Lawmakers Pursue Flexible Text Selection

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 21, 2003 7 min read
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California’s campaign to improve students’ basic-reading skills has left many teachers feeling like prisoners of the “list.”

Of the thousands of instructional materials that have been produced over the past few years to help elementary teachers, just two main reading series have earned the coveted state seal of approval for use in K-6 classrooms. Such limited choice, teachers and critics have argued, hogties teachers’ efforts to find innovative ways to meet students’ needs.

At least one key California lawmaker is now attempting to throw out the textbook-adoption process in favor of a more flexible system.

“We have to give teachers a lot more say in curriculum decisions,” said state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, the Democrat who heads the education committee in the lower legislative chamber. “The result of this one-size-fits-all mentality is that teachers do not have the freedom to choose the materials that are best for their students.”

Legislators in several other “adoption” states are also proposing changes that would allow greater flexibility in textbook selection. A Florida bill proposes a pilot program that would test local choice and purchasing decisions. And a New Mexico lawmaker’s attempts to abolish the state-approved list has been gaining steady support in the Senate over the past four years.

Controlling Content, Costs

In many of the 22 textbook-adoption states, districts can use state money only to buy instructional materials that appear on an approved list. Several states, however, offer such lists as a guide, but allow districts to choose materials they deem best.

Changing those longtime policies won’t be easy. The prevailing attitude among many officials in adoption states is that the advantages that come from statewide selection of textbooks far outweigh the drawbacks. Meanwhile, none of the so-called open-territory states has sought to switch to a state-adoption system, according to Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers.

A centralized system, proponents argue, offers greater guarantees that all classrooms have access to textbooks reflecting the state’s academic-content requirements. Such policies often also ensure the existence of pots of state money earmarked for instructional materials, and, proponents say, inherent cost savings are available when textbooks are purchased en masse on a regular schedule.

In addition, scrutiny of texts at the state level can free local educators from the tedious task of reviewing and evaluating materials on their own.

“In Florida, we have an efficient system and a very fair system,” said Marci Buchanan, who oversees instructional materials for the 30,000-student Alachua County district. The adoption system, she said, gives districts more leverage with publishers, who provide teacher professional development and other services, along with guaranteeing replacement books.

“You are not buying just a textbook; you are buying a comprehensive curriculum system,” Ms. Buchanan said.

By publishing- industry accounts, adoption policies provide benefits to districts and improve the quality of the marketplace overall. States that select new textbooks on a regular cycle, for example, allow publishers to pour their resources into making high-quality texts in one or two subjects at a time, knowing that districts will have the money to buy them.

“Adoption systems work, by and large, because states either totally or substantially help local districts pay for the textbooks,” said Mr. Driesler. With that financial leverage, he said, states can more readily dictate to publishers what they want in a textbook or other curriculum materials.

That argument may not be particularly reliable at this point. In the midst of the current fiscal crisis for state governments, several states, including Florida and Texas, are now pondering cuts to textbook allocations.

Flexibility Sought

Some critics dispute the purported cost savings in state-level selections.

Bill Younglove said that throughout a career as an English teacher in California and Michigan, he witnessed untold waste in a system that compelled districts to buy new books when the used ones were still in good condition.

As a member of several textbook-selection committees, he “felt the pressure of being hounded by publishers’ agents” to buy, even as districts maintained sufficient stocks of other suitable books, Mr. Younglove said.

Teachers in Florida have leveled similar complaints, leading state Rep. Dennis K. Baxley to promote a pilot program that would permit districts to direct more textbook aid to materials of their own choosing or to negotiate with publishers and used-book dealers themselves.

“We know all the benefits to being an adoption state,” said Mr. Baxley, a Republican. “But we need to ask, ‘What can we do to make the system a bit more flexible to respond to input we receive like this?’”

New Mexico Sen. Cynthia Nava has introduced a bill in the legislature four years running to eliminate what the state calls its “multiple list,” a lengthy inventory of textbooks that state officials have reviewed, for which some $30 million in state money is allocated.

As an associate superintendent in the 13,400-student Gadsden, N.M., district and a former teacher, Ms. Nava said she has seen firsthand how the system of selecting textbooks frustrates educators who struggle to address the individual needs of students.

“The state now has a standards-based curriculum, and it is less important than it used to be to have a statewide textbook adoption,” argued Ms. Nava, a Democrat. “We shouldn’t be so insistent on telling them every step of the way how to get students to meet those standards.”

Interest-Group Fodder

Such state controls, which began more than a century ago, initially forced improvements to textbooks, according to Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that reviews history and social studies materials.

In the early 1990s, for instance, California was able to wield its considerable influence over publishers in demanding that texts reflect more rigorous academic standards. The resulting offerings closely followed the state’s acclaimed curriculum framework for history and social studies.

But the adoption processes have also enabled interest groups to demand content that will not offend anyone, regardless of its accuracy, Mr. Sewall said.

Other scholars agree.

“The publishing marketplace has been warped by the textbook-adoption process ... ,” writes Diane Ravitch in her new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Ms. Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, agrees with Sen. Nava that teachers should choose the materials they think are best for their students.

Moreover, Ms. Ravitch writes, deregulation “would encourage writers to break free of the dull formulas that now make most of the textbooks look like peas in a pod, with interchangeable literary selections and conventional, politically safe opinions.”

In a 2001 report, the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that supports school choice, raised similar issues in attacking textbook adoption.

Mr. Driesler, of the publishers’ association, argues, however, that interest groups are known to battle over textbooks—the de facto curriculum—and content even when local boards are trying to decide which books to buy. In fact, such disagreements over what gets taught date back to the beginnings of the country’s public school system.

Despite the strictures that tend to accompany textbook adoption, some states appear to have found ways to balance a perceived need for state oversight with the demand for local control.

In Kentucky and Virginia, state textbook committees review available materials to ensure that they adequately address state academic standards and can help prepare students for state tests. Districts can use the lists as guides to buying textbooks, but have flexibility in using state money to buy off-list books as well.

New Mexico officials argue that they, too, allow wide latitude, because the state’s multiple lists are extensive, according to David Bowman, the acting director of the instructional-materials division of the state education department.

Sen. Nava says that is not enough. “I feel strongly about it,” she said of changing the current setup. “I don’t plan on giving up.”

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