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The Trouble With Textbooks

by Eric Broudy - 1975

This article looks at why educational publishers produce materials for children with a limited regard for children's interests. (Source: ERIC)

Recently the English editor of a major educational publishing house held a meeting with one of its authors. The author, who was writing part of an elementary-high school textbook for the publisher's new language/composition series,[1] was fighting to retain in his manuscript much of the humor and appeal to student interest that the editor wanted to excise. The editor had complained that the material was either irrelevant or possibly objectionable, perhaps both. The author disagreed and reminded the editor of an early memo that he had circulated to his authors, even before contracts were signed. It read in part:


What we would like to avoid is the pseudo-objective tone that is so common in textbooks. Our greatest advantage, perhaps, will be that the books we publish are genuinely usable by kids in the 40th to 70th percentile. Existing series are not suitable for these children, and there is consequently a large unsatisfied market. (Along with simplicity goes high interest, fun.) We must make every effort to keep students from getting bored with our presentation.


The editor responded to the author's reminder by closing the discussion with one of educational publishing's most frequently-repeated maxims: "Yes, but kids don't buy books, teachers do."


If there is one common thread running through the apparent diversity of educational publishing, it's the conviction that kids don't buy books and teachers do. And teachers, so say the publishers, will not buy controversy—at least in textbooks. Conflict, sex, love, hate, religion, humor—in short, much of the reality of life, the child's included—have no place in the world of the schoolroom.


The implication of that statement—which sounds so obviously true, which seems so axiomatic, and which dismisses so much—is that yes, the kids may love the material, but unfortunately, it's the teacher who orders the books, and the teacher's views are probably at variance with his or her students'. (Another version of the same objection goes: Yes, we could publish great stuff for kids, but it wouldn't do anyone any good to have it sit in. the warehouse.)


This conviction has permitted publishers to create materials for children with a limited regard for children's interests. Incredible as it sounds, virtually everyone connected with the production or selection of educational materials has slighted the student. In 1969, the Institute for Educational Development conducted a lengthy study of how materials are selected in the public schools. They interviewed people ranging from superintendents to classroom teachers and school board members in at least four school districts in each often states. In addition, they interviewed representatives from thirteen educational pub­lishers and two educational associations. One of their conclusions was the following:


An interesting finding of the study is that no mention was made of the ulti­mate consumer, the student, in the materials selection process. Decisions appear to be made on the basis of criteria which have little to do with stu­dents according to survey respondents. Producers do not perceive students as their clientele; though students may use materials, they do not select materials and have no choice in what materials they are required to use.


Hopefully, this situation is now being improved. Scholastic Magazines, in testing an individualized reading program with ninety-seven teachers in thirty-six states, learned that 59.3 percent of the teachers were influenced "to a great extent" to use the program because of the positive reactions of their students. If kids don't buy books, there is at least evidence to support the view that their opinions aren't altogether ignored. However slim this evidence is, it is hearten­ing news. If teachers are listening more attentively to their students, perhaps publishers will too. No greater single change would improve the quality of textbooks more than the publisher's directing his attention toward the stu­dent's, as opposed to the presumed teacher's, needs.


For better or worse, and in spite of frequent charges of irrelevance, humor-lessness, bland writing, and boredom, the textbook remains for the vast major­ity of teachers the big gun in the educational arsenal. Textbooks outsell non-book teaching materials two and a half to one. In 1972, they accounted (with standardized tests) for 28.3 percent of the entire United States book market, in spite of the recent trend toward flexible paperback and multi-media programs.


The fact of the textbook has long been a given in the educational mar­ketplace, a given that most laymen—and for that matter many educators—have taken for granted. With certain obvious exceptions such as the demands for ending sexism and greater minority representation, the style of textbooks and the nature of how content is presented have been virtually ignored as a target for reform (perhaps because it's easier and more damning to isolate instances of racism or sexism than bad writing).


But even in the area of minority representation, the change has not been overwhelming. In November 1972, John W. Porter, state supervisor of instruc­tion for Michigan, reported in their annual social studies review that out of twenty-five social studies texts, only 31 percent were "very good" or "good" in terms of "the extent to which they reflected the pluralistic, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic elements of our society, both past and present."


Certain textbook publishers defend their product by stating that if their books were not good, they would not meet with continued success in the marketplace. Yet at the March 1970 meeting of the American Book Publishers Council and American Educational Publishers Institute, many of the current, traditional educational books were called obsolescent. To the question, Are the schools properly equipped by educational publishers to teach the young people what they need to know? the publishers answered an unequivocal "No!" The question, then, is why not?


William Jovanovich, president of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in defense of textbooks once said: "Textbooks are not works of literature, it is true, and seldom do they display original, minted scholarship. There have been, alas, few great textbooks—one always searches for examples after citing William James' Psychology. But ... on the whole . . . textbooks perform a needed job in education: They provide a systematic introduction to a discipline of learning, saving the teacher time to spend on personal expression and saving the student time for more subtle, more varied reading. . . . Is it not futile to decry textbooks when it need only be said that the wise teacher uses a text at his own pace and in his own way? One does not blame the adze if the shipwright is lazy or incompetent or just plain tired."


Unfortunately, that's not all that need be said. While Jovanovich assesses fairly the role of the textbook, his statement concludes by implying that textbooks are as well made and as appropriate to the task as the shipwright's adze. He places the responsibility on the shipwright, but it is the adze itself which should be examined. One can and should blame the adze (or the adze maker) if the adze is dull or poorly made or is, in fact, not the tool that the shipwright thought he has paid for.


The process of publishing a textbook is complicated and interdependent. Any one of the many variables involved could, if permitted, undermine a potentially excellent textbook. The final product results from the interaction of these vari­ous influences which, if diagrammed, might look something like this:



Thus the textbook is never the direct consequence of an author's or editor's brilliant conception, but is inevitably the consequence of a variety of com­promises that must be made to satisfy the opinions (in some cases, demands) of those involved. If there was ever a system ripe for Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will"), it is educational publishing. The very circumstances surrounding the enterprise can easily vitiate a publisher's good intentions.


