A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education: A Former Schoolbook Editor Parses the Politics of Educational Publishing


Written by Owen Edwards

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.

Welcome to the Machine

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.

Content Lite

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.

Bon Appétit

With so much at stake, how did we get into this turgid mess? In the 1980s and ’90s, a feeding frenzy broke out among publishing houses as they all fought to swallow their competitors. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bought Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Houghton Mifflin bought D.C. Heath and Co. McGraw-Hill bought Macmillan. Silver Burdett bought Ginn — or was it Ginn that bought Silver? It doesn’t matter, because soon enough both were devoured by Prentice Hall, which in turn was gobbled up by Simon & Schuster.

Then, in the late ’90s, even bigger corporations began circling. Almost all the familiar textbook brands of yore vanished or ended up in the bellies of just four big sharks: Pearson, a British company; Vivendi Universal, a French firm; Reed Elsevier, a British-Dutch concern; and McGraw-Hill, the lone American-owned textbook conglomerate.

This concentration of money and power caused dramatic changes. In 1974, there were twenty-two major basal reading programs; now there are five or six. As the number of basals (in all subject areas) shrank, so did editorial staffs. Many downsized editors floated off and started “development houses,” private firms that contract with educational publishers to deliver chunks of programs. They hire freelance managers to manage freelance editors to manage teams of freelance writers to produce text that skeleton crews of development-house executives sent on to publishing-house executives, who then pass it on to various committees for massaging.

A few years ago, I got an assignment from a development house to write a lesson on a particular reading skill. The freelance editor sent me the corresponding lessons from our client’s three major competitors. “Here’s what the other companies are doing,” she told me. “Cover everything they do, only better.” I had to laugh: I had written (for other development houses) all three of the lessons I was competing with.

The Cruelest Month

In textbook publishing, April is the cruelest month. That’s when certain states announce which textbooks they’re adopting. When it comes to setting the agenda for textbook publishing, only the twenty-two states that have a formal adoption process count. The other twenty-eight are irrelevant — even though they include populous giants like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — because they allow all publishers to come in and market programs directly to local school districts.

Adoption states, by contrast, buy new textbooks on a regular cycle, usually every six years, and they allow only certain programs to be sold in their state. They draw up the list at the beginning of each cycle, and woe to publishers that fail to make that list, because for the next seventy-two months they will have zero sales in that state.

Among the adoption states, Texas, California, and Florida have unrivaled clout. Yes, size does matter. Together, these three have roughly 13 million students in K-12 public schools. The next eighteen adoption states put together have about 12.7 million. Though the Big Three have different total numbers of students, they each spend about the same amount of money on textbooks. For the current school year, they budgeted more than $900 million for instructional materials, more than a quarter of all the money that will be spent on textbooks in the nation.

Obviously, publishers create products specifically for the adoptions in those three key states. They then sell the same product to everybody else, because basals are very expensive to produce — a K-8 reading program can cost as much as $60 million. Publishers hope to recoup the costs of a big program from the sudden gush of money in a big adoption state, then turn a profit on the subsequent trickle from the “open territories.” Those that fail to make the list in Texas, California, or Florida are stuck recouping costs for the next six years. Strapped for money to spend on projects for the next adoption period, they’re likely to fail again. As the cycle grows vicious, they turn into lunch meat.

Don’t Mess with Texas

The big three adoption states are not equal, however. In that elite trio, Texas rules. California has more students (more than 6 million versus just over 4 million in Texas), but Texas spends just as much money (approximately $42 billion) on its public schools. More important, Texas allocates a dedicated chunk of funds specifically for textbooks. That money can’t be used for anything else, and all of it must be spent in the adoption year. Furthermore, Texas has particular power when it comes to high school textbooks, since California adopts statewide only for textbooks from kindergarten though eighth grade, while the Lone Star State’s adoption process applies to textbooks from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

If you’re creating a new textbook, therefore, you start by scrutinizing Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). This document is drawn up by a group of curriculum experts, teachers, and political insiders appointed by the fifteen members of the Texas Board of Education, currently five Democrats and ten Republicans, about half of whom have a background in education. TEKS describes what Texas wants and what the entire nation will therefore get.

