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The Textbook Myth

Despite all the handwringing about Texas' influence on the textbook market nationally, it's just not so, publishing insiders say. The state's clout has been on the wane and will diminish more as technological advances and political shifts transform the industry.

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As the furor over the State Board of Education’s ideological rewriting of social studies standards has exploded nationally in recent weeks, a primary narrative has emerged: that whatever 15 politicians in Texas (or at least the rightest-leaning half of them) decide will be published in textbooks nationwide for years to come.

That fear has already stoked a political backlash: One California state senator is drafting legislation to keep any hint of the Texas version of U.S. history out of California textbooks. “The de-emphasis on civil rights in so many areas — reducing the scope of Latino history, especially in a state like Texas — is just mind-boggling,” said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for San Francisco Democrat Leland Yee.

But Yee and his liberal-to-moderate contemporaries in other states need not fret, textbook industry experts say. Though Texas has been painted in scores of media reports as the big dog that wags the textbook industry tail, that’s simply no longer true — and will become even less true in the future, as technological advances and political shifts transform the marketplace, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers. Diskey calls the persistent reports of Texas dominating the market an “urban myth.” Yet the myth persists. 

“I’ve been in this job about three and a half years, and I see it reported all the time,” Diskey said. “I give my explanation to reporters, and about half of them believe me and half of them don’t.”

Rather than tailoring history books to Texas, then trying to peddle them nationwide, publishers today will start with a core national narrative and edit to suit the sensitivities and curriculum standards of various states and districts, said David Anderson, an industry lobbyist, former publishing sales executive and Texas Education Agency curriculum director. The irony in the current history wars: The more the state board makes a political circus out of the process, the less likely any of its ideology will seep into books for other states, as the California backlash makes clear.

“The core narrative is very similar” nationally, Anderson said. “If you can customize a book for Texas, and un-customize it for the Midwest — and Texas is controversial — then that’s what you’re going to do.”

Because of their sheer buying power, large states with statewide textbook adoption processes did once indeed influence what went into the books, which used to be printed almost exclusively in national editions, Diskey and other industry experts said. But since the mid-1990s and the rise of the state curriculum standards and testing movement, publishers have increasingly been forced to customize their books for different states, as well as for larger school districts in the roughly 30 states without statewide adoptions. Simultaneously, advances in publishing and printing technologies allow far more customization at lower cost, much like large newspapers that issue several geographically customized editions every day.

What’s more, rapidly shifting politics and the digital revolution in instructional materials promise to dilute the power of state school boards even further — both here in Texas and nationally. Texas remains one of only two states that have shunned the national standards movement being pushed out of Washington, which, if it progresses as expected, would no doubt dwarf the market influence of even giant states. And here in Texas, new legislation that impinges on the board’s previously well-guarded curricular turf allows Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, who does not report to the board, to create a separate list of approved digital materials over which the board has no say. The new law only requires that schools buy one "classroom set" of board-approved textbooks, rather than one for every student.

The power of deletion

All told, such factors may represent the beginning of the end of what some call the board’s outsized influence on what students here and elsewhere learn. That’s not to say the standards don’t matter: In Texas, they still heavily influence what questions will go on standardized tests, and thus what teachers, at minimum, must cover in classrooms. And perhaps even more than what state board members add to the curriculum, what they have deleted, including references to church-state separation and minority and feminist figures, may end up having more effect on what students do — and do not — learn from their history books.

Consider the cases of feminist Betty Friedan, the entire genre of hip-hop, tales of Mexicans being abused by Texas Rangers and segregated from schools, and the Hispanic civil rights groups MALDEF and LULAC. All were proposed for inclusion in the curriculum by liberal or moderate members of the state board, and all were rejected by conservatives. Publishing houses will have no incentive to go through the trouble of including them, only to risk getting blacklisted by irritated conservative board members who later will approve the books one by one. Ultimately, the school districts choose which books to buy. And in rare cases, publishers might include figures or events not included in the standards to market to districts in particular regions of the state. But the board remains the primary gatekeeper: Districts buy books from the board-approved lists of “conforming” and “nonconforming" books (which do not sell well).