This interdependency renders any analysis of the parts by segregating them from the whole somewhat artificial, yet it must be done. The following discus­sion examines several of the above influences and some other significant cir­cumstances of textbook production (e.g., the state adoption and the high cost of publishing) in an attempt to shed light on some of what one editor called the "million reasons why textbooks almost have to be bad."


The Authors


In the majority of cases authors do not initiate textbook programs. Generally they are recruited by editors after the publisher has decided what the book or program will be. Competent textbook authors are difficult to find. By and large they are drawn either from the ranks of practicing teachers who have achieved some kind of reputation for their per­formance in the classroom or from college professors who have come to the attention of the publisher by their writing in the field. But, as one might sus­pect, charismatic teachers—in the case of the former—do not necessarily make charismatic writers. As for college professors, it's difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain from the ponderous prose that typifies most journal articles if the author can translate his expertise into writing appropriate for children.


The problem is finding teachers with ideas who can write. No doubt there are many, but the opportunity to write a textbook does not always interest the best candidates. Being an el-hi author has never been regarded as a particularly prestigious accomplishment in our society, and the fact that a teacher has written a text is not likely to advance his career. Nor is it likely to make him a millionaire, though some, like Harcourt's John Warriner, have done it.


It's not uncommon for a publisher to seek a committee of authors for a text project, partly to share the burden of the writing, but often to ensure that at least one writer is included who teaches on the grade level for which the books are intended. Authors are also selected because of a relevant specialty they may have (such as grammar or usage) or to represent various areas of the country in hopes that a geographical spread will heighten the appeal of the books in the regions represented. Whatever benefits are gained by committee authorship, however, are more than offset by the problems it creates.


Jovanovich, an author himself (though not of textbooks), once wrote: "It is curious that [textbook] publishers should continue to believe that committees can write well. None has, save the committee of scholars who in 1611 produced the King James Bible—and even here one suspects, knowing the way of com­mittees, that some poor wretch was left with the work once the prayers were said and Bishop Lancelot Andrewes dismissed the meetings."


The poor wretch in this case is the textbook editor whose job it is to iron out the inconsistencies, contradictions, and various stylistic idiosyncrasies. The best authors' manuscripts are homogenized with the worst with the result that the whole often sounds as if it were written by a computer. Richard J. Margolis, in his article "The Well-Tempered Textbook," laments the disappearance of the "writer" in favor of the "author-team." [2] "Books are not so much written," says Margolis, "as they are assembled and the individual's personal viewpoint tends to be submerged in the team effort." The effect is what Jacques Barzun calls in Teacher in America "The Impersonal Voice." Barzun claims that most textbooks are unreadable because "nowhere in these hundreds of pages can I gauge the Voice as a person or a mind. The Truth drones on with the muffled sound of one who is indeed speaking from a well." [3] If a committee effort is, in fact, deemed necessary, one must question the "virtue" of a consistent style.


Knowing that most of the work will be done by the editors anyway, pub­lishers frequently will top off the "author-team" by offering 1 or 2 percent of the total royalty to a "big name" author in hopes that the lead author's reputa­tion will draw attention to the program. (The total royalty varies between 4 and 10 percent—the elementary level with its lower royalty and larger market pre­sumably balancing the higher royalty and smaller, more specialized market of the upper levels. Why the publisher but not the author should benefit from the larger elementary market is a mystery to me.)


According to a former executive at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Wallace Stegner, the lead author of Holt's Modern Composition series, wrote "a couple" chapters in each book of the series, read everything, and criticized what other authors wrote. On the revision, the only work that Stegner did was to revise slightly his introduction to the series and, again, read and criticize. Perhaps this is all that Stegner had contracted to do, but the suggestion to the unsuspecting teacher is that the lead author had overall responsibility for the conception and execution of the series, which, of course, is untrue.


Another example is Silver Burdett's Contemporary English Curriculum. Although work on this language/composition series began in the spring of 1970, it was not until early 1972 that the "big name" was found to head the series, Vernon Smith, an associate professor of English education at Indiana University. Smith's duties were to write the introductory material, read, criticize, and coordinate the units that the other authors were writing. There is a beguiling plausibility to this role until one realizes that 95 percent of this work is done by the project editor. The lead author's true role is to help sell the books—despite that, as one editor said, "there aren't that many magic names."


A similar statement could be made concerning the way publishers use editorial—as distinguished from sales—consultants. One editor dismissed them as "window dressing"; another claimed that the real value of having their names on the books was "to make sales managers feel at ease." In any case, contrary to what the promotional material often suggests, consultants are not generally used to help develop manuscript. Their comments and criticisms rarely attain the significance that a textbook's title page seems to suggest.


Good authors are difficult to find, but publishers do find them. And when good authors are found, they usually perform creditably. They work diligently, undertake necessary revisions without objection, earnestly try to meet dead­lines, and cooperate patiently with the publisher's permissions, design, and production departments. Competent authorship, however, is just one of the many variables of text publishing. One must also consider how Murphy's Law can affect a good author's material, and for that we must look at—


The Editors


Wilber Schramm, in his essay "The Publishing Process," claims that textbook editors are more influential than the ideological leaders like Dewey and Thorndike because they influence text pub­lishing and therefore educational trends. [4] The question he poses and the question that must be asked is, What qualifies them for the job?


With the burden of responsibility for developing materials from which the nation's children will learn, one would hope that the editor would have more than a passing acquaintance with the history of educational trends and objec­tives in this country, an understanding of the various schools of thought regard­ing learning theory, behaviorism, individualized instruction, teaching methods, the place and methodology of reinforcement, review, motivation, and testing, plus an understanding of what teachers want and what students need.


