Budget & Finance

California Faces a Curriculum Crisis

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 09, 2009 7 min read
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School administrators in California are getting greater flexibility in how they spend more than $300 million intended for instructional materials, along with encouragement to use some free digital textbooks for high school courses, as a result of cost-cutting measures brought on by the state’s budget crisis.

But extensive changes to the state’s curriculum policies have raised concerns among many educators that they will not have the guidance or resources they need to choose the best textbooks and teaching strategies for their students.

Beyond those concerns, the changes have also left publishers reeling as they brace for the potential of huge losses of sales in what is their biggest and most influential market. Coupled with budget cuts in other states, the economic climate could jeopardize development of new print and digital products nationally, industry experts say.

Lawmakers recently approved a four-year suspension of California’s textbook-adoption process, as well as its curriculum commission, which was in the middle of updating state frameworks, or content guidelines in science, social studies, and other subject areas. A new state law also allows district officials to forgo purchasing instructional materials altogether and use the money instead on staffing and other critical areas to offset funding cuts resulting from California’s $26 billion budget gap.

“Each new version of our textbooks seeks to improve on the last as we learn what strategies and materials are most effective for teaching our students,” Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement. He noted that by the time the state board adopts new materials, many students could be learning from textbooks that are older than they are. “Students will not have new approved books until 2016. The impact is that tools for teachers, principals, and superintendents will be dated and stale and, in some cases, unavailable,” he said.

‘It’s a Struggle’

District leaders, who have long sought flexibility to purchase instructional materials outside the state-approved list, do not necessarily welcome the changes.

“Any time the state gives us flexibility is wonderful, but it’s a struggle every time they give us flexibility and they also cut our budget,” said Darline P. Robles, the superintendent of the 2 million-student Los Angeles County Schools, which serves 80 districts. If the regional education agency decides to purchase science and social studies texts for the 2010-11 school year, as planned, Ms. Robles said, school leaders in the county will not have the updated state frameworks to help them choose the ones that best meet academic standards and goals. And if textbook purchases are postponed, she added, there will not be the kind of state-level guidance teachers and administrators need to ensure that lessons cover the essential content and skills.

“We’re not going to be able to make some good decisions about textbooks, ... and absent a new textbook, teachers [in the past] could look at the framework for direction on ways to assess students, different instructional strategies, how to teach English-learners,” she pointed out.

Publishers’ Woes

The $700,000 budget for the state curriculum commission was eliminated in a line-item veto when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the latest legislation to balance the budget in late July. The commission, an advisory panel first established in 1927, is authorized by the state constitution to review and advise the state school board on adoption of textbooks used in K-8 classrooms and curriculum frameworks in most content areas.

Instructional-Materials Timeline

California lawmakers suspended the work of the state curriculum commission, which develops academic frameworks in each subject, and the adoption of state-approved textbooks until the 2013-14 school year to address the state’s budget deficit. new frameworks, or curriculum guidelines, and textbooks, had been scheduled for most major subjects over the next four years.


SOURCE: California Department of Education

The state budget for instructional materials was cut for fiscal 2009 as well, by about 20 percent, leaving $333 million, although that money no longer has to be used for curriculum. Districts were scheduled to adopt new reading textbooks for the elementary grades in 2009 and 2010, sales that could have reached nearly $1 billion for publishers. The state had planned to adopt additional materials in reading, mathematics, and science next year, as well as reviewing textbooks for Mandarin-language classes for the first time.

In preparation for meeting the commission’s strict approval standards for the latest elementary reading adoption, publishers had spent tens of millions of dollars developing new products, according to Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the American Association of Publishers.

While publishers knew the economic downturn would likely crimp districts’ purchasing power this year, they were confident that California’s constitutional requirements, and the 2004 settlement in the case of Williams v. California, would help salvage sales, Mr. Diskey said. The Williams outcome prompted legislation that requires students to be provided with adequate instructional materials, as well as suitable facilities and highly qualified teachers.

Budget cuts have led to reductions in textbook funding and postponed adoptions in other states as well. Idaho has cut its subsidies for curricular materials by more than 80 percent, according to reports submitted this summer to the National Association of State Textbook Administrators. Oregon districts have been given permission to postpone textbook adoptions for up to two years. And South Carolina officials are hoping to negotiate lower prices with publishers to allow districts to adopt textbooks on schedule.

In California, however, the changes go beyond schoolbooks to the frameworks that guide curriculum and instruction. The state-appointed frameworks committees had begun updating state guidelines in several subject areas, but will now have to suspend that work, according to Tom Adams, the director of the curriculum and frameworks division at the California education department.

The curriculum commission, for example, had already approved a draft of the history/social studies framework and appointed members to a committee to write the draft of the science guidelines. Health-education frameworks, which were last revised in 2002, were set to be reworked to align with the state’s new academic standards in the subject.

The updated frameworks were needed to clarify some state policies on curriculum, provide guidance on assessing students, and offer recommendations for teaching English-language learners, Mr. Adams said.

The work done to date would be outdated by the 2013-14 school year, when it is set to resume, he added, and would need to be started from scratch.

‘Inventive and Creative’

Despite the problems that the changes pose for selecting instructional materials, some school leaders welcome the flexibility, which they say will allow them to maintain sufficient staffing levels and salvage essential professional development and school programs.

“It really is most unfortunate that we’re in a position to have to choose between the staff that we need to deliver education and/or buying new textbooks,” said Steven M. Ladd, the superintendent of the 62,000-student Elk Grove district, outside Sacramento. “We have made the decision that we are grateful to have the flexibility because it does allow us to keep people.”

The district, which spends about $3.5 million on textbooks each year, purchased new science and social studies textbooks in the last two years, but has not replaced its math and English-language arts texts in more than six years.

While textbooks will be out of date—consider that students may not read about the election of the nation’s first African-American president until well into the next decade—Mr. Ladd said teachers will find ways to supplement them with up-to-date resources.

“Teachers have always been inventive and creative and been able to augment the textbook,” he said. “And with the technology we have available now, they have the opportunity to go online and vet those resources.”

In that vein, the state conducted a review of free digital textbooks over the summer at the request of Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican. More than a dozen high school math and science texts available as open-source materials on the Internet were evaluated for how well they align with state standards in those subjects. In a statement this past June, Mr. Schwarzenegger touted the project as a way to provide “technologically advanced, cost-effective, and engaging” content for students.

The initiative may be expanded to include history textbooks and commercial products as well, if the state budget allows, Mr. Adams said.

California educators are not alone in seeking high-quality digital content. The availability of online curriculum resources, both free and for sale, has increased significantly in recent years, leading several states to formally consider them for school use. Florida, Indiana, and Texas, for example, allow electronic resources under their textbook-adoption policies.

California officials are hoping the state’s emphasis on digital materials will encourage more educators to try nontraditional media in their classrooms, Mr. Adams said.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week


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