My friend Charlie forwarded this to me from Edutopia. It is as though these textbook publishers are operating in a different universe than I live in, the one where I write history and Peace Hill Press tries to publish decent teaching materials.

Thoughts, any of you?

A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education

A former schoolbook editor parses the politics of educational publishing.
by Tamim Ansary

Some years ago, I signed on as an editor at a major publisher of elementary school and high school textbooks, filled with the idealistic belief that I’d be working with equally idealistic authors to create books that would excite teachers and fill young minds with Big Ideas.

Not so.

I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, “The books are done and we still don’t have an author! I must sign someone today!”

Every time a friend with kids in school tells me textbooks are too generic, I think back to that moment. “Who writes these things?” people ask me. I have to tell them, without a hint of irony, “No one.” It’s symptomatic of the whole muddled mess that is the $4.3 billion textbook business.

Textbooks are a core part of the curriculum, as crucial to the teacher as a blueprint is to a carpenter, so one might assume they are conceived, researched, written, and published as unique contributions to advancing knowledge. In fact, most of these books fall far short of their important role in the educational scheme of things. They are processed into existence using the pulp of what already exists, rising like swamp things from the compost of the past. The mulch is turned and tended by many layers of editors who scrub it of anything possibly objectionable before it is fed into a government-run “adoption” system that provides mediocre material to students of all ages.

The first product I helped create was a basal language arts program. The word basal refers to a comprehensive package that includes students’ textbooks for a sequence of grades, plus associated teachers’ manuals and endless workbooks, tests, answer keys, transparencies, and other “ancillaries.” My company had dominated this market for years, but the brass felt that our flagship program was dated. They wanted something new, built from scratch.

Sounds like a mandate for innovation, right? It wasn’t. We got all the language arts textbooks in use and went through them carefully, jotting down every topic, subtopic, skill, and subskill we could find at each grade level. We compiled these into a master list, eliminated the redundancies, and came up with the core content of our new textbook. Or, as I like to call it, the “chum.” But wait. If every publisher was going through this same process (and they were), how was ours to stand out? Time to stir in a philosophy.

By philosophy, I mean a pedagogical idea. These conceptual enthusiasms surge through the education universe in waves. Textbook editors try to see the next one coming and shape their program to embody it.

The new ideas are born at universities and wash down to publishers through research papers and conferences. Textbook editors swarm to events like the five-day International Reading Association conference to pick up the buzz. They all run around wondering, What’s the coming thing? Is it critical thinking? Metacognition? Constructivism? Project-based learning?

At those same conferences, senior editors look for up-and-coming academics and influential educational consultants to sign as “authors” of the textbooks that the worker bees are already putting together back at the shop.

Once a philosophy has been fixed on and added, we shape the pulp to fit key curriculum guidelines. Every state has a prescribed compendium of what kids should learn — tedious lists of bulleted objectives consisting mostly of sentences like this:

“The student shall be provided content necessary to formulate, discuss, critique, and review hypotheses, theories, laws, and principles and their strengths and weaknesses.”

If you should meet a textbook editor and he or she seems eccentric (odd hair, facial tics, et cetera), it’s because this is a person who has spent hundreds of hours scrutinizing countless pages filled with such action items, trying to determine if the textbook can arguably be said to support each objective.

Of course, no one looks at all the state frameworks. Arizona’s guidelines? Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn. Rhode Island’s? Pardon me while I die laughing. Some states are definitely more important than others. More on this later.

Eventually, at each grade level, the editors distill their notes into detailed outlines, a task roughly comparable to what sixth-century jurists in Byzantium must have faced when they carved Justinian’s Code out of the jungle of Roman law. Finally, they divide the outline into theoretically manageable parts and assign these to writers to flesh into sentences.

What comes back isn’t even close to being the book. The first project I worked on was at this stage when I arrived. My assignment was to reduce a stack of pages 17 inches high, supplied by 40 writers, to a 3-inch stack that would sound as if it had all come from one source. The original text was just ore. A few of the original words survived, I suppose, but no whole sentences.