The job requires a broad understanding of the subject matter involved and an ability to make informed judgments regarding what changes the future will bring. He should know what changes are taking place in the teachers colleges and what research is emerging from the regional laboratories and testing cen­ters. In short, the ideal editor is part educator, part scholar, part psychologist, and part wizard. The better informed the editor is, the more sound will be his judgments. Lastly, an effective editor must have courage, patience, and flexi­bility. It's both a heavy responsibility and a heavily underrated one.


Many textbook editors are former teachers which, by itself, is probably good. The classroom experience and the familiarity with students' needs are obviously desirable qualifications. Other editors have entered the publishing field out of college and have "learned" their trade on the job. Some undoubt­edly are well trained; others are not. Much depends on the company. Much more depends on the individual.


Many publishers do offer to pay tuition for employees who wish to further their education, but few editors avail themselves of the opportunity. One can only assume that they don't feel the need to extend their horizons, and this, in part, reflects on the publisher's professionalism and expectations. It also re­flects the encapsulated sense of security that exists in many editorial offices, the illusion of omniscience that derives equally from an editor's immersion in curriculum materials and from his isolation from the field.


More than one editor has commented to me on the shock he or she had received upon visiting a school and seeing "what's really going on out there." Yet few publishers understand the importance of sending editors into the class­room. Even editors who were formerly teachers rarely return to the school. Perhaps they feel they've had enough classroom experience to last a lifetime, but this is a misconception. It's not merely that one forgets the appropriateness of certain materials for students, or the variety of responses one may get to any question, but the situation in the schools is changing constantly. Slowly, with­out even realizing it, even a former teacher can isolate himself from the very audience he is trying to reach.


One former senior editor at a major educational publishing house told me that of all the assistant editors in her department, "not one has spent five minutes in the classroom—and this goes for the editor-in-chief, too.'' Oddly enough, lack of classroom contact doesn't seem to bother most editors. When asked, most will express regret at not getting out more into the schools, but few make the effort. Why? In addition to the sense of security they have cultivated about what's happening in the schools, it is an effort to visit them, it is time consuming, and the rewards are not immediately measurable. It takes a keen observer to know what to look for and how to evaluate what he sees. Yet the effort must be made, for isolating oneself from the classroom can lead to serious errors in judgment.


That editors do talk to teachers at conventions is helpful, but no substitute for getting into the schools. It seems that the further the editor is from the classroom experience, the more convinced he is of what is appropriate for children. Unfortunately, an editor's poor judgment may not be discernible until long after the books are published. And even then, because of the many vari­ables involved in the marketing area (as we shall see), responsibility is often impossible to place.


"One problem," according to Bob Stewart, formerly executive social studies editor at Holt, "is that there's no real way to measure editorial performance.  The dollar is the only real measure." In one sense this is true: Sales success can be measured and charted on a graph, and this, claims Stewart, explains why most publishing houses are run by people who have risen through sales chan­nels. While one can obtain a fair reading of an editor's skill by examining the books he has edited, the credit for excellence as often as not will be attributed to the author. The contributions of editor and author, once the book is pub­lished, are not easily distinguished.


In fairness to editors, it must be said that their lot is by no means ideal. Their pay is low, and the recognition slight. "The person who gets the attention in a publishing house," states Pat Cusick, product manager at Random House, "is the person who goes into a territory and shoots up sales 30 percent." Editors are the unsung heroes of educational publishing. Text editing carries none of the glamour of trade editing; there are no Maxwell Perkinses, Cass Canfields, or Bob Gottliebs among textbook editors. For many it is a tireless, frustrating, and unrewarding job, though much of an editor's frustration has less to do with his pay or recognition than it does with the limitations that sales and other variables place on his judgments.


Schramm suggests that an editor's motivation comes from the feeling that perhaps he can influence the course of education, and some, for better or worse, do. Yet even here the best-intentioned editors, even the most qualified and competent editors who could influence educational trends for the better, are not free agents. They are, in fact, double agents who must mediate between the author, who might provide compelling and innovative material, and the publisher, who might find the material too controversial or too innovative or simply too expensive to publish.


Before a program is signed, a profit and loss statement is drawn up with sales estimates that project the return over the first five years of publication. If the P&L does not look good—or cannot be adjusted to look good—management will not approve the program for publication. Thus with management pressuring sales for increased profits, sales tends to react conservatively to innovative or "risky" proposals. And with sales providing the estimates for the P&L, editorial innovation is, in a sense, at their mercy.




The sales and editorial departments of an educational publisher generally exist as two separate domains, and even in the best of circumstances, they touch only tangentially. More often than not, rela­tionships between the two departments are antagonistic rather than com­plementary. Salesmen feel that editors do not understand the problems of sell­ing a product, and editors feel that salesmen don't understand what it is they're selling. This antagonism, which conceivably could function as a creative force, fosters a mutual suspicion which undermines what is attempted in both areas. Thus even when information concerning the needs of the market does filter back from the salesmen to the regional sales manager to the national sales manager and over to the executive editor and down to the associate editors, it is often heavily discounted. Unfortunately, there's considerable validity to both sets of grievances.


At Noble and Noble, an educational publisher owned by Dell, the sales manager approached the editor of their Crossroads reading program for the disadvantaged and told her of a recent complaint. A woman in Grand Rapids had written a letter saying she wanted "those filthy Crossroads books out of her classroom" and she concluded by saying she "would never buy another Noble and Noble product again." The editor saw this letter by chance at a later date and learned that the sales manager had greatly exaggerated the seriousness of the complaint. Why? Because the sales manager personally felt the program was too controversial and wanted to see succeeding levels moderated.


An antagonistic sales department can effectively isolate an editor from feed­back from the field. One senior editor at a major publishing firm told me that he can't even get recent sales figures on his project from the sales department without the editor-in-chief s intervention. According to an editor at American Book Company, "no one at American Book talked to the salesmen except the editor-in-chief; and this," she added, "is probably more typical than not."