Texas is truly the tail that wags the dog. There is, however, a tail that wags this mighty tail. Every adoption state allows private citizens to review textbooks and raise objections. Publishers must respond to these objections at open hearings.

In the late ’60s, a Texas couple, Mel and Norma Gabler, figured out how to use their state’s adoption hearings to put pressure on textbook publishers. The Gablers had no academic credentials or teaching background, but they knew what they wanted taught–phonics, sexual abstinence, free enterprise, creationism, and the primacy of Judeo-Christian values–and considered themselves in a battle against a “politically correct degradation of academics.” Expert organizers, the Gablers possessed a flair for constructing arguments out of the language of official curriculum guidelines. The Longview, Texas-based nonprofit corporation they founded forty-three years ago, Educational Research Analysts, continues to review textbooks and lobby against liberal content in textbooks.

The Gablers no longer appear in person at adoption hearings, but through workshops, books, and how-to manuals, they trained a whole generation of conservative Christian activists to carry on their work.

Citizens also pressure textbook companies at California adoption hearings. These objections come mostly from such liberal organizations as Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, or from individual citizens who look at proposed textbooks when they are on display before adoption in thirty centers around the state. Concern in California is normally of the politically correct sort — objections, for example, to such perceived gaffes as using the word Indian instead of “Native American.” To make the list in California, books must be scrupulously stereotype free: No textbook can show African Americans playing sports, Asians using computers, or women taking care of children. Anyone who stays in textbook publishing long enough develops radar for what will and won’t get past the blanding process of both the conservative and liberal watchdogs.

Responding to citizens’ objections in adoption hearings is a delicate art. Publishers learn never to confront the assumptions behind an objection. That just causes deeper criticism. For example, a health textbook I worked on had a picture of a girl on a windy beach. One concerned citizen believed he could detect the outlines of the girl’s underwear through her dress. Our response: She’s at the beach, so that’s her bathing suit. It worked.

A social studies textbook was attacked because a full-page photograph showed a large family gathered around a dinner table. The objection? They looked like Arabs. Did we rise up indignantly at this un-American display of bias? We did not. Instead, we said that the family was Armenian. It worked.

Of course, publishers prefer to face no objections at all. That’s why going through a major adoption, especially a Texas adoption, is like earning a professional certificate in textbook editing. Survivors just know things.

What do they know?

Mainly, they know how to censor themselves. Once, I remember, an editorial group was discussing literary selections to include in a reading anthology. We were about to agree on one selection when someone mentioned that the author of this piece had drawn a protest at a Texas adoption because he had allegedly belonged to an organization called One World Council, rumored to be a “Communist front.”

At that moment, someone pointed out another story that fit our criteria. Without further conversation, we chose that one and moved on. Only in retrospect did I realize we had censored the first story based on rumors of allegations. Our unspoken thinking seemed to be, If even the most unlikely taint existed, the Gablers would find it, so why take a chance?

Self-censorship like this goes unreported because we the censors hardly notice ourselves doing it. In that room, none of us said no to any story. We just converged around a different story. The dangerous author, incidentally, was celebrated best-selling science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Turn the Page

There’s no quick, simple fix for the blanding of American textbooks, but several steps are key to reform:

Mix and Match

Revamp our funding mechanisms to let teachers assemble their own curricula from numerous individual sources instead of forcing them to rely on single comprehensive packages from national textbook factories. We can’t have a different curriculum in every classroom, of course, but surely there’s a way to achieve coherence without stultification.

Basals as Backup

Reduce basals to reference books — slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.

