What I’ll tell textbook publishers tomorrow

Today I’m heading out to Washington to speak at Content in Context, the annual conference of the Association of American Publishers PreK-12 Learning Group. This is actually my second time being invited to speak in front of this group of textbook publishers in the last year and a half or so. I’m on a panel about Common Core (natch), and I’ll probably be mostly talking about my alignment work and perhaps some of the newer data collection activities I’ve been describing ad nauseam on this blog and on Twitter.

I really appreciate that the publishers would want to have me at their meeting. After all, my research on alignment to standards has painted the publishers in a fairly negative light. And I was quoted in an article where another academic called publishers “snake oil salesmen” for their over-stated alignment claims [1]. Certainly they could have tagged me as another anti-corporate academic with an agenda and cast me off. Instead, they’ve continued to engage me in multiple ways, and I am quite confident that I am the better for it.

People often ask me if I think we’ll be better off in a world without textbooks (often one second after they sneer at the very existence of textbooks or the notion that anyone would consider them worthy of policy research). The answer to that question is a pretty resounding “no.” While I suspect some teachers could do just fine creating their own curricula on their own or in teams, it strikes me as completely bananas to have 3 million teachers making their own materials. I doubt that current teacher education programs adequately prepare teachers for that kind of work, but even if they did that level of decentralization wouldn’t make much sense to me. Furthermore, with that little standardization there would be virtually no hope of learning what’s working and what’s not. Quite the contrary, I wish there were fewer varieties of textbook out there, each with more research and evidence as to its quality (including a voluntary national option–which Engage might end up being) [2].

The traditional publishers are up against some pretty grave challenges right now, and I’m sure they know it. Aside from the research questioning their quality and alignment, the forces of the internet and freely available materials like Engage NY are making it harder and harder for strapped districts and schools to justify the (admittedly not so expensive in the scheme of things) traditional textbook.

So what I’ll tell the publishers on Wednesday is that I really want them to rise to this challenge–to put out materials that embody new standards and show schools and teachers why it’s worth it to use either text or digital materials from a traditional publisher. They won’t be able to compete on cost (versus materials that cost $0). But they could certainly compete (and likely exceed) on quality. So that’s where they have to place their bets. I hope they succeed.

[1] I believe I’ve made this clear either here or elsewhere, but I do not believe publishers are snake oil salesmen. I haven’t met a textbook publisher I thought wasn’t trying hard to put out a good product, even if I sometimes think the end result falls short of that goal.

[2] In a future post I’ll talk about what we’re learning about the absurd variety of textbooks used in California schools–far more variety than I expected or I think is probably useful.


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