The process through which school textbooks come into being (at least in Texas and California), as described by Tamim Ansary, could be considered yet another reason to support open access models of producing educational material
"SOME YEARS AGO, I signed on as an editor at a major publisher of elementary 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.
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-andcoming academics and influential educational consultants to sign as "authors" of the textbooks that the worker bees are already putting together back at the shop."
Richard Feyman wrote many years ago about getting involved in the Califormia state education board Curriculum Commission committee, which was responsible for adopting school textbooks. He was appalled at what he discovered about the process. Unlike the other members of the committee Feynman decided to read all the proposed books himself. They took up 17 feet of shelf space.
"I was overwhelmed.
"It's all right, Mr. Feynman; we'll get someone to help you read them."
I couldn't figure out how you do that: you either read them or you don't read them. I had a special bookshelf put in my study downstairs (the books took up seventeen feet), and began reading all the books that were going to be discussed in the next meeting. We were going to start out with the elementary schoolbooks.
It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, "BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!" -- there would be a big explosion from the "volcano" below.
The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child...
Then I came to my first meeting. The other members had given some kind of ratings to some of the books, and they asked me what my ratings were. My rating was often different from theirs, and they would ask, "Why did you rate that book low?" I would say the trouble with that book was this and this on page so-and-so -- I had my notes.
They discovered that I was kind of a goldmine: I would tell them, in detail, what was good and bad in all the books; I had a reason for every rating.
I would ask them why they had rated this book so high, and they would say, "Let us hear what you thought about such and such a book." I would never find out why they rated anything the way they did. Instead, they kept asking me what I thought.
We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it.
I said, "The book depository didn't send me that book, but the other two were nice."
Someone tried repeating the question: "What do you think about that book?"
"I said they didn't send me that one, so I don't have any judgment on it."
The man from the book depository was there, and he said, "Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn't send it to you because that book hadn't been completed yet. There's a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it's blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late."
It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn't believe it was blank, because [the book] had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating...
They were very embarrassed to discover they were giving ratings to that book, and it gave me a little bit more confidence. It turned out the other members of the committee had done a lot of work in giving out the books and collecting reports, and had gone to sessions in which the book publishers would explain the books before they read them; I was the only guy on that commission who read all the books and didn't get any information from the book publishers except what was in the books themselves, the things that would ultimately go to the schools.
This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging."
That was in 1964. Ansary doesn't inspire much confidence about the situation being any better now. The degree to which the core function of a process, like choosing or producing decent textbooks, can get corrupted by the overwhelming force of things that have to be done in order to sustain particular systems, is a pretty universal failure mode. One for my systems thinking colleagues at the OU, I reckon.