When feedback does come in, the chances are that it is of little value. Or even when it is valuable, editors tend to discount it as mainly worthless. Bob Stewart said that at Holt, information from the field came in too late to be worth much. The nature and quality of feedback is partly related to the salesman's background and interests. Although most salesmen are former teachers or school administrators, they tend to specialize in their former teaching fields. "If a salesman was a math teacher," states Howard Battles, president of Paideia Inc., an educational consulting and product development company, "he would be good in selling math books, but he might not know what to say to an English teacher. What's typical is the salesman who's good in one field and just all right in the others." By the same token, a salesman cannot be expected to be much more than "all right" in returning feedback from fields other than his specialty.


Some companies, reports Stewart, even discourage feedback. This may be because they recognize that the nature of the selling process militates against valuable product information being returned from the field. The average sales­man works between two to four schools a day. He sees perhaps five or six people at each school, spending an average of five or six minutes with each teacher between classes, maybe more if the teacher has a free period. Tom Garsh, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Macmillan's school department, noted that with the increased "variegated decision-making" in schools today a salesman might talk to ten or twenty people and still not be sure he's talking to the right ones.


In many states salesmen aren't even allowed to speak to teachers; they must speak to curriculum supervisors, principals, adoption committees, or superin­tendents. In the brief time allowed to him, the salesman makes his pitch, stressing the major points of the program, and then moves on. Any real informa­tion about need or criticism of products is picked up only incidentally. As one sales person said, "a salesman hasn't got the time to concern himself with criticism. He's too busy selling books." Or if he's not too busy, the teacher probably is; or the teacher, out of misguided politeness, may not be candid with the salesman; or the salesman, as Battles said, may know only one out of five fields in enough depth to interpret what the teacher does report.


According to Gerald Tomlinson, executive editor of English at Silver Burdett, there's no necessary correlation between the sale of materials and their quality, that is, their usability in the classroom. (Many programs that appear to be high quality, stated Tomlinson, with beautiful graphics and so on, are unus­able because they may be, for example, too hard.) In other words, if a program sells well, it doesn't necessarily mean that the product is good. The converse is equally true: If it sells poorly, it doesn't mean that it's bad. One reason for this is that salesmen operate as independent agents in an almost total vacuum. No amount of urging from the home office can force a salesman to push a product that he doesn't "think" will sell. Therefore, many really good, salable products never get sold simply because the salesman has no real way of knowing how good the material is. He relies on a few presentations, and if they go badly—for whatever reasons—he may drop that product for his more traditional stock in trade. (And if the new program doesn't go, it makes it all the more difficult for editors to initiate other "new" programs.)


"Even if we do very well in a state adoption," stated one senior editor, "and get, say 15 percent, that means 85 percent bought something else. The salesman often gets negative responses because it's rare to dominate a market like Harcourt once did [in secondary English]. The salesman, even though he's gotten something out of it, isn't going to think that editorial has delivered him a plum. He's going to carry around in his mind the thought that 'Somebody is selling a lot more books than I'm selling, and I'm a better salesman than he is, so why is that?' He blames it on editorial."


The regional or national sales manager has no real way of knowing why a program won't sell. He has to rely on the salesman's opinion which can be formed by any number of circumstances, some accurately interpreted, some not. Into this rather imperfect system of feedback is cast the sales manager's own previous sales experience and his own prejudices about the program, and by the time a report reaches the editors, the chances of determining the source of the problem with any real accuracy are slight.


What does get reported, because of the salesman's sensitivity to it, is criti­cism. Criticism can mean no sale, and up to 25 percent of a salesman's income, through commissions or bonuses, depends on his personal success. Accord­ingly, much of the criticism that gets reported is often picayune and over-stressed. Overstressed because with little feedback being reported, the little that does come in assumes an importance exaggerated far out of all rea­sonable proportion. For example, a Noble and Noble salesman once reported that he couldn't sell a particular handwriting book because of a misplaced comma in the text. Ridiculous? Certainly, but a great deal of editorial and sales time was expended in debating this issue. This type of feedback only widens the credibility gap between sales and editorial.


In the best of circumstances, a salesman might be expected to make recom­mendations for improving a product, for example by adding a testing program to the components, but rarely do their comments affect the content of a pro­gram or future programs. Although many publishers insist that sales feedback is invaluable, not enough take this feedback seriously, and this isn't always the fault of sales. As one sales executive put it, "The editor always has the problem of the ivory tower."


Occasionally some companies canvass their salesmen to determine educa­tional trends, but according to Battles, "the results are never very useful. Salesmen may report a big call for behavioral objectives and so on, but these trends are generally well known. You can get only a vague idea of what the important trends are."


Trying to discern trends from what schools are buying can be just as decep­tive. One editor reported that "the difficulty is that the trends have gone like roller coasters," and cited what happened with Harcourt's The Roberts English Series as an example. "Roberts would have given any publisher belief that [transformational grammar] was the thing to do, but the trend went down. Teachers were led to believe that this was an irreversible trend, that they had to get into it, that it was the new English comparable to the new math. But even if schools A, B, and C have used the books and found them godawful, schools D, E, and F three years later may not know that. And if you've got momentum going, as Harcourt did with Roberts, all they know is that they're selling like crazy and the momentum will carry it, even if it's unworkable. It takes quite a while until the people responsible for purchasing are willing to say, 'Maybe we ought to look at something else.' If you've committed this much money to the books and find six months later that it's been a disastrous failure, you probably don't rush to the school board and say, 'Lets throw all these things into the river and buy something else.' "


Ultimately, determining trends, especially in today's changing market, is a matter of educated guesswork. And it's partly due to this—the uncertainty of the market—that publishers shy away from innovation. "I would judge," stated an executive at Silver Burdett, "that 80 percent to 90 percent of our entire capital is aimed at keeping our major product in place—in revision." The publishers' fear of innovation is to some extent justified by their experience with what traditionally has been their most significant markets—the state adop­tions.


