Curriculum

Textbook Publishers Venture Into Staff-Development Frontier

By David J. Hoff — May 22, 2002 9 min read
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Educators across the country will soon have access to a program designed by some top reading experts that will help them refine their teaching strategies.

But those experts aren’t employed by colleges, universities, or nonprofit education groups—the leading sources of professional development for teachers. They work for Scholastic Inc., one of the nation’s biggest publishers of children’s books and educational materials.

“This is a very natural step for us to take to support teachers,” said Margery Mayer, the president of Scholastic Education, the division of the New York City-based publisher that set up the reading professional-development program. “We believe teachers are yearning for this help.”

Scholastic is the latest publisher to enter the professional-development market, further expanding publishers’ traditional role of producing a textbook and teachers’ manual, and offering a day or two of sessions to introduce teachers to the new materials.

Publishers are expanding their products and services to include online teacher support, tests aligned to textbook content, and other supplementary products. Most of their activity, however, is in the world of professional development, in which publishers are aggressively touting new products such as Scholastic Red, acquiring smaller companies that have established professional-development businesses, and investing in start-ups that show potential for growth.

In addition to Scholastic, other major publishers—including Pearson PLC, the McGraw-Hill Cos., and the Houghton Mifflin Co.—have formed new divisions in the past 1½ years dedicated specifically to contracting with states and school districts to provide professional development.

“Now, we’re being partners with the teachers through the implementation process,” said Maureen DiMarco, the vice president of educational and governmental affairs for Houghton Mifflin, which is based in Boston. “It’s not just doing a couple days before school starts and saying, ‘God bless.’”

Standards-Driven

The trend is driven by the newfound awareness that teachers’ knowledge and skills will need to improve if their students are to achieve to the standards set in states’ accountability systems, textbook publishers say. The need to enhance teachers’ skills has led to the availability of money for that purpose from state and local governments, as well as pressure on publishers to prove that their materials will yield higher test scores.

“What the school districts are saying is, ‘We’re engaged in trying to meet these standards, and we need your help,’” said Peter Jovanovich, the president of Pearson Education, a division of the London-based publisher. “Without the standards movement, we wouldn’t be seeing as much activity.”

States are also demanding that the publishers do more for them, Ms. DiMarco added.

When Florida officials outlined what they wanted from new reading programs, they said that publishers would have to provide 300 hours of professional development over three years for 60,000 elementary teachers. (“Following National Lead, Florida Pushes Phonics Instruction,” March 20, 2002.)

California is spending $31 million in the current fiscal year on professional development that must be tied to the materials on the state’s list of approved reading and mathematics programs. Next year, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, has proposed $110 million for the program.

Experts question, however, whether publishers are the best instructional sources for school teachers.

In Florida and California, the publishers will be offering sessions explaining the optimal way to use their materials. That kind of professional development can be ineffective, according to one reading expert, because it focuses on the content of the products, not instructional strategies that might help teachers improve.

“Publishers don’t have an incentive” to improve overall teacher practice, said Richard Allington, a reading researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, “because then [teachers] won’t be dependent on their products. That has nothing to do with improving reading instruction or reading achievement.”

Even if the publishers offer general rather than program-specific training, they are unlikely to dedicate the time necessary to improve teachers’ skills, others say.

“The really substantive professional development has to take place over a sustained period of time,” said Thomas P. Carpenter, the director of the National Center for Improving Student Learning and Achievement in Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. “Most textbook publishers are not prepared to do that level of professional development.”

Moreover, publishers’ programs could be narrowly tailored for specific subjects and goals, ignoring the broader needs of the school, according to Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the Oxford, Ohio- based National Staff Development Council.

“My largest concern is that they can pull staff development away from the school,” he said, “rather than focusing on the school’s goals for student learning.”

New Approaches

To establish its new professional-development program—called Scholastic Red—Scholastic hired an advisory board that included Louisa C. Moats, a noted reading researcher, and Phyllis Hunter, a national reading consultant.

The company piloted the project in some of the biggest districts in the country, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Fairfax County, Va. The New York City schools tested the program in the Chancellor’s District—the schools with the lowest test scores in the 1.1 million-student district.