To avoid the unwelcome appearance of originality at this stage, editors send their writers voluminous guidelines. I am one of these writers, and this summer I wrote a ten-page story for a reading program. The guideline for the assignment, delivered to me in a three-ring binder, was 300 pages long….

You can read the rest, should you be so inclined, at

Showing 18 comments
  • Sandy in MI

    Sorry to say that I’m not surprised. Too many US public school students have minds the consistency of yogurt thanks to textbook mills (not to mention multiple other variables). For the K-12 crowd, textbooks generally haven’t advanced all that much from the days when all African American history fit into one derogatory paragraph.

  • Amy LeForge

    Wow. That was a fascinating article. I had no idea. Well….I probably had some idea, lol. I spent enough time in public education to get a hint of how the system works. I’m glad to be away from using textbooks at all with my kids. Thanks for all you do to write the good stuff!

    Another benefit for me: now I don’t feel quite as bad about not working for a textbook company myself. Designing instruction is something I enjoy but I never worked professionally at it after getting the degree. Something about giving birth to twins 6 months later ended that plan. Boy am I glad it did!

  • dangermom

    Good golly. I knew textbooks were pap, but I had no idea they were as…pureed?…as all that. I like the term ‘chum.’ It’s very depressing, and the more I learn about the educational establishment, the more committed I get to homeschooling. (Do you know my school district just approved Everyday Math for next year? Gah.)

  • Staci in MO

    I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember the time in 4th grade when my teacher realized that our English textbooks were ten years old (they had a copyright date of 1970). She was scandalized, because that made them so “out of date.”

    I can’t imagine how English grammar changed between 1970 and 1980. The school got new English textbooks the next year.

  • Deanna Martin

    Is anyone surprised? Just affirms my commitment to not use textbooks, unless recommended by WTM. Something my DD will appreciate immensely.

  • Steph in Orlando

    I live in Orlando, the home of two major textbook publishers. I was offered a job by one of them as an editor, but turned it down after realizing the exact thing this article uncovers. I was shocked at how they wanted everyone to have a degree in education for the ethos when they are all just glorified secretaries – slapping together information according to prescribed lists. There’s no actual thought.

    Though I’m not a parent, I have been helping my 14-year-old niece after school via iChat. Her textbooks are largely available online, and she’s gotten used to me saying things like, “They’re kidding, right?” as we go over a social studies chapter or the questions for a reading passage. It’s appalling. I’m sure I’ll have to homeschool just to avoid succumbing to someone else’s political agenda (generally, textbooks in the South are highly political, as if the opinions of some are accepted as truth for all). Honestly, it’s no wonder to me that our children test lowest of most industrialized nations.

  • Karen

    Diane Ravitch’s book “The Language Police” (sorry, don’t know how to do italics here) covers this same ground very extensively. The book has chapters on textbook publishers, the testing companies, censorship and reviewers, book adoptions, and politically correct language and content requirements. It is jaw-droppingly informative about the whole process of mass-producing authorless books. As you say, this is the complete opposite of what you do — and indeed, what should always be done.

  • A Circle of Quiet

    John was just in a l-o-n-g meeting to choose the next language arts textbook for his district…his frustration with the waste and the lack of decent choices was HIGH. His young colleagues, however, were so excited, perhaps because “change” has become synonymous with “good” and “meaningful” and “worthwhile.” In five or six years, they’ll be on to the next best thing, and I am sure they will still miss the mark by a mile.

    Cynicism showing … sorry (-:

  • David Prewitt

    SWB: Thanks for posting the article. It’s a fascinating view into the industry. (Also, Edutopia has been added to my favorites list.) I frankly don’t know the solution to the problem. Perhaps the “spine text” idea presented in the article would work? I recall an old business axiom that “nobody gets fired for recommending IBM” from the early IT days. In other words, selecting something outside the norm was risky and selecting the (bland) IBM system was safe. Even if teachers had authority to make their own selections, would they gravitate to the bland because nobody gets fired for recommending XYZ?

