Thursday, December 13, 2012

Text Messaging: How Today's Publishing Companies Dictate Public Education


The above phrase was one that recently came across my screen as I attempted to create a course outline for the UC A-G system.  As a recently accredited high school, the next major step for our school was to submit all our courses to the UC system to ensure that these courses would be approved for any of our seniors who applied to the UC system.  It was a lot of work, especially for those of us who have multiple preps.  For the most part, it was a simple matter of copying and pasting our curriculum outlines including our units and corresponding learning objectives.  It was all self-explanatory and, for the most part, made perfect sense.  Except for the fact that we had to provide a course text for all courses.  

To understand why I took issue with this, you have to understand my educational background.  As a social studies education major, one of my assignments was to look at a variety of textbooks and to compare them against North Carolina state standards.  What I found was that the textbooks were all over the board in terms of covering the material they were expected to cover.  Some of the textbooks covered topics in depth while others missed them entirely.  This was eye-opening, especially when we saw that all students were expected to have mastered the same material for the end of grade exam throughout the state.  Therefore, it was possible, nay probable, that students would be tested on material that wasn't covered in their textbook and that they had no knowledge of.  

Flash forward to my first year teaching.  I ended up as my school's 7th grade representative for selecting new textbooks for the district.  Myself and fifteen other middle school teachers representing all middle schools in the district attended a textbook fair where we got samples and saw presenting by all the bigwigs in the textbook industry:  Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, etc.  We all got sample versions of the textbooks as well as supplemental materials that the companies offered.  Our mission was simple:  To review all the information and to be ready to discuss which textbook we wanted the district to adopt by the time we met again in just under a month. 

I took this opportunity to review the textbooks as I saw this to be the most important part of the selection process.  Sure the bells and whistles of CDs and interactive websites were nice but I worked at a school of struggling readers.  I needed a textbook that was appropriate for their reading level.  Even as a first-year teacher, I knew that it was a lot easier to supplement material that was too easy rather than start with material that was too difficult and overwhelming.  I wanted a textbook that would be appropriate for my school, with the hopes that other teachers would agree with my reasoning and rationale.  I ended up ranking the books from one to seven based on what I thought would be best for my students.  

The meeting ended up being a total farce.  The more affluent schools dominated the conversation and advocated for the most challenging textbook.  This book was nearly five-hundred pages and read like an upper class high school text.  It was far and away the book I felt would be most inappropriate for my students.  I was in such disbelief about the book that was selected that I emailed the district social studies coordinator afterward to see if there was some kind of mistake.  Nope, there was not.  The district had officially purchased a book that my students could not use.  The affluent schools had their book of choice and used these books daily.  I had a classroom set of books that sat on my bookshelf for an entire academic year while I instead wrote simplified versions of text that was appropriate for my students.    

So, why didn't our school pick another book?  Easy.  The district bundles all books together to save money. What one school gets, they all get.  Textbook publishing is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Why have sixteen middle schools selecting seven different textbooks when you can have sixteen middle schools selecting one?  The district I taught in wasn't unique in this regard.  Districts throughout the country do the exact same thing.  One size fits all.  Everyone takes the same test, so these big districts should all have the same book, right?  However, as my earlier example in textbook analysis shows, this does the students a disservice.  Giving students a textbook they aren't prepared for also is a disservice to the students.  But, hey, if it saves a few bucks and the school was going to fail anyway, what does it matter?  

Flash forward five years to the creation of my course outline.  The course that required a textbook was a contemporary issues class that I had created from scratch.  It was driven heavily by current events and media awareness and so, because of that, there was no course textbook.  And yet, the state of California expected it from me.  The UC website would not let me leave it blank.  In order to appease the Golden State, I selected a book on media awareness that sounded like something a course like mine would have.  Yes, the state of California forced me to lie about my very own course.  But, why?  Why does the UC system expect every course to use a textbook?  

Herein lies one of the major problems of education today:  We are slaves to the textbook industry.  Why do you need a textbook to teach?  If you are a master of course material as your undergraduate or master's level training has provided for you, shouldn't you be able to teach your course as you see fit?  Why do you have to include the words of the editors from McGraw-Hill or Houghton-Mifflin?  What is it that they know about the course material that you don't?  If these books are written by teachers like myself, shouldn't I be just as capable to present the information to my own students without them having to use the words and ideas of somebody else?  

Once again, it all comes down to money.  In the UC's eyes, a course is not legitimate unless your school has forked over money to pay a major publishing corporation.  In order for the UC system to accept your course, you must prove that your school has the funds available to pay our friends at Mc-Graw Hill and Houghton-Mifflin.  Because obviously if you aren't using a textbook, your course cannot be real.  There is simply no way that you can create a course and then teach it using independent resources rather than material from a major publishing corporation.  As long as your school has fed the beast, the UC system sees no reason to question the content and material of your course.  Just tell us about your course and list your textbook and we'll be happy to approve it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I to this day, have yet to use a textbook for classroom instruction.

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