Texas’ Clout Over Textbooks Could Shift With Market

By Erik W. Robelen — April 22, 2010 11 min read
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As the Texas board of education prepares to adopt controversial new standards for social studies next month, many observers and news outlets have emphasized that the action may have ripple effects that reach classrooms far beyond the Lone Star State.

A typical refrain came in the headline on an editorial this month in USA Today: “Texas School Board Seeks to Rewrite Your Textbooks.”

Yet the extent of Texas’ reach is a matter of debate, and recent legislation opens up new sources of digital learning materials for the state’s school districts. That development seems likely to loosen the hold of the polarized state board on the market even within its own borders.

Texas has long been seen as having an outsized influence on publishers’ wares, because of both the size of the market, which is second only to California’s, and the fact that it’s among the 20 “adoption” states that identify lists of approved instructional materials for districts to use. Texas’ revised social studies standards will guide the eventual adoption of new textbooks and related materials for the state.

“Because of its purchasing power, [Texas] has unique force with the educational publishers,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit research group based in New York City. “Publishers want to use as much of the Texas edition as possible in what they’re selling nationwide.”

And some analysts say California’s decision last year to postpone new textbook adoptions for several years may give Texas still more influence.

But publishing-industry officials and some consultants argue that its influence is often overstated.

“It’s a bit of an urban myth,” said Jay A. Diskey, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, a trade group with offices in New York and Washington. Companies, he said, have increasingly customized their textbooks and other instructional materials to meet the needs of individual states and districts.

“The debates in Texas only heighten the sensitivity” in states and districts elsewhere to review those materials more closely before signing off, Mr. Diskey added.

In any case, amid concerns about the high cost of printed textbooks and the rapidity with which they become outdated, the Texas market for instructional materials is poised for a potential sea change. The recent legislation is expected to provide districts with new sources of digital textbooks and other electronic classroom materials.

“Now we have all of these new ways of acquiring instructional materials in addition to the traditional process,” said Anita G. Givens, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

For instance, the state education commissioner was given authority to approve a list of digital textbooks that districts may buy with state textbook aid, providing them with new options beyond the materials adopted by the state board. Also, districts for the first time will be able to use a portion of that aid to pay for hardware, such as laptop computers, to access digital content.

“That is a big shift,” Ms. Givens said, “because one of the cost drivers in terms of whether electronic [material] makes sense is whether [schools] have the infrastructure and the access points.”

Delays Ahead?

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry this month declared that he wants Texas to do away with the purchase of printed textbooks altogether. That development follows the unveiling last year of an initiative by fellow Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California to provide high schools with digital textbooks in math and science, an effort that is expected to expand to other subjects and grade levels over time.

Texas is wrapping up work on revising state social studies standards for the first time since 1997. In March, the elected state board tentatively approved the standards on a party-line vote of 10-5, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

The board has considered more than 300 amendments since January, touching on matters from the separation of church and state to whether hip-hop merits study as a cultural movement. Social conservatives on the board have said one priority is to balance a perceived liberal bias in the presentation of history, while critics argue that the conservatives are using the standards to skew history and promote a right-wing agenda. (“Rewriting of States’ Standards on Social Studies Stirs Debate,” March 31, 2010.)

Next month, the state board is set to consider any further changes to the standards and vote on final adoption. Once that process is completed, the next step by the board will be to issue a “proclamation” soliciting bids for instructional materials that adhere to the standards.

“Then publishers spend the next two years writing the books,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state education agency.

The materials are subject to an extensive state review before the board votes on their adoption. Texas does not preclude districts from using materials not on the approved list, but local school systems qualify for less state aid to pay for them.

Currently, new social studies textbooks are scheduled to arrive in Texas classrooms in the fall of 2013.

“Now, the wild card here is the budget,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The board may postpone the textbook proclamation because of the strained fiscal climate. In fact, the state has so far delayed by about a year a similar proclamation for new science texts.

With the gradual consolidation of the K-12 textbook industry, three companies now dominate the market nationally and in Texas, observers say: Pearson Education, the McGraw-Hill Cos., and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Mr. Diskey emphasizes that publishers generally provide a wide range of materials for states and districts beyond a printed textbook and teacher’s edition.

“The textbooks may be the most visible piece, but along with that comes a host of other resources,” he said—from dedicated websites with electronic versions of textbooks to practice tests, lesson plans aligned to state standards, and resources to help with differentiated instruction, among other tools.

“They’re always trying to come up with new things to kind of sweeten the pot for districts to choose their materials,” said Wesley J. Null, an associate professor of curriculum and foundations of education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Mr. Null said that without careful study of textbooks, it’s hard to gauge with confidence the extent to which the Texas brand ends up on textbooks elsewhere, but he suggests there may be some exaggeration on both sides.

“I think it’s overblown by the people who don’t like what Texas ends up doing,” he said, and “underplayed” by others. “Where is the truth? Probably somewhere in between.”

Josef Blumenfeld, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said his Boston-based company tailors content to local needs.

