As we work on open content, I try and separate my notions of the textbook from my notions of the textbook industry.
At its most basic, a textbook provides a starting point for the processes of learning. Textbooks can be used well, or used poorly, but this is an implementation issue. In the same way, some textbooks are better than others. But, the right text in the right hands can do a world of good.
However, the textbook industry gets into political, economic, and public policy issues. The means by which the Common Core standards came into being, and came to be adopted by 48 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia illustrates the issue.
On July 1, 2009, the working groups charged with "determining and writing the college and career readiness standards in English-language arts and mathematics" were announced. The initial working groups consisted of 28 people; 14 apiece for Math and English. Of the 28 people, 7 worked for ACT, 8 worked for Achieve, and 7 worked for the College Board. Or, in other words, fully half of the people on the initial working group worked for testing organizations. Achieve is an interesting organization, dedicated to advocating for college and career readiness. Their board includes no educators, and as far back as 2002, their executive vice president observed that 4 companies have a monopoly on the testing industry, and that this was a problem solely because these companies might not be able to create new tests quickly enough.
Additionally, both the Math and English Language Arts working groups had representatives from an organization called America's Choice - and yes, this is the America's Choice that was acquired by Pearson in August, 2010.
A look at the original endorsing partners for the Common Core (retrieved via archive.org, because this information is no longer available on the Common Core site) reveals more of the usual suspects: Pearson, Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, EdisonLearning, McGraw-Hill, and Wireless Generation, to name a few.
So when people are talking about textbooks in the era of Common Core, we are talking about a landscape where a select few people and organizations with both a vision and a business interest in education got together to write new standards, write new textbooks that "meet" the new standards, and write the assessments that determine whether these standards are working. Simultaneously, the narrative around teacher effectiveness began to include (not for the first time, but certainly in a more concerted way) calls for measuring teacher effectiveness and school performance against performance on test scores.
However, there is a political dimension as well. A quick look through the federal lobbying records shows that the same organizations that are writing the Common Core standards, writing curriculum for the Common Core Standards, and writing assessments for the Common Core standards, are also spending millions to affect laws about education.
- Pearson, Inc and Pearson Education;
- Houghton Mifflin;
- Wireless Generation
Textbooks are both a political and an economic issue. The requirements for new curriculum and new tests to meet the manufactured need caused by widespread Common Core adoption can be seen as corporate welfare on an overwhelmingly large scale, and as a way of funneling public money into private entities.
But, textbooks are also a learning tool, and the role of the textbook in the learning process can be considered separately from the large companies that currently dominate the textbook space. We need to reclaim the text as part of how we work. Open content provides a way to do that, but to work effectively it helps to understand the landscape within which we work.