Dull? No, because these cores would not be the actual instructional material students would use. They would be analogous to operating systems in the world of software. If there are only a few of these and they’re pretty similar, it’s OK. Local districts and classroom teachers would receive funds enabling them to assemble their own constellations of lessons and supporting materials around the core texts, purchased not from a few behemoths but from hundreds of smaller publishing houses such as those that currently supply the supplementary-textbook industry.

High Tech Textbooks

Just as software developers create applications for particular operating systems, textbook developers should develop materials that plug into the core texts. Small companies and even individuals who see a niche could produce a module to fill it. None would need $60 million to break even.

Imagine, for example, a world-history core: One publisher might produce a series of historical novellas by a writer and a historian working together to go with various places and periods in history. Another might create a map of the world, using software that animates at the click of a mouse to show political boundaries swelling, shrinking, and shifting over hundreds of years. Another might produce a board game that dramatizes the connections between trade and cultural diffusion. Hundreds of publishers could compete to produce lessons that fulfill some aspect of the core text, the point of reference.

Innovate the Industry

The intellect, dedication, and inventiveness of textbook editors, abundant throughout the industry but often stifled and underappreciated, would be unleashed with — I predict — extraordinary results for teachers and students.

Bundling selections from this forest of material to create curriculum packages might itself emerge as a job description in educational publishing.

The possibilities are endless. And shouldn’t endless possibility be the point?

Tamim Ansary writes and lectures about Afghanistan, Islamic history, democracy, schooling and learning, fiction and the writing process, and other issues and directs the San Francisco Writers Workshop.

What Are They Thinking?

A new book surveying foreign textbooks sheds light on how others see American history.

History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History | The New Press | $27 | 400 pages

Who could have guessed that a book about textbooks would turn out to be a page-turner? And yet that’s exactly what authors Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have produced with History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History. Lindaman and Ward, academics from Harvard University and Vincennes University in Indiana respectively, take many of the major historical events that occupy center stage in standard U.S. history textbooks and show how texts from other countries involved recount the same episodes. One nation’s glorious war for independence may be a pesky and pernicious insurrection to another people. A national leader may be oppressive or divinely guided, depending on one’s perspective (or on whose Gore was axed). And though it’s often said that history is written by the winners, losers and bit players write history, too.

In the introduction, the authors state the problem they seek to address:

“Certain societies that could have more easily ignored the United States fifty years ago find themselves today dealing with U.S. corporations, fashion, food, entertainment, and U.S. foreign policy on a daily basis. And this is hardly a one-way street. However, there is one distinct advantage that these other countries have over the United States in this relationship: They are constantly exposed to the U.S., receiving a daily dose of information on the U.S. and Americans, studying English at school, and in some cases continuing their studies in this country. Americans, in sharp contrast, seem to know relatively little about other countries and cultures. This isolationist tendency is nowhere more apparent than within our own educational system.”

Few are more aware of this isolationism than middle school and high school teachers, particularly those who teach history using standard texts that — not surprisingly — view the signal events of American history with a kind of national solipsism. Students in the States can therefore be forgiven if they think the entire world views these events in the same way.

To correct this tunnel vision (or, sometimes, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel vision), Lindaman and Ward present a kind of Rashomon world, offering hundreds of accounts from foreign history textbooks. For example, the authors look at the Spanish-American War through the schoolbooks of Spain, Cuba, and the Philippines. A reader at least vaguely familiar with the U.S. high school textbook version — the conflict sparked by the sinking of the American battleship Maine, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, imperial Spain defeated, the oppressed Cubans and Filipinos liberated and grateful — will be surprised to see how each country regards the war a century later.

The Spanish textbook quoted, which might be expected to see Spain as an aggrieved party, in fact mostly dwells on the internal dissension and clumsy colonial governance that led to the war and defeat even though the U.S. “hardly had a professional army.” Significantly, the explosion that sank the Maine and precipitated America’s declaration of war is handled with equanimity: “In February of 1898 the North American cruiser Maine, anchored in the harbor of Havana, exploded. The cause of the explosion was never clearly explained and the North American authorities attributed it to Spanish sabotage.”

Perhaps the most surprising version of the Spanish-American War appears in textbooks from the Philippines, generally thought of in this country as a U.S. ally. The island nation’s standard history textbook presents a dark picture of American motives: “The Filipinos, who expected the Americans to champion their freedom, instead were betrayed and reluctantly fell into the hands of American imperialists.” On the sinking of the Maine, the book is angrily adamant: “Although the Maine had been blown up by American spies in order to provoke the war, the public was not informed of the truth.”

To better understand the world, we owe it to ourselves, and our students, to know that these varied national “truths” are out there. Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have compiled the textbook equivalent of the Gnostic Gospels, a book that every history teacher should be reading. — Owen Edwards


Do Homeschoolers Get “Snow Days”?

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Thanks to one of our Angelicum families for sending us these pictures.  As with so many things in life, homeschoolers have the best of both worlds!


“Spending Time” by Hunter Gill

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This was a documentary I threw together recently advocating spending more time reading. Enjoy!

Editor’s note: We have enjoyed seeing Hunter’s talent in these videos. If you have not seen his other videos, please check out the video link at the top of our website. Hunter also has his own You Tube channel: http://www.youtube.com/thebookknight

A READING PLAN FOR CHILDREN: Your Children Can Read the Great Books

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Here is a great read for your weekend!  A 12-page read, but worth it! 
Click to read the PDF file:


Great Books Essay: Who Was the Better Man? by student M.C., First Year Ancient Greeks

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Who Was the Better Man?                                                                            

The Iliad and the Odyssey are epic poems that were composed around 800-725 B. C. and it is traditionally maintained that they were written by down by Homer, the blind poet.  The Iliad is about Achilles and how his anger affected the Trojan War.  The Odyssey is about Odysseus and his journey home to Ithaca.  Achilles was a great warrior, fearless in battle.  Odysseus was a cunning strategist who eventually won the war for the Achaeans.  It is often wondered who was the better man?  Upon analysis, Odysseus is, undoubtedly, the better man.

To begin with, Odysseus has a great love of his family and his kingdom, and he has an honest pride in them.  The Odyssey is about his journey to get back to his home, and all that he has to suffer and undergo to do so.  He encounters many temptations along the way, including the offer of Calypso, the sea goddess, to make him her immortal husband.  But in his love and fidelity for Penelope, his wife, he declines her proposal.  Odysseus passes through the halls of Hades in order to seek out Teiresias and learn how to find his way back home; besides numerous other ordeals he has to endure.  Through all this the principles of constancy and fidelity are realized in him.

Besides being faithful and constant, Odysseus is also a very clever man and a great strategist.  Because of Odysseus the Achaeans won the Trojan War, for he thought up the Trojan horse.  After the war, in all his travels, his cleverness and resourcefulness always won him through many a difficult situation.  For example, in the Cyclop’s cave, without Odysseus’ foresight and clever escape plan, Odysseus and his men would all have been eaten  by Polyphemus or have starved to death with no way out of the cave.  Whereas Achilles would probably have killed Polyphemus without thinking of how to get out of the cave after he was dead. Thus, Odysseus is clever and prudent as well as faithful and constant.  

Achilles, the son of the goddess Thetis, is the king of Myrmidons.  He is the greatest warrior on the Achaean’s side, but he has one fatal fault: pride.  The Iliad starts out with the pride of Achilles.  He was angered and felt dishonored when Agamemnon takes his trophy, Briseis, from him.  Achilles withdraws himself and his men from the war.   He knows that this will probably lose the war for the Achaeans and that many men will have died in vain in a foreign land. But Achilles does not care.  Achilles has no constancy or fidelity to his fellow soldiers or to his general, Agamemnon.  He is preparing to leave and return to Pthia, when he learns that Hector has killed his best friend, Patroclus, who donned Achilles’ armor in an attempt to inspire and aide the Achaeans.  Without blaming himself in any way for Patroclus’ death, Achilles rejoins the Achaean army and challenges Hector to combat.  He wins the victory and kills Hector.  He dishonors Hector’s body which in turn enrages the gods.  To pacify the gods he returns the body to the Trojans, but only after King Priam came begging for it.  Achilles’ pride is very dangerous and destructive.   Homer chose to use Achilles as an example of who not to be like. Achilles nearly lost the war for the Achaeans and his pride did not allow him to feel any guilt for the death of Patroclus, which was very much Achilles’ fault and not Hector’s; and only the intervention of the gods and the desperate pleas of King Priam would induce Achilles to return the body of Hector for a proper burial. Thus Achilles is a very good example of who not to be like.

Odysseus and Achilles are also very different in their different levels of self-control.  Achilles lets his passions rule him, so he often loses control of himself.  His pride keeps him from thinking of others and how his lack of self-control could affect them in a negative way.  Countless examples of this are in the Iliad, like when he withdraws from the war in a fit of anger although he knows that this will cause very dire consequences for the Achaeans. He even goes so far as to pray to Zeus for the victory of the Trojans over the Achaeans.  Because Achilles’ mother is the goddess Thetis, Zeus decides to grant Achilles’ prayers.                                                                                                                                                                   Odysseus, however, has control over his passions and lets his reason guide him. He does not give in to temptations, like when the beautiful Calypso offered to make him her immortal husband.  He knows that, as tempting as it sounds, he has a duty to his home and his family, and that immortality would not make him happy if he was without the woman he loved and away from the land that he loved the best. Thus Homer teaches us not to let our passions control us, like Achilles, but rather let reason rule, like Odysseus.          

In conclusion, Achilles represents all that impedes the advancement of civilization, such as pride, infidelity, and no self-control over one’s passions.  Since pride is the root of all evils, this story is essential to the foundation of a good civilization. Odysseus, however, is a great model of who to be like. Odysseus is faithful, constant, prudent, and possessing of foresight. He is an example of the superiority of intelligence to brute force, which is another essential idea to civilization. Therefore, in every way Odysseus is the better man.

“I challenge every adult to step up and join the conversation”

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Secretary Arne Duncan
United States Secretary of Education
LBJ Education Building, Room 7W311
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan:

I reside in Chicago and I am a well known moral philosopher in the field education and I am the protégé of Dr. Mortimer J. Adler.

U.S. Attorney General Holder: “We want to listen to educators, parents, and experts in the field, and find out the best ideas for addressing this urgent problem. We’re not interested in just scratching the surface or focusing on generalities, and as we delve into this problem we’re not going to protect any sacred cows. We’re here to learn firsthand what’s happening on our streets so we can devise effective solutions.”

As long as you treat violence, drug/alcohol addiction, vicious behavior, etceteras as the problem, instead as a symptom of a moral problem, you are not really addressing the crisis.

Whenever there is something bad or wrong in our communities, cities, states, it is because we (citizens & parents) let it get that way.

Most Americans have lost their moral compass and we are in lock-step with the cultural trajectory of ancient Rome.

When the word education is used today, vocation is meant. Only a true liberal education can save us and that is not even a guarantee.

Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster. Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

Max Weismann,

President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas and Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)


Cc: Eric Holder

       Mayor Richard M. Daley

Justice and freedom; discussion and criticism;
intelligence and character–these are the indispensable
ingredients of the democratic state.
We can be rich and powerful without them.
But not for long.         –Robert M. Hutchins
Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann

E-mail: TGIdeas@speedsite.com
Home Page: http://www.thegreatideas.org/
A not-for-profit 501(c)3 educational organization
Donations are tax deductible as the law allows

“Great” Website for Listening to the Great Books Online

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A special thanks to the director of the Great Books Academy, Mr. Max Weisman, for sending us this link!  Listen to Genius !

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