooks. (See Education Week, Feb. 29, 1984.)

Recent studies indicate that as much as 95 percent of a student’s time in class is spent using some form of instructional materials, and that 70 to 75 percent of that time is spent with textbooks.

Policy Statement

A joint policy statement-press release issued on the first day of the conference stating that California, Florida, and New York--which make up more than 20 percent of the nation’s $1-billion textbook market--had banded together to form “a multi-state consortium to create a market for more challenging and rigorous instructional materials” confused representatives of the other 19 states at the meeting.

Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction and the distributor of the policy statement, strongly urged representatives of those states attending the meeting to join the three states in addressing the problem of textbooks that lack educational rigor. But when the statement was reviewed at an ad hoc meeting the first day of the conference, a New York representative said the state was not committed to such an arrangement, and education officials from other states said they wanted to discuss the idea with their state leaders before committing their support.

California has set June as the deadline by which it wants to decide on criteria for reading and mathematics textbooks, according to Mr. Honig, and thus is eager to establish some kind of formal interstate organization.

But other state representatives at the meeting characterized Mr. Honig’s action as premature. “This was not an agreement made by three states,” said Maria Ramirez, assistant commissioner for general education in New York. “There is no coalition, there is no cartel, there is no consortium. ... Many states have indicated an interest and a concern to improve instructional materials,” she said. But because there was an urgency to release the statement, she said, “it was released without [other states] having the opportunity to sign.”

Following the flurry of confusion over the California initiative, participants decided to place the responsibility for taking the next step in establishing an agenda for future discussions of textbook reform with3the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has been studying the topic of textbook improvement since last year.

The council, meeting in executive session early this week in Washington with the National Association of State Boards of Education, is scheduled to set an agenda and a time and place for the next meeting.

‘Comic-Book’ Texts Criticized

In his opening remarks, Governor Graham called on the publishing industry to raise its standards. “We are demanding accountability today from our publishing industry,” he said. “There’s no point in providing the students with textbooks if they are little more than comic books or ‘Dick and Jane’ readers.”

Calling many of today’s textbooks “safe instead of challenging,” he suggested conference participants form “a cartel for excellence.”

“I am confident that by working together we can work toward excellence in the textbook field,” he said.

But publishers attending the meeting countered that they produce textbooks to meet a demonstrated market. “This industry is extremely sensitive to its market,” said Kendrick Noble, vice president of Paine, Webber, Mitchell and Hutchens Inc., and a textbook-industry analyst.

Rhetoric Versus Purchases

The reduction in the standards of textbooks, Mr. Noble said, is occurring because the marketplace is not buying higher-standard books. There exists a discrepancy, he noted, between what educators and researchers say they want in instructional materials and what local and state selection committees purchase for classroom use.

“The way the system works, the people who make the decision to buy the books don’t buy the books that the policymakers say they want,” said Don Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Associ6ation of American Publishers.

Twenty-two states have statewide adoption policies. The other 28 rely on local selection committees to choose instructional materials, according to the publishers’ association.

Many of the conference participants agreed that the publishers are not to blame. The responsibility, they maintained, should be shared by all those who are involved in the production, selection, and use of textbooks. Mr. Eklund cautioned that if “all the players in the game” are not taken into consideration, reformers run the risk of coming up with solutions that do not work.

State and local government agencies, administrators, teachers, members of the research community, and publishers should work together to match the instructional material to students’ varied learning capabilities, Mr. Eklund said. But, he said, “the educational community, in the final analysis, is who picks the material.”

That community, many educators maintained, must work with, and not at odds with, the publishers to assure high-quality textbooks. Grace Grimes, deputy commissioner of professional development and support for the Texas Education Agency, pledged Texas’s interest in improving instructional materials, but cautioned against efforts to pressure publishers. “I prefer not to work with a heavy hand,” she said. “I prefer to work with an outstretched hand.”

Teacher Involvement Urged

State education officials also emphasized the importance of involving teachers in textbook selection. “Unless teachers are part of the process, it’s not going to work, they are not going to use the tools,” said Ms. Ramirez of New York.