The State Adoptions


Most publishers gear their major products—the new ones as well as revisions of the old ones—toward the state adoption. In elementary education twenty-three states, and in secondary eighteen states, select (or "adopt") new educational materials on the average of every five years. Meeting these adoption dates is crucial to publishers, for it can determine the success or failure of a program, especially if the states concerned are as large as Texas or California.


During a specified period salesmen submit their products and make their pitches, then the adoption committees withdraw to consider the materials of up to two dozen or more publishers (depending on the subject up for adoption). At the end of their deliberations they will have winnowed out the field to a handful of products that can be legally sold in that state for the next five years. Al­though the most important adoptions usually concern basal, hardcover mate­rials leaving the field still open for the sale of supplementary products, it's easy to see why publishers concentrate their efforts here. Selection of a large basal program almost guarantees them a certain percent of the market. And if the state involved is Texas or California, subsequent sales in these states alone could pay the entire cost of the program. (In the last Texas adoption, if a publisher were one of five listed for supplementary reading for grades 1-3, he could be reasonably assured of selling $1.3 million worth of books.)


It sounds nice, but one consequence of this procedure is that the innovative and generally more interesting supplementary programs get slighted by the salesmen. As one sales executive put it, with an adoption at stake, "our sales­men wouldn't take out two hours to sell a supplementary kit." The vicious circle takes another turn: If the innovative programs aren't selling, the pub­lisher shrinks from producing them.


The adoption procedure itself has siphoned controversial topics from textbooks and kept them conservative. The American Association of Pub­lishers (AAP) in a statement prepared for the National Institute of Education in 1972, said that adoption committees function conservatively to reach the "av­erage" student. They usually call for materials similar to those used previously. (Most of the adoption states are located in the South which generally order more conservatively than those in the rest of the country anyway.) The adop­tion process, states the AAP, discourages experimentation, individuation, and innovation, and "the most successful publishers have been those most closely attuned to the realities of this milieu." At Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 5 per­cent of the income from their school department is reported to come from Texas alone.


Texas, being the largest and one of the most conservative states involved, provides a good example of how the process works. In 1973, the subjects of elementary reading, health, math, band, and orchestra were up for adoption. A committee of fifteen was chosen representing these various "subjects." All the committee members consider the materials for all the subjects; thus, band, health, and math people were making judgments concerning, for example, elementary reading. These nonexperts had advisors to be sure, but neverthe­less, the committee made the decisions. Twenty-one publishers submitted materials for elementary reading, each program comprising some ten books, or a total of 210 books in that field alone. Committee members had from May to August to consider all materials and make selections. Under such cir­cumstances, it is not surprising that the committees function conservatively—making compromises, trying to offend the fewest number, try­ing simply to plough through all the material in time. Who has time to consider innovation?


When Holt published its Oregon Curriculum, a basal literature and language/composition series for grades 7-12, Texas balked at some of the selec­tions because of the "objectionable language." As a result, in order not to lose the adoption, Holt published a special "Lone Star Edition" omitting the objec­tionable stories and poems that authors and publishers refused to let them adapt, and adapting those that they could (for example, by changing phrases such as "Oh my God!" to "Gosh!" or "Golly!").


This censorship has led to some curious inconsistencies. John Knowles' A Separate Peace, for example, expurgated in the hardcover edition, is available on the recommended reading list in paperback in its entirety. More curious yet, the word "honky" had to go in an example in their rhetoric book, but not the repeated use of "nigger" in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." At the same time, Hemingway's "The Undefeated" was removed because of its "dirty words," while Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," potentially more objection­able, sneaked through because, as the current Oregon project editor said, "any­thing written before 1750 is clean."


Now Holt has decided that it can't afford to keep two editions in print, so it has dropped its original edition and the revision is based on the "Lone Star Edition," only "cleaner" yet. If the rest of the country wants the Oregon Curriculum, it will have to buy the expurgated version.


Holt is by no means the only publisher coerced to censor its material by an adoption committee. Most publishers have had the experience, in Texas or elsewhere, whether the material involved was literature, history, or biology. They will fight for their products, arguing the merits of the material as long as they can—and sometimes even convince the committee of their point of view—but if it looks as if they will lose the adoption if the changes aren't made, almost all make the changes. It's not a question of morals; it's simple economics.


The threat of censorship hangs over author and publisher alike, forcing both to produce more conservative materials than either would like. The classic case is that of Dr. Harold Rugg who developed a controversial social science series in the 1930s. In 1938, Rugg's books for elementary, junior high, and high school totaled 289,000 in sales. In 1939, the books came under attack, and by 1946 sales had declined to 21,000. Rugg's comment then still applies today: "To keep issues out of the school ... is to keep thought out of it. It is to keep life out of it." Then, as now, too few people agreed.


The publisher's overriding concern with and submission to a conservative market breeds an editorial climate of fear that discourages innovation and controversy in its textbooks. This attitude, imposed on authors, creates a kind of prior censorship that the changing market may not, in fact, warrant. As one editor told the authors of a new program, "If you err, err on the conservative side."


Publishers' Response to the Market 


While the adoption procedures themselves cannot be blamed for all the ills of the textbooks, they do illustrate the negative influence of the market over the publisher. In submitting to what it has taken to be the demands of the market, the publisher has eschewed the initiative for change. In 1965, at a speech before the American Textbook Publishers Institute and the Great Cities Research Council, Lyle M. Spencer, the late president of Science Research Associates, said:


. . . We publishers have sometimes been less receptive to fresh, new educa­tional ideas than we might have been, and than we must be in the future. As a young editor. ... I had two publishing maxims pain-stakingly pounded into me, and I imagine that most of my colleagues here did too.


The first was that the most damaging publishing mistakes are made by investing heavily in good ideas—not bad ideas, mind you, but good ones— that are too far ahead of their time.


