Special Report

Effect of Common Standards on Publishers Uncertain

By Dakarai I. Aarons — January 07, 2010 4 min read
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Publishers of tests, textbooks, and other instructional materials are gearing up for the shift in the marketing landscape likely to come if and when states adopt common academic standards, with curriculum and assessment changes sure to follow.

Even though competition may intensify among companies lobbying for contracts to create the common assessments, the move toward common standards and assessments is also likely to create new opportunities in the $8 billion-a-year industry, analysts say.

“We certainly see many advantages as an industry. Publishers spend an enormous amount of time aligning materials to specific state standards. That is a significant cost driver,” says Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division.

But he adds that the extent to which states adhere to any eventual common-standards agreement will play a large role in determining if test and textbook publishers will see any real savings.

“It really depends on how the standards are shaped,” Diskey says. “If the standards are very broad, that might still leave states to develop their own curriculum frameworks.”

National Focus

For the moment, attention has been focused most intently on the 48-state common-standards effort being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been supportive of that effort, has pledged $350 million in economic-stimulus money from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund to help consortia of states pay for the development of common assessments to measure the skills delineated in new common standards.

Duncan has called for states to work together not only on the large, summative assessments many use now to measure adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, but also formative assessments, which allow classroom teachers to measure the progress of their students over time during the course of a school year.

While the $350 million in federal money being offered to help states with common tests may seem like a lot of money, it will be a “drop in the bucket” if a majority of states begin serious work on a set of assessments, Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, told an audience at a Wallace Foundation conference in Washington last fall.

Publishers, meanwhile, are looking forward to the possibility of more clarity from an adoption of common standards.“ One of the things that happens with us is that when states rapidly change their standards, it’s difficult for publishers to keep up with producing high-quality content. So we see this as a positive thing,” says Susan E. Canizares, the senior vice president and publisher for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s K-12 division.

Members of Houghton’s editorial team are combing though the draft standards and have given feedback to the standards developers, she says.

(Two of the nation’s largest textbook and assessment companies, Pearson Education and CTB/McGraw-Hill, declined to comment for this story.)

Recession’s Impact

Of the $8 billion spent annually on K-12 instructional materials in the United States, about $4 billion is spent on textbooks and digital products, according to figures from the Association of American Publishers. But business was slow for publishers in 2009, as states made budget cuts while grappling with the recession.

Although the federal economic-stimulus law brought some relief on the purchasing front, many states still held off on making purchases. Some could now wait longer because of the common-standards effort.

“There is the potential that as the initiative is developed, some states and school districts may delay purchases of curriculum and materials until the [common] standards are finished,” Diskey says. “This could disrupt certain parts of the market for a year or two or more.”

One person who is not so worried about the financial impact on the companies is the education secretary.

The testing industry “may worry that assessments used across multiple states will be bad for business, even if it’s the right thing for kids,” Duncan said to a group of governors at a June 2009 education symposium sponsored by the National Governors Association.

“However, it’s not my job to worry about their business,” he said. “My job is to worry about kids.”

For the moment, many in the industry appear to be assessing the latest push toward common standards with an eye toward business opportunities, especially in the area of so-called formative assessment.

“For everyone, I think it brings a greater focus to the materials we are putting together,” says Rose Else-Mitchell, the publisher for New York City-based Scholastic Education and its vice president of product development.

There are likely to be challenges, some concede.

“The competition will intensify among the industry. In a sense, you’ve got fewer customers,” says Kathy Mickey, a senior analyst and the managing editor of the education group at Simba Information, a media-industry market-intelligence firm in Stamford, Conn.

“But I don’t think the publishers necessarily look at this as a negative in terms of the opportunity,” she says. “They will always work with whatever the policy is.”

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