States Ceding Power Over Classroom Materials

By Catherine Gewertz — February 17, 2015 9 min read
Texas state school board members, from left, Donna Bahorich, David Bradley, and Thomas Ratliff, signal to ask questions during a textbook adoption hearing last July in Austin.
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States are increasingly giving up a long-standing source of their power over education by allowing school districts to choose the instructional materials they use in the classroom.

The shift in authority has taken shape little by little, mostly in the past four years, as one state after another has modified or thrown out its procedures for adopting textbooks and other kinds of print and online learning resources.

Only 19 states are now considered “adoption states"—states that review textbooks and other resources and create lists of “approved” materials—by the Association of American Publishers. Only a few years ago, the AAP’s list included 22 states.

That modest decline doesn’t tell the whole story, however.

Among the remaining 19 adoption states, some of the biggest and most powerful have downgraded their authority over districts’ choice of materials. California, Florida, and Texas are among the large states that still conduct state-level reviews of materials, but no longer require districts to buy from the resulting—and influential—lists of “approved” resources. More and more, districts can use state money to buy whatever materials they want, with only minimal obligations, if any, to demonstrate their alignment to academic standards.

That shift in practice represents a sea change in K-12 policy. At one time, the decisions made by a handful of large textbook-adoption states essentially dictated the content of major textbook series used by students across the country.

But the change is also divisive. Even as many educators celebrate their school districts’ freedom to select resources, others criticize it as an erosion of a key pillar in the structure that is standards, curriculum, and instruction.

“It’s a really important and undernoticed issue in the decline of the standards-based movement,” said Sandy Kress, a Texas attorney who helped draft the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 as an adviser to President George W. Bush.

“Once [instructional] materials can go off in a thousand directions, they may or may not be aligned to standards,” Mr. Kress said. “And then curriculum can go off untethered, and teaching and learning can go off in whatever direction. Then you have a serious breakdown in the whole standards-based movement.”

Some educators find that argument offensive.

“That is just so insulting,” said one teacher who has reviewed books and other resources for her California district and asked to be unnamed. “The suggestion is that without the state telling us what to buy, we aren’t capable of sitting down and figuring out what to use in our classrooms, good stuff that’s aligned to our state standards.”

Localizing Choice

Several dynamics played into states’ shifting authority on materials adoptions. One was the recession, when states had fewer dollars to offer districts for books, and thus less leverage to specify what they bought. Some states blended categorical funding for materials into larger allocations that districts can use for additional things, such as technology, professional development, or even teacher salaries.

Digital materials also posed a mounting challenge for state review panels, since they are updated so frequently, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group for the AAP, which is based in Washington. Controversy over local control played a part, too: The 2010 and 2011 adoptions of the Common Core State Standards intensified many districts’ long-standing desires for more freedom to choose their materials, Mr. Diskey said.

At the same time, the common core has sparked “a greater desire for review,” since districts are deluged with publishers’ new offerings, he said. Many districts are managing those evaluations on their own, but some are turning to new services that conduct independent reviews of materials, such as the Texas-based for-profit Learning List, or the nonprofit

In Arkansas, educators have always been free to buy instructional resources that weren’t on the state’s approved list. But they don’t have that list for guidance anymore; a 2013 law eliminated Arkansas’s state-level reviews. Indiana enacted a law in 2011 that eliminated state-level review in all subjects but reading. School systems there still must buy reading materials on the state list, but high-performing schools can win exemptions from that rule.

The clamor for local control played a part in Florida’s revised approach to textbook adoptions. A 2014 law created new channels for parental input. It requires local school boards to include parents on the committees that review instructional materials, and to allow parents to contest their board’s choice of materials.

Another Florida law, approved in 2013, allows districts to bypass the state list altogether and set up their own review processes, as long as they certify that the materials they choose align to state standards. Florida districts have always been allowed to spend half of their state allocations on materials that weren’t on the state list, said Katrina G. Figgett, the state education department’s director of instructional support. But as far as state officials know, no district has yet decided to bypass the state list completely, she said.

“Our only concern is that the materials they choose reflect our state standards,” and since the law requires superintendents to certify such alignment, “that worry is taken care of,” she said.

