Purchases of Instructional Materials Declined in First Quarter of 2014

By Catherine Gewertz — June 04, 2014 3 min read
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During the first quarter of 2014, purchases of instructional materials were down by 4 percent compared with the same period in 2013, according to the Association of American Publishers. That contrasts with a much more optimistic performance during the 2013 calendar year, when the instructional-materials market was up 4 percent compared with 2012.

That roller coaster report was delivered today by Jay Diskey, the executive director of the AAP’s PreK-12 Learning Group, at a conference here. He said that January, February, and March are typically slow months for materials purchases. But after the upturn of 2013, the association was hopeful that early 2014 would see brisk business with districts buying materials to implement the common-core standards.

Whether the sluggishness was due to a harsh winter in the Midwest and Northeast, or is “evidence of states, schools, and districts sitting on the sidelines” while debates about the future of the new standards and tests unfold in many state legislatures, isn’t clear, Diskey said. The group is keeping an anxious eye on second-quarter performance.

Publishers have been eager to track the effect of the common core on the instructional-materials market, valued at $7 billion to $8 billion annually. But states and districts have shown a reluctance to make major investments in those materials, in part because of the constraints of the recession, and in part because of uncertainty about whether and how the new standards will roll out. Another source of restraint—although Diskey didn’t mention it in his talk—is a widespread feeling among educators that publishers have not produced much in the way of quality materials aligned to the common core.

Keeping an eye on the trends in instructional materials is tricky, too, because the landscape of state adoptions is changing. The number of states that issue a list of materials from which districts must purchase, if they’re using state money, has declined in recent years from 22 to 19, according to Diskey. Whether such processes will “go away” with the common core, however, is something the industry is monitoring, he said.

The idea of having vetting panels to evaluate the quality and alignment of common-core instructional materials has been kicked around for several years now. Many see a clear need for guidance on those questions, because educators and district-based curriculum writers have made no secret of their disappointment in many sets of materials stamped “common-core aligned.”

No national panel has been formed to do that, largley because of the anticipated political reaction to having a Washington-based group put its stamp of approval on common-core materials. But other attempts have been launched, from collaborative shared-feedback sites like ShareMyLesson to processes that use panels of teachers to judge materials, including EQuIP, which was created by three states working with Achieve, and the for-profit endeavor Learning List.

The need to review the flood of materials being produced for the common core could lead to profound changes in the adoption systems that have been in place in states for years, Diskey said. Those systems could “go away,” he said, and yet what will replace them is still far from clear.

Some states are paring down the role they play in their districts’ textbook adoptions. Indiana, for example, only issues an adoption list from which districts must choose in reading; in all other subjects, it produces advisories about materials but leaves districts free to choose, Diskey said.

Other states, meanwhile, have done the opposite, stepping up their involvement in districts’ choice of materials, he said.

All of these shifts makes publishers nervous. What factors will these new review processes focus on? Will they include an avenue for appeal if publishers feel they haven’t gotten a fair shot?

As they wait for those systems to shake out, they’re watching the market for cues, as always. And there’s a big one down in Texas: Diskey said there’s an estimated $975 million in instructional materials purchases hanging in the balance in the next two years, since adoptions in social studies, math, fine arts, foreign languages, and cultural studies are due in 2015 and 2016.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.