“We are committed to meeting local standards, and have the ability through technological advances to meet the standards of any district,” he said. “We couldn’t sell in the marketplace if we didn’t.”

The Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill, in New York City, declined to comment, referring inquiries to Mr. Diskey of the publishers’ association.

Mr. Sewall from the American Textbook Council said publishers face powerful incentives to maximize uniformity.

“The more they have to customize, the more expensive their development costs are, their upfront costs, and that cuts into earnings,” he said. “So they don’t want to do that.”

Lee Wilson, the president and chief executive officer of PCI Education, a San Antonio-based company that provides supplemental educational products for students with disabilities, said the steep costs of developing and marketing textbooks in Texas and California give the states national influence.

“It’s very practical. There’s a big Texas adoption or a big California adoption for a subject area,” he said. “All the publishers scramble to get on the list. ... It can cost tens of millions of dollars to put the materials together and additional millions to promote them. So once you’ve invested that money, what almost all the publishers do is take that book—that becomes the bones of whatever they’re offering for all other states.”

He added: “Yes, they’ll modify and change some things, but once you’ve invested at that level, you don’t go back and rewrite it from the ground up.”

Jeffrey P. Zaring, a senior official at the Indiana education department, said he’s not sure whether Texas has influenced the textbooks in his state, but he suggests the offerings often leave something to be desired.

“The publishers claim that they customize,” he said. But, for instance, when the state recently reviewed math texts, “we discovered the match wasn’t all that great,” he said. “All the books had some kind of gap in terms of alignment.”

Indiana’s state school board was so underwhelmed by the textbooks available in social studies that it sent an open letter in early 2009 to districts urging them to seek better materials online.

“The now-standardized form of social studies textbooks—jammed full of facts without interesting prose, racing through data without telling the story (good and bad) of our country—may jeopardize both student interest in history as a subject and the effective learning of the country’s principles and values,” the board wrote.

Commissioner’s List

Texas lawmakers in 2009 passed two measures that could alter the state’s publishing landscape and potentially diminish its national influence, observers say.

House Bill 4294 allows districts to purchase digital textbooks with state textbook aid from an approved list developed by the state education commissioner—not the state board—and also to use a portion of that money to buy hardware to access digital content.

A district must first buy at least one “classroom set” of textbooks for each subject and grade level approved by the state board before using remaining funds to pay for digital textbooks and equipment. The Texas Education Agency is now reviewing digital texts submitted for approval.

The second measure, HB 2488, aims to help districts gain access to high-quality open-source textbooks, meaning texts available free over the Internet. The state may offer districts state-developed and state-owned open-source materials. Also, many Texas higher education institutions can supply open-source texts to districts if those materials meet certain requirements, including alignment with state standards.

“Districts will have a lot more flexibility and choice, and use whatever combination of print and electronic material meets the needs of their children,” said the TEA’s Ms. Givens.

The changes are expected to bring a variety of new players into the Texas market who lack the resources to compete in the regular textbook-adoption process.

“We have heard from a lot of folks who have not submitted in the traditional market,” said Ms. Givens, including “niche publishers” who might cover only a narrow area of the curriculum, such as fractions.

David Anderson, an Austin-based education lobbyist who previously was the TEA’s curriculum director and worked for many years in the publishing industry, said he believes the changes afoot will have a far-reaching impact, but not right away.

“Changing behavior and changing habits in education is not easy,” he said. “I don’t think [the measures] will have a tremendous impact this year, ... but if you look over the course of three or four years, it could be significant.”

Furthermore, he notes that the state recently introduced incentives for districts to consider the cost of instructional materials more carefully. That 2007 legislation makes all districts eligible for textbook credits, money they can spend on other priorities if their choice of instructional materials falls below the state maximum per-student allotment for such purchases.

Not everyone is pleased with some of the recent changes in Texas. Some conservative groups, for instance, urged Gov. Perry to veto the digital-textbook bill, saying it would diminish the state board’s role.

“The oversight of the content was removed from the elected body and given to the unelected and unaccountable commissioner of education,” said David Bradley, a Republican on the board. “From the public standpoint, I think everyone should be concerned.”

Gov. Perry issued an executive order last June saying the board must be “an integral part of the digital-content review process,” but Mr. Bradley argues that the move was “strictly for political cover” and would not be binding on a future governor.

Cutting Costs

Observers say a driving force behind the legislation to promote electronic materials is concern about the growing expense of textbooks. In fact, several times this decade, the legislature provided less money for books than the state board had requested.

In 2009, Ms. Givens said, the legislature provided more than $800 million over a two-year period for textbooks and other instructional materials, and the figure is projected to climb well above $1 billion in the next biennium.

Mr. Bradley said he’s not persuaded that digital textbooks will save money, given hardware costs. But Ms. Givens said the state needs to explore new ways of being cost-effective, and she sees the new avenues for digital materials as holding promise.

“We’re soon going to get to 5 million students,” she said. “Five million times any number is a really big number.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Texas’ Influence Over Textbook Content Could Shift With Changes in the Market


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