The second mistake is even worse. It is the mortal sin of publishing. This sin is for a publisher to delude himself with the notion that he knows better than professional educators what materials are best for schools to use. "You are the service guy behind the cafeteria counter. Your job is to supply the customer with what he wants, not the dietician telling him what he should have for dinner."


These maxims are, I think, still generally valid. I doubt seriously whether publishers are likely to become much bolder or more experimental than the educators they serve.


Two questionable assumptions underlie these maxims. One, that the cus­tomer knows what he wants, and two, that what the publisher offers is respon­sive to that desire. Neither one can be taken for granted.


As to the first assumption, it should be obvious that the customer often doesn't know what he wants. Walter Bemak, formerly managing editor at Holt and now English department chairman at Syosset High School on Long Island, claims that "most teachers feel that they're stuck with what publishers give them." All too often teachers buy what they have been used to buying, what they are familiar with. (This was corroborated in the Institute for Educational Development study of materials selection in 1969, where it was noted that "Professionals at all levels in the educational system tend to select and use materials about which they have most knowledge. . . .") How can the teacher know what alternatives are available to him if the publisher can't or won't risk offering them? It's yet another segment of the vicious circle.


As to the second assumption—that the publisher is responsive to the market—what Spencer implies is that the success of a program is ample valida­tion of its responsiveness to a need. Yet we have seen that this isn't necessarily true; sales of a product are not necessarily dependent on quality. That, together with the fact that teachers may feel "stuck" with what publishers give them, is enough to cast a long shadow of uncertainty over Spencer's theory. At issue is where the vicious circle of publishers-responding-to-market and market-conditioned-by-publishers can be broken.


What Donald R. Taft said fifty years ago, while certainly an oversimplifica­tion of the publishing process, still holds true today: "Textbook writers will write the book that publishers will accept; publishers will accept the books that school boards will adopt; school boards will adopt the books that organized public opinion will demand."  [5]


In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, James Olsen, president of Educreative Systems, stated that the market won't accept new products be­cause it doesn't understand them. And schools don't have money to release teachers to learn new programs because parents don't see the value of it and can't tell good programs from bad. Therefore, Olsen concludes, parent educa­tion must precede new product acceptance. Parents must learn to recognize the value of good materials. [6]


Olsen states the following as an example of how market resistance frus­trates the introduction of relevant and interesting materials: "Our method of producing relevant stories is to go out to the kids and see what they relate to. Let's say we find a group playing on the roofs of their tenements rather than in the street. We ask them why. They reply that it's a lot safer to play on the roofs—no cars or other street hazards, also less interference from others such as pedestrians. So with such eminent logic to back us, we do a story about kids who play on their roofs, something other kids in similar situations can instantly appreciate. But when the story reaches the schools, most likely some teacher, who has little or no contact with these kids outside her classroom, will protest this story: 'Playing on roofs indeed—is that what you really want them to do? What kind of example is this to hold up to young people?' "[7]


The AAP in its statement for the National Institute of Education calls for parents to reassess their roles. Most parents, they claim, are unwilling or be­cause of time unable to take the educational role that they believe is the prov­ince of the schools. The issue of the precise role of parents in the educational process could be the subject of another article. While it is true that most publishers and educators acknowledge the need for greater parent involvement, at the same time it is these same groups that shudder most at the prospect. They feel, not without justification, that they are the professionals and that parents—as individuals and as pressure groups—only complicate their jobs. As any parent knows who has ever carried a curriculum complaint to the schools, the feeling conveyed is very definitely, "We are educators; we know what we're doing. Let us handle it."


Perhaps parents should reexamine their roles, but this should not let pub­lishers off the hook. Publishers seem to feel, states Olsen, that since there's no agreement regarding good and inferior products, why spend money on innova­tive programs when less investment brings the same return? Olsen's economic analysis of the problem, while somewhat cynical, does underline the element which could well serve as the radius of the vicious circle, and that is—


The Cost of Publishing


Although education is big business in this country (in 1969, it constituted ll/2 percent of the GNP), textbook publishers are not the main beneficiaries. In 1973, only 1.06 percent of a school's budget was devoted to textbooks and other printed materials, and the publisher's net profit after taxes has long been well under 10 percent. This means that without effecting other economies a publisher simply cannot afford to invest heavily in what it would judge to be innovative or risky programs.


The investment in a new program, risky or not, can be considerable— compared to trade publishing, a small fortune. A typical high school English text might cost $50,000 to $100,000 to develop, a social studies book with maps and four-color art perhaps $500,000. Holt's Oregon Curriculum, coming in far over budget, is reported to cost over $1 million, their elementary reading pro­gram $9 million. It might take a publisher five to seven years—in the above cases even longer—to recover his investment. With costs like these, and with the increasing fragmentation of the market, it's no mystery why publishers want to produce materials that will garner as much of that market as possible. Many continue to produce materials that they hope will be all things to all people, and the inevitable result is books that offend no one, yet excite no one—books that may be highly colorful (and expensive) with four-color art, books that appear to be "high quality" in many respects, but books that are frequently either bland, boring, or too hard. (One critic has called the worst of them "sawdust sandwiches.")


Wilber Schramm defined the goal of textbook publishers like this: "Technologically, the problem is to produce a teaching tool, usually within the restrictions of the printing process, which will offer the maximum of guidance to those who need it, the maximum of freedom to those who can use it, the utmost in learning ease to slower students, the utmost in challenge to swifter ones, and withal maintain a delicate balance between conservatism and change. . . ." [8]


As satirical as this sounds, it's precisely what some text publishers claim to do. Promotional material for Silver Burdett's Contemporary English Cur­riculum states that the "Texts for levels 7 through 12 get through to all your students with easier-to-teach, clearly organized strands" (my emphasis). Their salesmen claim that "CEC is written for the average or 90 percent of the students and not for the 10 percent that other texts are written for." Ginn, only slightly less extravagant, claims thatResponding: Ginn Interrelated Sequences in Literature "provides a total literary environment for the middle 80 percent [middle 80 percent?] of students in grades 7 through 12." Noble and Noble claims that with their Springboards program, "Students learn 'painlessly' . . . absorbing writing skills, new vocabulary and basic elements of grammar as they read." What writing skills does one absorb by reading? What basic elements of grammar?