    Also, would publishers dole out free samples to teachers in the same way pharmaceutical companies give drugs to doctors? If not, how would the teachers sample the various options?

  • Heather

    My only thought is that this is reminiscent of the purgatory that is the “text-book adoption committee.” I spent three months there during the spring of ’98. I think that may have been when I decided to homeschool.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    A friend of mine is living overseas. Her husband’s employer pays for K-12 schooling, including an allowance for homeschooling. She was recently chided for ordering too many books. It was suggested that she should pick a spine text instead.

  • Karen, Urban Dad is currently teaching The Language Police with his 11th grade AP class.

    You see, he’s a Chicago high school techer who does not use the textbook. He orders the books he wants directly from the publisher at a fantastic discount. He then passes the savings onto the students. The books are in the kids’ hands, they can take notes in them and they get to keep them afterwards. Also, the kids won’t lug the textbooks home anyway.

    As usual, one has to go around the system in order to actually get an education. Or, like us, opt out of the system altogether.

  • Sarah

    Extremely interesting article. As homeschoolers we must also be diligent in our curriculum choices.

    Dangermom- my daughter was pulled from her private school after the adoption of “Everyday math”, and was the impetus to our homeschooling voyage. She was being taught to add with a calculator in Kindergarten, and the math department head saw no problem with children no longer learning the multiplication tables. She saw it as “unnecessary.” Miracles come in many ways, this led to much research, discovery of “The Well Trained Mind”, and the rest is history.

  • Brenda

    Not a bit surprised. I am an elementary public school teacher but I teach Music, so I can gather my own curriculum without a problem. In fact, that is what I am expected to do. But I have seen enough of what my students have to read in their classroom to be appalled and I hear the frustration of creative and talented teachers who are being held in check by the system because they must teach to the standards. These well-meaning and dedicated folks need help and compassion and our country’s children need a champion.
    Makes homeschooling my 2 teenagers all the easier and rewarding.

  • Colleen in NS

    ” Every state has a prescribed compendium of what kids should learn — tedious lists of bulleted objectives consisting mostly of sentences like this:

    “The student shall be provided content necessary to formulate, discuss, critique, and review hypotheses, theories, laws, and principles and their strengths and weaknesses.”

    I looked through the education dept.’s curric. guidelines for language arts here one time to try to figure out how the local schools taught kids to read and to write. I combed through the first six grades or so, and could NOT figure it out. It was all garbledegook like this. I still don’t know how they do it.

  • Karen

    Urban Mom, how terrific that your husband uses Ravitch’s book with his classes, that they get an insight into how their education is manipulated and packaged. I think the greatest thing would be to sit kids down with that book, a textbook, and one of SWB’s books or, with high school kids, a trade history book on one issue/historical event, and have them read them side by side. I would love to read a whole series of books on education with high school kids, including “Savage Inequalities,” books on SAT testing, and books on how college admissions are run. Does anyone out there try this kind of thing with their own kids, or are most responders working with younger children at home? SWB, do you discuss any of these issues with your older boys?

  • Cris

    As a homeschooler who fondly refers to TWTM as my curriculum “Bible” AND who is also a subscriber of Edutopia, I was immediately struck with the same “Duh!” reaction when I read this article (I even blogged about it, stating precisely that this concept drives what we do in Science, History, and the like per TWTM and Charlotte Mason).

    The whole idea of using “living books” with a spine to organize and prioritize is so simple but yet so genius in the way it serves both student and teacher alike. I’ve noticed many “new” ideas coming from the system lately that are suspiciously similar to what homeschoolers know by experience. Not sure how I feel about this yet…

  • Beth from New Jersey

    The author’s list of solutions sounds a lot like homeschooling:
    1. Mix & Match — Reduce dependence on basal curricula by allowing teachers to choose the components of their own curriculum.
    2. Use History & Science Spines — These would be thin, encyclopedic reference tools, checked by experts, and supplemented by living books. Hello.
    3. High Tech Materials — Use CDs, DVDs, the Internet, etc., as teaching tools

    Sounds like homeschooling. Hmmm……..

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt