What are they thinking? » The way it is now

Rule by the Few

Twenty states, known as Adoption States, make up the critical market sought by textbook publishers. These states “adopt” a list of approved textbooks and buy those books for the students in the state schools, usually on a six-year cycle. If a publisher does not have its books on that list, it will have no sales in that state for that book for 5 to 6 years.1

Among these adoption states, three states wield enormous influence because together they spend about 25% of all the money spent on textbooks in the entire nation. These states are Texas, California, and Florida.2

“TEKS describes what Texas wants and what the entire nation will therefore get.”

Since publishers cannot afford to produce a textbook for every state and its unique criteria, each one creates a book that meets the criteria of the majority of its clients—which consists of the three key adoption states. As a result, the curriculum guidelines for Texas, California and Florida dominate the scope and sequence of nearly all textbooks published by the three main publishers.

Texas has even more clout among the three dominant states because it allots a certain amount of money per year per student, and by law it must spend all of the allotted money. Publishers desperately want that guaranteed money, so they cater particularly to the Texas curriculum guide, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).3 In fact, Tamim Ansary, an editor for nine years at one publishing house and a writer for the others at various times, claims that “TEKS describes what Texas wants and what the entire nation will therefore get.”4

So the publishers want to satisfy Texas first, but they also need to meet the diverse requirements of Florida and California. And, of course, it is financially important to gain the market of New York and the other heavily populated states. So the publishers seek to align the textbooks with the curricular requirements of all of these states. To evaluate their success, they use correlational analysis, computerized keyword searches, and sometimes untrained reviewers to determine how well they comply with these state standards.

Ironically, by trying to make their books universally acceptable, mainstream publishers end up with watered-down content.  They attempt to satisfy a variety of curricula demands through graphics and sidebars rather than meaty text.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, describes this “government-run purchasing system” as “dysfunctional” and contributing to “educational mediocrity.” In fact, he argues that the final result is textbooks “that foster low academic achievement.”5

Find out what an insider has to say about the agenda of secular textbook publishers

1For details on the adoption schedule for each state, see the website for NIMAS (the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards).
2For a detailed explanation of the significance of Adoption States, see "The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption", a study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Washington, DC (September 2004).
3See http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/.
4Tamim Ansary, “A Textbook Example of What’s Wrong with Education.Edutopia (November 2004).
5Foreword, “Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption.”