But officials also agreed that teachers must have more time, training, and expertise to be effective selection-committee members. Local committees are sometimes made up of members who have little knowledge of the area in which they are choosing a book, said Connie Muther, a consultant with Textbook Adoption Advisory Services. They often do not have enough time to read the materials carefully and do not adhere to state or local selection guidelines, she added.

“What happens on paper [in selection guidelines] does not in fact always happen in reality,” she said. These and other constraints can result in committee members using the “thumb test” or “eight-second flip test” to determine whether a book is acceptable, she said.

Phyllis Blaunstein, executive director of nasbe, suggested that master teachers play a role in evaluating and selecting textbooks. Stressing the importance of teachers’ opinions, she proposed that experienced teachers develop curricula and choose related instructional materials on state and local levels.

Working to involve teachers in book selection, Ms. Blaunstein noted, “fits quite well with the career ladders being developed in 13 states.”

Criteria Are Unclear

The criteria for textbook selection, many noted, should be further defined to help selection-committee members and publishers better understand what kinds of books are wanted in the classroom. Admonishing participants that “you can influence publishers more by your actions than by your words,” Stephen Willoughby, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, pointed to several state adoption committees that have selected mathematics textbooks without the advice of anyone with mathematics expertise. Such practices, he argued, clearly indicate how easy it is for inappropriate materials to end up in the classroom.

Selection and adoption procedures are also in many cases too cumbersome, two state officials suggested. Margaret Hayden, a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and a former member of the state textbook-adoption committee, said she was given 7,000 books to review in six weeks.

She also called to participants’ attention the “damaging aspect” of the public hearings that often accompany the adoption process. “Individuals have moral axes to grind,” she said. In addition, she said, publishers may be oversensitive to the demands of special-interest groups such as blacks and women, and that, she said, results in books that have a “voiceless quality.”

Patricia Shell, superintendent for instruction of the Houston Independent School District and a former member of the Texas State Textbook Adoption Committee, also criticized public hearings. The process, she said, results in “little mothers in tennis shoes” who appear before the committee to speak their minds without having read the selection guidelines.

And as a final step in improving instructional materials, state officials and researchers agreed, teachers should participate in inservice training on how to use the textbooks that are chosen. “Right now textbooks constitute a de facto curriculum,” said Ramsay Selden, a senior research associate with the National Commission on Excellence in Ed3ucation. “The process should be turned around.”

Limited Funding

Financial constraints are also a key factor in declining textbook quality, many participants noted. School districts faced with tight budgets sometimes find it easiest to reduce the amount of money spent on textbooks, said Mr. Selden.

When the existing low budget for instructional materials is further depleted, districts may purchase only one level of book instead of a series of books that meet students’ varied needs, he continued. And the level of book that is purchased is usually written to suit the bottom 30 percent of the class, leaving brighter students bored with dull material.

The amount of money spent on textbooks in the last decade has declined by 50 percent, according to the publishers’ association. Currently, an average of $22 per year is spent on each elementary and secondary student for textbooks, compared with $44 in 1974.

Call for Balance

Several conference participants warned against “over-reform.” Jane Christensen, associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, said she hoped the educational community, in its attempt to “smarten up” textbooks, would not overreact by devising rigid standards for content, style, and selection.

Rather than simply made more “rigorous,” textbooks ought to contain energy, fluency of language, and vocabulary that is “alive,” according to Ms. Christensen.

She also noted that publishers are sometimes pressured into including “marginal ethnic literature” and removing classics in order to meet formulaic requirements. The resulting books, she said, please the adoption committees but are not always favored by English teachers.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor and education researcher at the Stanford University School of Education, also pleaded for a balance in efforts to improve instructional materials. “Let’s try to hit the middle and [avoid] over-correction,” he said. “Let’s do something out of this conference and this movement that lasts.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as States To Work on Improving Text Selection, Adoption Policies