In Two Years Since Calif. Adoption, Record Mixed for Firm's History Texts

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When the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company introduced a textbook series tailored to California's new blueprint for teaching the social sciences, observers said the series would spawn a new generation of social-studies textbooks nationwide.

Two years after California adopted the books, however, it is still unclear whether that generation will come to be. While strong sales of the Houghton Mifflin textbooks in California have helped the series become a national leader in the social-studies-textbook market, there are indications that sales outside the state have been mixed and, in a few states, disappointing.

"I just don't see where Houghton Mifflin is getting the kind of deep [market] penetration it hoped for,'' said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council.

In many respects, he and others say, the books have failed to catch on in other states because the California social-studies blueprint is too radical a departure from traditional practice. In addition, they note, several large states--such as Texas, the second-largest statewide market--have not yet adopted elementary social-studies textbooks since the Houghton Mifflin books came out.

Houghton Mifflin officials, for their part, say they are satisfied with the success of their books so far, and point out that a number of states have adopted either their elementary-level books, the high school texts, or both at the state level.

"We're pretty happy with that,'' said Terry Heagney, the company's vice president of external affairs.

Betting on Change

The creation of the social-studies series in the late 1980's was a gamble for the Boston-based publisher, which previously had no social-studies textbooks on the market.

On the one hand, the gamble offered hope of a big payoff, since California is one of the nation's largest purchasers of textbooks, controlling an estimated 11 percent of the $1.7 billion market. Its choices in books often dominate the market.

On the other hand, the company took a risk. The state's ambitious framework for teaching social studies, crafted in 1987, departs markedly from the way the subject is taught in most states.

The framework abandons the traditional "expanding horizons'' approach of elementary school social-studies programs, which focuses attention on a child's immediate environment and gradually moves out to include the larger community, the nation, and other cultures. Instead, the framework emphasizes history and interweaves geographical information throughout.

The framework also calls for an unprecedented effort to focus attention on the contributions of a wide range of ethnic and religious groups.

In the state's view, Houghton Mifflin was the only publishing company to respond fully to its call for books compatible with the new framework. The company's entire series for kindergarten through 12th grade was the only series adopted for use statewide by the state school board in October 1990.

Only one other textbook, Holt, Rinehart & Winston's "Story of America,'' was approved for use, and only at the 8th-grade level.

Texts Drew Fire

Critics nationally said the textbooks were a significant improvement over most social-studies textbooks already in use in classrooms. They praised the books for their lively writing, compelling narratives, multicultural focus, and use of graphics. Some predicted that the rest of the publishing industry, inspired by Houghton Mifflin's success, would follow suit.

Within California, though, members of some ethnic and religious groups protested the books, claiming they did not go far enough in portraying their groups.

Despite the controversy, most California school districts bought the books. At the 6th-grade level alone, state education department figures indicate, schools have ordered 450,000 of the Houghton Mifflin social-studies texts.

Moreover, of 1,012 districts in California, only 21 applied for a waiver enabling them to buy books not on the recommended list. Those districts, however, included some of the state's largest, such as Oakland and Los Angeles, according to the education department.

Beyond California

Outside California, the success of the series is more difficult to gauge. Textbooks' market shares are closely guarded secrets among publishers.

Mr. Sewall, in a newsletter last spring published by his organization, estimated the Houghton Mifflin books have gained 10 percent of the market outside California. He said his estimate was based on figures from competing editors.

The dominant social-studies series currently on the market, Mr. Sewall and others said, is published by the Macmillan/McGraw Hill School Publishing Company. Those textbooks, tailored to more conventional approaches to teaching social studies, have "more than 60 percent of the market,'' said Kevin Colleary, the company's national marketing manager for social studies.

"I think many teachers are very nervous of some of the things Houghton Mifflin has done in its programs to meet the elements of the framework,'' Mr. Colleary said.

But Mr. Heagney of Houghton Mifflin said his company's series has been selling well in all markets, and that some of the books are in public or private schools in every state. And, while he declined to publicly reveal the textbooks' precise market share, he noted that the series is widely considered at least the second leading series in the nation in new sales, and has been adopted statewide in several states.

One such state is Texas, which rivals California for clout on the textbook-buying market. The state last year adopted Houghton Mifflin's secondary-level U.S.-history and world-history texts. Thus far, according to Texas Education Agency figures, roughly one-fifth of all the high school textbooks ordered in those subjects--about 159,000 books--are Houghton Mifflin's.

Less Encouraging Results

But in some other states that have recently adopted textbooks, the results have been less encouraging for the company. For example:

  • In North Carolina, reportedly the fourth-largest textbook-buying state, the state board adopted Houghton Mifflin's high school textbooks, but turned down the company's elementary series.

"The problem was it didn't fit our scope and sequence,'' said John Ellington, chief consultant for social studies in the North Carolina Department of Education. "We have not changed our curriculum, as most states haven't, to fit the California curriculum.''

  • In Georgia, which adopted the Houghton Mifflin series last year, cuts in state funds to help districts buy textbooks have forced a number of large districts to postpone their purchases. But, of the 82 districts that have ordered books so far, only two chose the Houghton Mifflin series, said Jerold Pace, the state textbook-adoption coordinator for the Georgia Department of Education.
  • In New Mexico, Houghton Mifflin did not submit its elementary textbook series for fear the books would generate controversy, according to Mary Jane Vinella, who supervises the process in that state. The company's high school texts were submitted and approved.

Conservative activists in the state, Ms. Vinella said, had been planning to oppose the books because they viewed them as slightly "un-American.'' Among the concerns they cited, she said, were that the books did not use a more negative word than "dictator'' to describe Fidel Castro of Cuba.

"The series tended to be for California, where there is a fairly liberal curriculum, to have an emphasis on diversity,'' said J. Kendrick Noble, a New York media consultant who follows trends in textbook publishing.

"You run into markets where that's going too far and, in others, like New York, they may not go far enough,'' he added.

'Early Box Office'

Mr. Noble also noted that, regardless of its performance in social studies, Houghton Mifflin's overall sales last year were higher than the industry average. The company also has a successful language-arts-textbook series, among other products, he said.

And others pointed out that sales figures for the social-studies texts are no more than "early box office.''

Although California's overhaul of its framework in history and social sciences was radical, they note, several other states have begun to consider making similar changes in their curricular plans.

Most notably, Florida's plan calls for considerably more history than was previously taught in schools, and it abandons the "expanding horizons'' approach. But the state has not yet held a state-level adoption on the new framework.

In fact, only a handful of the 22 states that adopt textbooks at the state level have held social-studies-textbook adoptions in the last two years. Alabama and Mississippi this fall are scheduled to adopt new textbooks in that area. And Texas has yet to adopt textbooks at the elementary level.

"I cannot predict [the future],'' said Mr. Colleary of Macmillan/McGraw Hill. "Obviously, we need to continue to pay attention to the market.''

Vol. 12, Issue 09

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