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Curriculum Opinion

Do Away With State Textbook Adoptions

By Frank Wang — March 22, 2005 7 min read
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It has been a little over two years since I left my position as the chairman of Saxon Publishers Inc., a major K-12 textbook publisher well known for its fiercely loyal following and its steadfast and sometimes controversial adherence to a distinctive pedagogy. Though considered small relative to its behemoth competitors, Saxon has exerted an influence on the direction of educational publishing far disproportionate to its size. It was acquired by Harcourt Achieve last July and is now part of the publishing empire Reed Elsevier.

I had been thrust into the position of publisher by happenstance, having first met the founder of the company in 1980, when I was a 16-year-old high school student and he was a 57-year-old retired Air Force test pilot turned junior-college instructor.

John Saxon Jr. was unsuccessful in finding a publisher for the first-year algebra manuscript he had developed as a teacher, forcing him to self-publish it. I worked behind the scenes as his sole employee, doing what John Saxon referred to as “dogwork”—cutting and pasting, numbering pages, proofreading, and checking problems, as well as making peanut butter sandwiches and runs to the copy shop. Even while pursuing my undergraduate studies at Princeton and later my graduate studies at MIT, I continued my work for Saxon on weekends, evenings, and over summers.

State textbook-selection processes compel publishers to focus on the whims of the adoption committee rather than on creating effective textbooks.

In 1990, he asked me to run his company, then still a fledging enterprise that had grown to about two dozen employees. At first, I demurred, saying that I had no business experience. Saxon persisted, responding to my protestations with the exhortation: “Just fake it. Act like you know what you are doing, and you will do just fine.”

And so, I began my work as a publisher in 1991, straight from the Ivory Tower with a newly acquired Ph.D. in pure mathematics, but with absolutely no management, business, or publishing experience. Over an 11-year period, until I left in 2003 to pursue a lifelong desire to be a teacher, the company grew rapidly—from two dozen employees to about 250 employees—and built a base of 7 million students using its textbooks. During that time, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand how publishers develop, publish, sell, and distribute textbooks, and how states evaluate and purchase them. Along the way, I was invited to be an adviser on the ill-fated national voluntary test proposed by President Clinton and for the math portion of the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Drawing on my unique set of experiences—as academician, textbook author, educational publisher, classroom teacher, and education policy adviser—I’ve formulated a series of recommendations I hope will be of some help to education policymakers. They include the following:

Do away with the state textbook-adoption process.

In 21 states, there is a formal textbook-selection process that compels publishers to focus their resources and energies not on creating the most effective textbooks, but on satisfying the whims and caprices of an adoption committee.

Do away with the selection process, allow textbook publishers to freely develop curricula, but measure student achievement resulting from the textbooks’ use. This will channel the money that would have been spent on navigating the adoption processes to producing more-effective textbooks. (The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s recently released “The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoptions” describes in detail the problems with the adoption process.)

In developing curriculum, begin with what works.

Things are done backwards in curriculum development. Now, the starting point is a pedagogical theory formulated in the colleges of education, which gives rise to curriculum frameworks or “standards.” These curriculum frameworks then give rise to scope-and-sequence guidance that is used by development/editorial houses contracted by publishers to develop a curriculum that outwardly appears to correlate to the curriculum framework (usually with the clever labeling of chapters with buzzwords drawn from the framework). Often, the results are disappointing, as teachers find the program unworkable in the classroom. The classroom should be the starting point, rather than the end point, of the product-development process.

Repeal statutes that prohibit the field-testing of textbooks.

In the state of Florida, for example, during the 18-month period the textbook-adoption process is occurring, schools cannot field-test the very textbooks they will be considering purchasing. This is akin to prohibiting prospective car buyers from test-driving cars. Such counterproductive laws were passed because of the lobbying efforts of organizations such as the American Association of Publishers that work to protect the interests of a cartel of publishers wanting to avoid internecine competition.

The classroom should be the starting point, rather than the end point, of the product-development process.

Repeal statutes that require textbook publishers to use the state textbook depository.

Textbook-adoption states often require the use of depositories in their states, thereby adding a layer of unnecessary cost and inefficiency. In 2000, Saxon offered to ship its textbooks to schools in Texas for free rather than use a depository that would add additional time and cost to getting textbooks into the hands of students. We had to fight to get a bill passed allowing us to do this. (The Wall Street Journal chronicled our efforts in a front-page story on April 11, 2001.)

Reduce the number of tests students have to take by establishing a national test bank that states and school districts can use to create their own tests.

Accountability is essential; however, too much time is taken up with testing. My proposal is a national test bank that can be drawn upon by individual states and municipalities. Students can take just one test, with the necessary information required by the federal government, states, and local districts extracted and disaggregated using sophisticated statistical methods. The present system of multiple tests simply benefits the test-making companies.

Make public all high-stakes tests and give a copy of the test questions and their solutions to students immediately after they complete the test.

When I served as an adviser to the proposed national voluntary test, I learned that students in Japan take a nationally administered test and are given the answers to and a copy of the test immediately following its administration. Students then can learn from their mistakes immediately, and the testing becomes part of the learning process. In the United States, students are given the results months after they take a standardized test, and even then do not know what questions they missed. The present system is designed for the convenience of the test-making companies, which want to recycle as many of their test questions as they can.

Have high expectations, but set realistic standards.

It is easy for states to write ambitious standards, and so states engage in one-upmanship by trying to write standards that are more impressive than those of neighboring states. The result is a disconnect between what happens in the classroom and what is written on paper.

Redirect the money and energy spent on writing standards to developing better assessments.

Time spent writing and refining standards can be better used devising improved assessments. Assessments should be clear, straightforward, comprehensive, and made public after administration. This may lead to “teaching to the test,” but why should we fret if what is tested reflects what we truly want the students to know?

Time spend writing and refining standards could be better used improving assessments.

Have alternative means of certification to allow people with content knowledge to teach.

Teaching at both the high school and college levels, I have observed that in college, the problem is that people very knowledgeable in their fields may have little skill and inclination for teaching. In elementary and high school, the reverse may be true. So in college, we should loosen the system to invite those who may lack the formal academic credentials, but are capable of teaching, to teach, especially in the introductory and remedial courses. In K-12, on the other hand, we should be flexible by allowing those who lack formal teaching certification, but have deep content knowledge, to teach. I, for example, do not have a teaching certificate and cannot teach in an Oklahoma public school. I can, however, teach at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, but only because it is a separate state agency and not subject to the purview of the state department of education.

Require that students give a percentage of their future earnings to their former schools and teachers.

This recommendation is made tongue in cheek. My point is that if schools and teachers have a vested interest in the success of their students after graduation, they may focus attention on better equipping them for the postgraduation world. Colleges already do this by continually updating their courses and providing career-placement counseling and services, knowing that successful alumni will donate generously if they later succeed.

I began my work in educational publishing filled with the hope that I could make a positive difference in K-12 education. But a decade later, I left, in good part, because I became disillusioned with a system and practices that serve more to protect large commercial and vested interests than to help students learn. I now have the much more fulfilling job of improving education on a smaller scale—in the classroom, one student at a time.

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