Skip to Content

Left and Right Agree! State textbook adoption must go!

»Return to Textbooks

Liberal sociologist James Loewen and conservative education historian Diane Ravitch disagree about many things, but they both hate school textbooks, and for similar reasons.

Ravitch lays out her case in The Language Police. Loewen's book is Lies My Teacher Told Me. (Despite the title, his target is books.)

Both say textbooks are boring, bland, and "undermine learning rather than...encouraging it," in Ravitch's words. The industry's guiding principle, they say, is, "Offend no one."

Is this an Open Book?

In 2002, NEA and the Association of American Publishers surveyed a random sample of NEA teachers about their use of textbooks. These are some of the questions (some have been simplified):
1. Do you use textbooks in your classes? 2. Do you use them every day? 3. Do you have enough copies for every student? 4. Are you responsible for choosing your textbooks? 5. Is it very important for teachers to choose the books for their classes? What's your answer? What do you think respondents said? Read on:
1. 78% yes
2. 47% yes
3. 83% yes
4. 28% yes
5. 88% yes

They even agree on the cause. "Marketing textbooks is like marketing fishing lures: the point is to catch fishermen, not fish," explains Loewen. The goal of publishers is to attract, not students, but the state textbook adoption committees that control purchasing.

There are 21 "adoption" states, where state funds can only be used to buy books on an approved list. In other states, publishers sell freely to thousands of individual districts. But the adoption states, especially California and Texas, set the pattern for the whole country.

Adoption committee members get so many books, they can't read them all. So they often use bloodless statistical tests and checklists to see which books fit state standards. Fascinating, dramatic, unforgettable-these qualities make the difference between books that teach and books that bomb, but they aren't as important in the adoption process as satisfying the checklists.

Banned books, distorted facts

Centralized adoption also makes it easier for groups to push for changes in books to make them conform with their own ideas-even if those changes take all the spirit out of the writing, introduce errors, or eliminate material children should know.

Ravitch aims most of her fire at the lists of banned words and other detailed rules that make books "politically correct." These rules may originally have helped to correct stereotypes, she says, but they've gone far beyond that.

Loewen writes more about historical inaccuracies. The books ignore or whitewash unpleasant facts about our country in the name of promoting some people's ideas of patriotism.

Both say that when every edgy sentence is cut from a narrative, the result is awfully dull.

Loewen says publishers try to make up for boring narrative with splashy graphics to catch the eye of committee members who are too busy to read the prose.

Responding to this bizarre market, publishers have developed an industrial approach to building textbooks in which teams of largely anonymous workers write text, find photos, and design pages to a formula that produces adoptable, but sometimes indigestible, tomes.

What do you think?
Do love your text books? Hate them? Can't live without them? Share and discuss.
More Resources:
The scholars listed as authors, Loewen says, just lend their prestigious names. The actual writing is mostly done by "minions in the bowels of the publishing houses."

Loewen found two history books, supposedly written by different distinguished scholars, with page after page of nearly identical passages. When he asked them about it, it appeared that none of the "authors" had even read those passages.

Paul McFall, a senior executive with one of the biggest publishers, Pearson Education, told NEA Today, "There probably was a time when it didn't involve much of [the authors'] time, but it's different now. Our authors are on the phone weekly, reviewing every step. They're engaged in all the thinking behind the pedagogy." Some math authors, he added, even write many of the lessons.

McFall said producing a new product takes about two years, although a revision might be done in one year. It all begins with a committee of nine to 12 people representing the many different elements of these complex products. The timeline allows for field-testing 10 to 15 lessons, he said. The bulk of the actual image gathering, page design, and software programming takes place during a roughly four-month intensive production phase. That's also when "the manuscript is being written and poured into templates," he explained.

Loewen and Ravitch say publishers spend millions to get a book ready for state adoption.

'It's the system, stupid!'

Considering how far removed adoption decisions are from the classroom, it may be surprising that many teachers find some textbooks are really quite good. The reason may be that most of those who churn them out are dedicated people trying to do the right thing in a tough situation.

"These people are not ogres. They want to be proud of what they're doing," says Raleigh McLemore, a sixth-grade teacher in San Leandro, California. McLemore, a vocal critic of textbooks, was hired as an advisor by McGraw-Hill for a year, after they learned that he didn't like their books. "They were not looking at their wallets saying, 'Ha, ha, the money's coming in.' I saw a lot of honest people saying, 'How can we make our book more useful?'" But when McLemore proposed treating fewer topics in more depth, the editors said they had to cover everything on the state list.

As the conservative Fordham Institute said in a report on textbooks, "It's the system, stupid!"

So how did we get here?

According to Ravitch, state textbook adoption began as an effort by Southern states in the late 1800s to keep out anti-Confederacy messages. That may explain why, even today, the South has textbook adoption while almost the entire North is what the industry calls "open territories."

Ravitch tried to enlist the Association of American Publishers in the fight to eliminate state adoption, only to discover they were lobbying to keep it. "The AAP, sadly, uses its considerable clout to protect the adoption process...that benefits a very small number of publishing giants and disadvantages a large number of small publishers who simply cannot afford to meet the expensive requirements of the process," Ravitch wrote in the Fordham Institute report.

Textbook publishing is a super-concentrated industry with three publishing houses-Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill Education-scoring at least 80 percent of sales according to Jay Diskey, executive director of the AAP school division.

Diskey denies that the AAP favors state adoption. But Pearson Vice President Kate Miller said state adoptions "put schedule predictability and dedicated (categorical) funding into instructional materials." She added, "To the extent that there is a barrier for entry [to the industry], that is more dictated by state requirements."

Independent observers from all across the political spectrum, however, agree that teachers should choose textbooks.

"Instructional materials are key parts of the domain where we should rely on frontline educators to make the best decisions for their pupils.. Textbook selection and purchasing decisions should be made as close as possible to the teacher, ideally by the teacher herself." We'll leave it to you to figure out whether that statement comes from Left or Right. But we couldn't have said it better.

Did You Know?

Federal law requires that textbooks be available in electronic form so technology can make them accessible to students with visual impairments.

The federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorized by Congress in 2004, called on states provide accessible instructional materials to blind persons or other persons with print disabilities in a timely manner.

The Center (NIMAC) is charged with maintaining a catalog of print instructional materials prepared using the specialized, accessible format (NIMAS).  These electronic files of print instructional materials are provided to the  center by the textbook publishers, State educational agencies, and local school districts.

The Center must make print instructional materials, including textbooks, in accessible media, free of charge, to blind or other persons with print disabilities in elementary schools and secondary schools.  The Center must also develop, adopt and publish procedures to protect against copyright infringement.Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) [] has established two national centers to further develop and implement the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS).

The NIMAS guides the production and electronic distribution of digital versions of textbooks and other instructional materials so they can be more easily converted to accessible formats, including Braille and text-to-speech.

There are also other ways to locate texts that are available in accessible formats.  For more information, go to the Louis APH database. Telephone Reference Service: 1-800-223-1839.

Louis lists the location information for over 180,000 books and other products in the following media:

Large Print
Computer File