“Nobody in a district is going to say, ‘Where’s Betty Friedan?’ and not buy the book,” Anderson said. “The incentive for publishers to go beyond the standards is driven by market forces, but they also face the question of whether it creates a problem on the state board. They’re only supposed to reject books on the basis of errors, but we’ve seen cases where they cited ‘errors’ and rejected books without any documentation.”

What gets tested

Texas, like many other states, still operates with an “iron triangle” of standards, textbooks and tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, deputy associate commissioner for student assessment for the Texas Education Agency. After the state board completes its work on the standards, expected in May, teams of teachers will scour them to identify “critical” concepts that will appear in test questions. Those will include about 60 percent of the standards, Zyskowski said. And test questions will be developed from those critical components.

But despite the heated, word-by-word editing battles among members on the state board, it's not so clear how much of the hot-blooded ideology reflected in the current standards draft will get translated into test questions or included in the manner that board social conservatives might prefer. Many of the standards that drew the most heat on the board seemed to call for value judgments — judgments not easily or even desirably turned into test questions.

Consider the civil rights standard, proposed by conservative firebrand Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, that sought to praise Martin Luther King Jr. and denigrate more “adversarial” civil rights figures: “Analyze the effectiveness of the adversarial approach taken by some civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers, versus the philosophically persuasive tone of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, and his letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

It’s not like that will translate into a test question reading: “Martin Luther King’s approach was more productive than that of the Black Panthers. True or false?” Standards that start with verbs like “explain” and “analyze” — including many of the most controversial — can’t easily be written into multiple-choice test questions, the only kind that appear on state social studies exams, Zyskowski said. And for that reason, they often get thrown out entirely, judged not “critical.”

“To contrast the effectiveness of two movements, that really doesn’t lend itself to multiple choice questions. It’s more of a thought piece, a research paper,” Zyskowski said.

If a test question were derived from such a standard, Zyskowski said, the test might, for instance, call for a student to read two passages, one from King, another from a Black Panther, then ask, “Which of the following statements best describes” each philosophy, with a choice of summaries. In other words, the test would likely treat the movements neutrally and academically, rather than calling for student value judgments as McLeroy apparently intended.

“Free enterprise” at work

So what would publishers do with the Black Panthers? Probably as little as possible, as carefully as possible, said Ron Reed, an Austin-based sales and marketing consultant to publishers, a former textbook company executive and the founder of a company providing content to publishers.

“Your first translation of the standards would be to write about the accomplishments of Martin Luther King” — the kind of figure textbook publishers love because he causes little if any controversy among any ideological stripes, Reed said. “Would you then discuss the Black Panthers as an example of ineffective dissent? You might choose to find another way to look at it.”

In most book publishing, controversy is mother’s milk, growing sales. In textbook publishing, it’s kryptonite, driving books out of print, if they ever get printed in the first place. The capitalist forces — or, rather “free enterprise” forces, in sanitized, Texas-state-board parlance — have a leveling, almost deadening effect when applied to textbooks. If you want to get books approved by the state board — and sell as many as possible to both Hispanic liberals in El Paso as to social conservatives in Fort Worth — the path to success lies in avoiding irritating anyone. In other words, producing boring books.

That might explain why none of the spokespeople from the three major textbook publishing houses in America — Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill — returned calls for this story, lest they trip up and say anything to irk a Texas politician holding the purse strings. Diskey, from the publisher’s association, said they usually refer all the calls to him.

Eric Foner, a historian and professor at Columbia University, wrote one of the most popular U.S. history textbooks in the country, Give Me Liberty! It’s used mostly in colleges, but also in many high schools, often in Advanced Placement courses. Foner recently appeared on The Colbert Report’s satirical take on Texas history standards. In an interview later, he called many of the changes “absurd.”

“No self-respecting historian would change their version of U.S. history just because the Texas school board says so,” he said.

But that’s the thing: Most history textbooks are not written by historians — self-respecting or otherwise. Foner's book, a cohesive narrative researched and written by one scholar, is the exception. Most elementary and secondary texts are written by committees of a dozen or more writers, hired hands who don’t own their work and can’t object to any changes multiple publishing house editors make to appease whichever politicians or bureaucrats control the millions being spent. They are cooked quickly and to order, pressed together from hundreds of standards that reflect, in many ways, the lowest common denominator of thousands of opinions. They are, in short, the chicken nuggets of the literary world.

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