Signs of a Significant Disruption in the Traditional Textbook Model


Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the December 18, 2008 issue of the New York Times in which he gave advice to the car companies. Friedman was saying that the car companies were giving the public what they wanted, but that was their problem. "Their job is to make the cars people don't know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them." He noted Apple's success with the iPod and Toyota's success with its hybrid. His point was that companies that are too market-driven are in danger; they need to show customers the possibilities because often customers don't know what they don't know until they see other options.

Indiana DOE Redefines Textbooks
An example of being too market-driven has flamed onto the education scene in Indiana. In October 2008, the Indiana State Board of Education issued a Statement and Action Regarding Social Studies Textbooks. In short, they found that while the submitted textbooks met minimum criteria, they "... do not provide content that is interesting, engaging and supportive of effective student learning...." In the statement, the board told local districts to go ahead and review the submitted books so they could be ready for spring adoption, but the board was going to conduct a deeper review to find content (emphasis mine) that was more interesting and engaging. And the board formally expressed its concerns to publishers and asked "for their input and assistance in improving the quality of educational materials they provide."

That was October. On February 6, 2009, the other shoe dropped. The State Board of Education, with new State Superintendent Tony Bennett's support, sent "An Open Letter to Indiana Educators about Textbooks, Computers and Instructional Materials" (PDF). In that letter they reiterated their concern about the submitted social studies textbooks and, writing directly to educators, stated: "You should feel no obligation to utilize the standard form of social studies textbooks."

But that was only the setup.

The board then officially reinterpreted the state's definition of textbook. In Indiana, a "'Textbook' means systematically organized material designed to provide a specific level of instruction in a subject matter category." The board interpreted this section "... to allow school corporations to use computers and other data devices, instructional software, internet resources, interactive, magnetic and other media, and other 'systematically organized material.' As technology continues to evolve, Indiana's broad and inclusive definition of a textbook will enable districts to evolve in their use of such materials, whether packaged for them or packaged by them."

As Marvin Bailey of the Indiana Department of Education pointed out to me in an e-mail, "Indiana is among a handful of states that requires parents to annually lease textbooks.  Essentially, this interpretation permits school corporations to utilize digital resources, including the computer, to provide instructional curriculum--and that parents might lease a computer much as they would a textbook for their child's instructional use.  In this age, where one-to-one computing is becoming commonplace with inexpensive ultraportable computers, we're on the verge of a new revolution and this ruling enables such a vision."

As an indication of how important the board appears to believe this is, it has simplified applying for a waiver to implement this definition, thus making it easer for districts to select materials other than the adopted textbooks, including computers.

Variations on a Theme
Indiana is not the only state where there are signs of a significant disruption in the traditional textbook/instructional materials model. Florida, like most every other state, is looking at significant budget cuts. In doing so, Florida provided more flexibility for school districts by loosening restrictions on categorical funding, including the funds that were restricted to textbooks. So, for the 2008-2009 school year, districts can use instructional materials funds for textbooks or anything they want. Once Florida districts get a taste of that freedom, will they ever be able to go back?

Virginia announced in September last year that they were going to create their own "flexbook" using CK-12, a nonprofit organization that, according to its Web site, offers "next generation textbooks in physics, math, and biology online." CK-12 also offers software to help school systems develop their own content. Virginia put out a call for teachers to write chapters or develop lab experiments for emerging fields in physics, including biophysics, quantum mechanics and relativity in 8 to 10 weeks. It is to be posted soon for teachers to use, and other teachers will be able to post updates, corrections, and suggestions. This will not take the place of physics textbooks, but the fact that the state is out there causing instructional materials to be created for the Web and encouraging districts to use it is noteworthy.

And in Texas, where the legislature is in session right now, a bill will be introduced regarding textbooks and technology that would, as Robert Scott, the Commissioner of Education, told a conference of superintendents and school board members, provide more flexibility. This is not the first legislative session in Texas where such a bill has been introduced, but insiders in Texas believe this one may have a better chance of passing.

Cracks in the Traditional Way of Doing Business
So what is happening here? What probably happened in Indiana's case is publishers submitted textbooks that met the minimum criteria of consistency with academic standards, durability, and price, but the notions of 'interesting, engaging and supportive of effective learning' as envisioned by the Indiana State Board of Education were not listed as part of the minimum criteria. I do not believe that textbook companies set out to develop textbooks and related materials--including Web sites and interactive internet components--that are uninteresting, non-engaging and not supportive of effective learning. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on market research, focus groups with educators, and hiring consultants, not to mention the development costs for writers, curriculum experts, illustrators, art, editors, printing, marketing, etc. So what goes wrong?

I think textbook publishers have too many people telling them what to do. Fifty sets of state standards, not to mention big districts, each with its own requirements and everyone on a budget. Publishers seem to try to please every single one of them. They cannot afford to take any risks because they have to meet everyone's needs and don't want to offend anyone. My artist wife tells me that when you mix all colors together, you get gray. I think that is what happened with the social studies textbooks in the eyes of the Indiana State Board of Education. The color has been washed out by throwing everything in.

I will not presume to try to solve the problem; it is extremely complex and the solution probably requires a business model that hasn't been invented yet. However, these are not insignificant cracks in the traditional way of doing business, and they indicate to me that something is breaking, albeit slowly.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).