Retaining Accountability

In California, the scarcity of dollars during the recession and the rise of digital materials helped drive a 2012 law that rewrote the playbook on instructional materials. It released districts from the mandate to choose from the state’s list, and it folded money formerly earmarked for materials into a bigger allotment that districts can use for a variety of educational purposes.

That “local control funding formula” has strings attached, though: Districts that bypass the state list must disclose how they’re spending that money, certify that their materials align with state standards, and ensure that a majority of the reviewers are classroom teachers in the appropriate discipline.

Those requirements build appropriate transparency and accountability into the system, said Tom Adams, the director of California’s curriculum and instructional resources division. As the department relinquishes control of districts’ curricular resources, it is moving more into the role of service provider, offering districts support by providing reviews of materials, and its state curriculum frameworks as resources, he said.

Alan Griffin sees a similar pattern evolving across the states. He’s the president of the State Instructional Materials Review Association, whose members are states that conduct state-level reviews of curricular resources.

“A lot of states are moving to more of a recommended process than a mandated process,” he said. Increasingly, states “feel that it’s better if they’re offering a service to districts that they value, rather than clamping down and saying ‘You can’t use this, you can’t use that.’”

The freedom to choose materials allowed the Long Beach, Calif., district to conduct the process properly, said Pamela Seki, the 85,000-student district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. It “allowed our teachers to range more widely to choose the materials for the curriculum we’d written,” Ms. Seki said.

In the past, the need to buy from the state’s list too often meant doing that the other way around.

“We’d buy materials, and then write the curriculum documents to those,” she said. “This way is better.”

Ultimately, the materials that Long Beach chose were all on the state’s list, she said. But reviewing other offerings—with the knowledge that they could choose those if they wish—was important in clarifying the field of options, she said.

Not all districts are able to set up their own instructional-materials review processes. Just ask Scott Bassett, who oversees instructional materials in the Millard school district, which enrolls 2,900 students in rural central Utah. “We don’t have the time and resources to do the kinds of reviews that larger districts can,” he said. “That’s why we prefer to stick with the state list, because it’s already been vetted.”

Value of State Review

It’s not unusual for districts to use their state’s list of approved materials even when they don’t have to. Kelly Callaway, the Texas Education Agency’s division director for instructional materials, said that the vast majority of districts continue to buy at least some materials from that state’s list. Publishers aren’t abandoning the list, either. More publishers are participating in Texas’ reviews, and they’re submitting more products for consideration, than before Texas approved a 2011 law allowing districts to buy materials that aren’t on the state’s approved list, she said.

Based on her conversations with district curriculum coordinators, Ms. Callaway believes that’s because the state provides an important service: specifying the percentage of state standards that each set of materials covers, from 50 percent to 100 percent.

Texas’ 2011 law also replaced its earmarked textbook money with an allotment that districts can spend on instructional materials, content-oriented technology, or training.

The increased local freedoms sparked worry that vendors would flood into districts with unproven products. One publisher’s lobbyist recalls that “manyfold” more educational technology companies pushed for that bill than for any recent K-12 legislation. Mr. Kress likened that lobbying to a “feeding frenzy” for publishers eager to capitalize on a stream of money that was moving from state to district control.

The shift in Texas’ review process concerns Barbara Cargill, a former science teacher on the Texas board of education. She worries that the law eliminated important protections of state review, such as the use of experts to evaluate materials, the convening of public hearings, and fines that can be imposed if errors are found in publishers’ materials.

“It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” she said. “The [publishers] can go right to the districts with this stuff.”

One major educational publisher disputed that idea. An official of that company, who agreed to speak only on background to protect client relationships, said that publishers still see the need to gain the approval of states as well as districts, even if districts aren’t required to purchase materials from their state’s list.

“It’s true that states are loosening their adoption rules, but it hasn’t really changed much for us,” the official said. “In our experience so far, a lot of districts still care about what is on the state list, and rely on it. Besides, just being on a state’s list isn’t going to guarantee [a district’s] interest in our products. We still need to build relationships with individual districts.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as States Shedding Power to Adopt Class Materials


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