Scholastic Red aims to help teachers find ways to improve their practice using reading materials from any publisher. Scholastic trainers work closely with facilitators who work for the district. Those facilitators could be reading specialists, principals, or curriculum directors, who are then responsible for working directly with teachers.

The company also will operate a Web site, www.Scholasticred.com, where teachers will be able to watch videos of other teachers using research-based practices, download lesson plans and other classroom tools, and seek advice from online mentors.

Scholastic will sell the training sessions and access to the Web site for $399 per teacher, what Ms. Mayer estimates it costs to send a teacher to a two-day seminar.

Pearson is taking a slightly different approach. It signed a $44.5 million contract last year to provide professional development for the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. The New York City-based division of the publishing conglomerate set up a computer laboratory where it does some of the training. Pearson also conducts sessions in schools and at other Los Angeles sites.

The primary goal is to prepare the district’s teachers to use the Waterford Early Reading Program, a Pearson product. More than 5,000 teachers and administrators have been trained to use the reading program, according to Joan Mezori, the coordinator of the Los Angeles district’s standards-based-promotion programs.

“We’re really pleased with the service,” she said.

At the company’s computer center, teachers engage in a variety of learning experiences. Through Pearson’s investment in LessonLab, a professional-development company started by James Stigler, a well-known expert on teaching practices at the University of California, Los Angeles, teachers observe videotapes of other teachers’ lessons and figure out ways to adopt their successful strategies.

‘Specific Stuff’

While Scholastic and Pearson have focused on professional development in reading, other companies are concentrating on mathematics.

Educators’ Professional Development/McGraw-Hill recently announced an online-learning program for K-8 teachers intended to help them incorporate algebraic principles into their instruction. The project responds to new policies aimed at enrolling all 8th graders in algebra, a subject most U.S. students traditionally haven’t tackled until high school.

The learning experiences aren’t necessarily aligned with the imprints of the McGraw-Hill publishing line.

By contrast, publishers of math and science materials that require new approaches to teaching, such as science experiments for which students set out to prove a scientific principle rather than follow a teacher’s directions to a preordained finish, are aggressively offering professional development when a district purchases its textbooks.

Because those materials force teachers to abandon their familiar practices and adopt ones that challenge students to explore the subjects’ concepts in a deeper way than ever before, districts are pleading for help from those publishers.

“We have enough experience over the past 30 or 40 years to know that innovative materials require retraining—if you want to call it that,” said Harold Pratt, the president of the National Science Teachers Association and an education consultant based in Littleton, Colo. “This should be very much part of the scene.”

“I want teachers to have professional development on how to use those materials,” said Diane J. Briars, the senior program officer for mathematics and science education for the 40,000-student Pittsburgh public schools. “I don’t want generic professional development. I want specific stuff.”

Here to Stay

With the push for standards-based school improvement intensifying, publishers say their entry into professional development is permanent.

What’s more, the need for high-quality professional development only will increase as states begin to implement the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, they say.

The federal law requires states to show consistent progress in meeting goals for student proficiency in reading and math. It also calls for schools to have a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

“If [the law] is fully implemented and catches on and grows,” said Elwood “Buzz” Ellis, the president of McGraw-Hill Education, “it will have a major impact. A lot of states will be increasing funding” for professional development.

Meanwhile, publishers may find some competition from unlikely sources: their customers.

Some California districts are banding together and seeking the state board of education’s approval to act as professional- development providers using state money—pitting them against publishers. The University of California system also is competing for the money.

“It’s unclear that [publishers] will be able to get a large portion of the available work,” said Terry Emmitt, the administrator of the reading/language arts leadership office at the California education department. “There are a lot of people who want a piece of this pie.”

Mr. Jovanovich is confident that professional development, though unlikely to supplant textbooks as the most profitable sector of his business, will be an area of steady growth for Pearson.

“The demand for really practical, targeted professional development,” he said, “is going to increase pretty dramatically.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Textbook Publishers Venture Into Staff-Development Frontier

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