In spite of publishers' efforts to capture the largest possible market, Ronald B. Edgerton reports in his article, "Odyssey of a Book: How a Social Studies Text Comes into Being" in Social Education: "Probably a fourth of all the textbooks published never bring back what they cost—even when the best market research available led management to believe that there was a mar­ket." [9] Of course one problem is that reliable market research has never existed in the textbook industry. The traditional sources of feedback—salesmen and consultants—either can't or don't do the job.


Yet even if reliable market research were available, the problem would per­sist because the market is continually changing. Bemak stated that the Oregon Curriculum lost money because while it represented what English teachers wanted at its conception, by the time it was published, educators had changed their minds, favoring less structured programs. (Significantly, in the revision Holt broke down the program into optional paperback units.) But there are a myriad of other reasons why a program—including Oregon—might lose money.


Clare O'Brien, former senior editor of English at Random House, stated that The Random House English Series, a paperback language/composition pro­gram, is losing money because management and sales are deadlocked over whether to bring it out in hardcover for adoption situations. Meanwhile, it's being sold as a supplementary program, and the salesmen are losing interest.


A program can also lose money if the salesmen become discouraged when it doesn't catch on quickly. Or the salesmen can refuse to learn the new program, or they can be lax about taking a secondary program to the schools if most of their business comes from elementary programs. Or books can come out at the wrong time, or they can come out at the right time but not be a complete package.


Bob Stewart recalled that Holt's Urban Social Studies was brought out in haste to take advantage of the newly discovered "disadvantaged" market. Rushing to be first, they published it piecemeal—a book a year. The teachers were impressed but wanted more than one book, and by the time the third volume was out, no one cared anymore. (It should be remembered that haphazard feedback and other variables involved in the publishing process reduce some of these "reasons" to educated guesses. As stated earlier, the real problems are often difficult to assess.)


Promotion is another factor. Promotion can make or break a program, espe­cially if the salesmen aren't pushing it. To these causes one must add the very real possibility that the books are simply bad books. In spite of the apparent lack of correlation between quality and sales, sometimes bad textbooks fool nobody.


The cost of publishing exists as a real limitation on a publisher's capabilities to initiate innovative programs, but it should not be used as a justification for boring programs that are not pedagogically valid. If the shipwright has called for an adze, the blacksmith cannot provide a plowshare. He must provide an adze and the blade must be sharp!


Publishers' Accountability 


Robert J. R. Follett, president of Follett Education Corporation, said in 1971 that publishers' ac­countability is an idea whose time has come. Yet publishers in general have continued to resist the idea. One senior editor summed up the publisher's case this way: ' 'To put the burden of engaging the student on the textbook publisher is as silly as putting yearly achievement on the textbook publisher. You can't do it. It's not a matter of trying to avoid responsibility. No textbook is going to grip the student, but if you get a dynamic, magnetic teacher, that teacher is going to grip the student in three minutes and probably hold him for the rest of the year. What burns me up is that a lot of the talk about accountability is to get the teacher off the hook. Outside of attractive graphics, you can't really put motivation in a book. You can't motivate with words and sentences. Anybody is deluding himself to think that the textbook is the main source of what kids learn. The teacher is of equal importance."


No publisher, school administrator, or parent questions the importance of the teacher in engaging the student in the learning process. The teacher is, in fact, as Margolis noted in his article "The Well-Tempered Textbook," the only hope of bringing a drab textbook to life for the student. But the importance of the teacher does not absolve the publisher from his responsibility—to provide the best tools possible. One obvious step toward better textbooks is testing them prior to publication, yet this is rarely done.


P. Kenneth Komoski, president of the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE), said in testifying before a House subcommittee in 1971 that 99 percent of the nation's teaching materials were never systematically tried out to see if learning resulted. And of the then current sixty best-selling textbooks, less than 10 percent were tested before publication. Why? Pub­lishers put forward a variety of reasons.


In its statement for the National Institute of Education, the AAP asserted that little testing is done because most conventional products "tend to be extensions and improvements upon already widely-used products. There is more than sufficient feedback from users." A dubious contention at best. For the reasons stated above, the nature of the feedback publishers get from users can hardly be considered a serious evaluation of their material.


The AAP also claims that it is difficult to get school districts to commit students to try out experimental programs; they claim difficulties exist in evaluating the test results; they claim that it's usually the best teachers that are chosen for the experiments, thus ruling out a true cross-section; they claim that their detractors discourage small-scale testing as not scientifically valid; they suggest that parents would object to their children being used as guinea pigs. Yet they also claim that "most new programs do entail some form of prototype evaluation." The question, then, is what kind?


According to Alexander Platt, vice president of Grolier Education Corpora­tion, "most field testing has been concerned with the classroom manageability of a product, rather than its validity, although the two are certainly not unre­lated. Students and teachers are asked where in the material they encountered difficulties or were confused, and the materials are revised on the basis of these reports." The nature of the content itself and whether any learning takes place seem to be ignored.


Many publishers complain that testing is simply too expensive. To prepare prototype materials, monitor the tests, and then make revisions, all of which delay publication, would double the price of the books. "If you've gotten to the point of classroom testing," stated the vice president of one educational pub­lisher, "you've got your program completed." Perhaps so, but this seems to be a shortsighted view. Richard Robinson, school division publisher of Scholastic Magazines, believes that "better materials and better-selling materials result from extensive testing and validation." As to the expense, Robinson says, "Publishers must not keep on reminding people of how expensive it is to test and how we can't afford it. ... We must test as an integral part of our materi­als creation, and we shouldn't complain about it. It's really our obligation." Grolier's Platt agrees: "Publishers should do something because they have a social obligation to produce products which will do what we say they will do and because the more valid a product, the more likely it is to sell."


Selling books is what it's all about, and the market is highly competitive. In 1972, several hundred educational publishers shared text sales of $498 million in the el-hi market (although about 100 publishers produce 95 percent of all instructional materials). Fifteen to twenty of these companies are of significant size, but even the largest of them has less than 10 percent of the market. Certain publishers may dominate certain subject disciplines at certain grade levels, but no one is getting a free ride, and the future, if anything, looks rougher.


Ross Sackett, recent president of the AAP, predicts for the future further market fragmentation, continued growth of the new media, new titles getting even smaller shares of the market, and consequently, fewer educational pub­lishers in the years to come. What effect all this will have on the quality of textbooks is difficult to predict. Given the complexity and interdependency of the variables outlined above, one editor's confession that "I don't think a textbook is ever likely to be much beyond bland," acquires a depressing plausi­bility.


"One of the most interesting lessons to learn," said one editor, "is how things don't change." Interesting perhaps, but the statement has the ring of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would be more accurate—and certainly more helpful—to recognize instead that changes come slowly; that the need for change must be recognized; and that the initiative for change must be taken.


Although any vicious circle can be severed at a variety of points, most educators and critics look to parents or to society in general as the impetus for change. Robert N. Saveland wrote in 1971 that "... change generally comes from outside the school system and is adapted from the general culture into the teaching-learning experience. Thus the first step in effecting textbook and cur­riculum revision is society's general recognition of a problem."


Presumably, in an ideal system this recognition of a need for change would filter back through the schools to the publisher's representatives and thereby reach the editors who, again in an ideal system, would develop materials respon­sive to the expressed need. Yet, as we have seen, Murphy's Law operates throughout this system. The feedback is often inaccurate; editors can be isolated from the market; the market can be misread; authors ill-advised; salesmen confused; promotion inadequate; teachers either reluctant to change or not responsible for ordering their own materials; parents apathetic. And publishers, not entirely unjustified, throw up their hands in despair and say, "What can we do? They've changed their minds." Or worse, they may admit, as they have done, that many of their current, traditional books are obsolescent, but "kids don't buy books, teachers do."


Whether or not change will come and to what extent society (and the school system) recognizes the need for change depend in no small measure on the degree of responsibility publishers choose to assume. The publisher has the latest educational research and testing at his command; if anyone is aware of the problems and deficiencies of current methods and materials, it is the publisher; he has the information and the resources to initiate change, to educate the public, and to lead the market instead of follow it.


The publisher must first believe in the possibility of change, and too many publishers don't. He must assume a greater responsibility not to the market, but to the students within that market. There is an old Confucian proverb: "The superior man knows what is right; the inferior man knows what will sell." The publisher must take the responsibility to make an accommodation between the two and learn to sell what is right. He must reexamine his belief that he is in touch with the demands of the market and consider the possibility that the market is changing faster than he is. He must, in short, take greater risks.


Publishers vary greatly in the extent to which they have been able to cope with the variables and practices described above. Some pay more attention to sales feedback than others; some are more innovative than others; some test their materials—or some of them—prior to publication; some train editors bet­ter than others. They vary widely in the extent to which they yield to the pressure of the market. There is nothing in this essay to which some publisher cannot say, "That's simply not true in my experience!" But this essay must of necessity deal with educational publishers as a group, and as a group they have, to use one of their words, "underachieved."


Dr. Paul Brandwein, senior vice president of Harcourt and director of their school department, recently said: "If schools are ineffective today, it is be­cause of the materials we have given them." In view of the complexity of the situation, Brandwein's admission seems needlessly overstated. It would be truer to acknowledge the assessment of Theodore B. Dolmatch, president of Intext Publishers Group, who stated in response to Brandwein: "We will evolve, and err, and regress, and hopefully improve a bit. But we will do so only if we confess that, as in life itself, we are all guilty—some less than others—and all innocent—some less than others."


Textbooks have been bad for many reasons and all the fingers do not point at the publisher. Parents, teacher training institutes, and teachers themselves have all neglected their responsibility. Parents must learn that a far greater danger than discussing controversial topics is ignoring them, and teachers must make the effort to change their traditional methods when better ones are made available. It was Alfred North Whitehead who said: "Whenever a book is writ­ten of real educational worth, you may be certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned, for it cannot be educa­tional."




[1]   This article will concern itself exclusively with el-hi (elementary-high school) textbooks. While college texts may share some of the faults of their junior partners, they share few of the problems of editing, production, and sales. It would be misleading to infer that the discussion that follows applies by implication to college text publishing.

Eric Broudy, formerly an el-hi English editor in educational publishing, is now a freelance writer living in New York City.

September 1975, Vol. 77, No. 1

[2]  Richard J. Margolis, "The Well-Tempered Textbook," Teachers College Record, Vol. 66, No. 8, May 1965, pp. 663-670.

[3] Jacques Barzun. Teacher in America. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1945, p. 66.

[4] Wilber Schramm, "The Publishing Process," in Lee J. Cronbach, ed. Text Materials in Mod­ern Education. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois Press, 1955, pp. 129-165.

[5]   Donald R. Taft, "History Textbooks and Truth," Proceedings of the Association of History Teachers of the Middle States and Maryland, No. 24, 1926, p. 33.

[6]   "New Educational Media: At the Nadir," Publishers Weekly, October 15, 1973, pp. 48-51.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Schramm, op. cit., p. 129.

[9] Ronald B. Edgerton, "Odyssey of a Book: How a Social Studies Text Comes into Being,' Social Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, March 1969, p. 286

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 77 Number 1, 1975, p. 13-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1258, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:08:25 PM

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  • Eric Broudy

    Former el-hi English editor in educational publishing, now a freelance writer in New York City.
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