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When I started to work in educational publishing, many years ago, there were some two hundred or so companies dividing up the textbook market in the United States and about twenty with significant market share. Now there are four.
Over the decades, there has been considerable consolidation of the industry. There were many, many mergers and acquisitions. And while this was happening, something else, more insidious, was occurring.
Most of those small publishing companies had been run by people who had started out in education, had entered educational publishing, and had risen through the ranks as editors. Some were started by editors or teachers turned entrepreneurs. But as the companies grew, often via acquisition by outside entities with no background or expertise in education, the old editorial managers were replaced by financial types.
Let me give you an example. Years ago, two publishing guys, Fred McDougal and Joe Littell, started a small company called McDougal, Littell to publish a really innovative product–small, theme-based books for short units to be taught in English classes in schools using something called “Flexible Modular Scheduling.” Their innovative “Man” series, heavily influenced by anthropology and multiculturalism, was denounced by American fundamentalists, who actually held book burnings to destroy the new McDougal textbooks. The books were quite successful. In those days, English teachers had enough autonomy to design their own classes, and they loved the “Man” series.
I went to work for McDougal, Littell early in my career. Not long after I started there, the company, still small, invested a lot of money into a health textbook, which it tried to get adopted in Texas. The fundamentalists in Texas rejected the book. One thing that disturbed them: It contained the line “Humans and other mammals lactate.” They were disturbed by the reference (in a health textbook!) to the normal human process of lactation, but what REALLY bothered them was that humans were referred to as mammals. News flash, fundies: We are members of the biological kingdom known as Animalia. And yes, we belong to the biological class known as Mammalia.
After the loss of the adoption bid in Texas, Fred McDougal held a company-wide meeting, and I shall never forget what he said that day. He said, “Losing this adoption was big for us. It was huge. We can’t have a lot of losses like that. But one thing I wanted to say to you, to all of you: we did in that textbook what we thought was right for kids and teachers, and as long as Joe and I are running this company, we’ll keep doing that.”
But as the companies consolidated, and as financial types brought in by outside entities were hired to run them, the older, often legendary editors were summarily canned and replaced by newly minted MBAs–kids fresh from their internships with management consulting firms who had little or no subject matter expertise.
And the whole point of it all–what was good for kids and for teachers–was forgotten. In a four-year stint at one company, I received paychecks from eight different entities. The company was acquired that many times in that short a period!!! The financial types cared only about optimizing profits this quarter. The industry became all about the marketing hype. It became impossible to make an argument in an editorial meeting based on what would actually work to teach kids syntax or vocabulary or their times table or whatever. All anyone with power was interested in hearing about was marketing slogans and design features and give-away loss leaders to drive sales. It became routine for companies to compile vast databases of old content to be regurgitated, using software, into new design molds for “new” textbooks that were all about the hype. Old wine in shiny new bottles. Change the headings, spout whatever slogans were current on the educational midway this carnival season, generate some hype, and cash in quickly before doing it all over again. That became the formula for making a new textbook.
And so, actual innovation in curricula and pedagogy in K-12 textbooks pretty much died. It died because there was no longer competition among many small firms looking for an innovative, competitive edge, and it died because all the old editorial types with subject matter expertise backgrounds in education were gone (or were relegated to minor positions way, way down the corporate hierarchy). Oh, and the financial whiz kids became adept at hiring edupundits with big names to rubber stamp their programs and even serve as program “authors” without having written anything. (“I’m not an author, but I play one in marketing material.”)
And then along came Bill Gates and his hireling David Coleman to create a single national bullet list of “standards” to key online educational software to, in order to consolidate the market further–to create what Gates referred to as “scale.” Another word for “scale,” btw, is monopoly. This, he said, would encourage innovation–you know, in the same way that promiscuity encourages chastity or blowing a village off the map with a missile encourages peace. LOL.
The educational publishing industry, like many others, is now all about a few oligarchs maximizing profits in the short term, and everything else (a pedagogical design that works, that engineering failure modes and effects analysis, or FMEA) be damned.
If you want innovation, you need a lot of small companies competing with one another, and you need to give teachers and schools the freedom to innovate.
Standardization and consolidation kill innovation.
This is not what you are going to hear from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which should adopt the motto “All your base are belong to us.”
Shortly before I retired from publishing, I had lunch with the CEO of an educational publishing house. I explained to him that there was a lot of research in cognitive psychology and linguistics showing that people were missing some crucial facts about early reading instruction, to whit:
a) kids come into school with VAST differences in the amount and variety of spoken language they have been exposed to, and, in particular, in the amount of vocabulary and syntactic variation that they haveencountered in the spoken language around them;
b) syntax and vocabulary are almost entirely UNCONSCIOUSLY ACQUIRED from the child’s ambient SPOKEN linguistic environment; almost none of either is learned through direct instruction (in other words, direct instruction in vocabulary and grammar is almost entirely irrelevant to this acquisition);
c) most reading programs entirely ignore syntactic development, even though it is a key component of decoding ability; and
d) much of the problem in reading comprehension is related to lack of the underlying background knowledge assumed by the writer.
I explained to him that even though linguists and cog psi people now know these things to be true, many people in education don’t yet, and NO reading program has turned this knowledge into new pedagogy and curricula that use spoken language exposure to make up for the early vocabulary and syntactic deficits and that address the deficits in world knowledge and vocabulary via subject-matter-specific, domain-based reading units that systematically build that knowledge and vocabulary. I explained that he had the opportunity to be the first to build a program incorporating these ideas, which could have revolutionary consequences for the effectiveness of reading programs. I wasn’t trying to sell the guy anything. I just wanted someone, finally, to make a reading program that actually worked to help kids acquire language in the ways in which their minds are built to acquire it.
He answered me by pointing to the parking lot. “See those cars out there?” he said. “They all look the same. People don’t want new. They want the same old thing but newer and shinier.”
This is the kind of thing they teach in MBA school. People are idiots. Think about the packaging and forget about the rest.
In other words, create a reading program without thinking about what’s preventing kids from learning how to read and how to address that.