Cutting back teachers' choices

The Education Beat

Trend: With a recent sale, the number of major textbook publishers is down to four, and more and more books are found lacking in depth and `instructional design.'

September 20, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

RACINE, WIS. - Then there were four.

Tribune Co.'s sale this month of its education division to the giant McGraw-Hill reduces the major textbook publishing field to four - McGraw-Hill, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin and Pearson.

Twenty-four years ago, when I investigated the textbook industry for The Sun, there were two dozen major publishers of such familiar imprints as Ginn and Scott Forsman (which gave us Dick and Jane). Now, many fewer publishers exist, and they're turning out materials of dubious quality.

At a seminar on teaching here last weekend, experts expressed concern over the publishing oligarchy. "They're cutting down the choices available to teachers," said George Nelson, an official of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Nelson's group studied America's high school science textbooks and released a report a few months ago finding almost all of them wanting. Most science textbooks, including many of those used in Maryland high schools, are a mile wide and an inch deep, the AAAS study concluded. "It's not so much the content," said Nelson. "It's the lack of instructional design."

In history, said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, "confusion reigns." Publishers fill their books with "lots of bells and whistles" at the expense of solid narrative. The content of history texts "is thinner and thinner," said Sewall.

Roger R. Rogalin, president of McGraw-Hill's school division, didn't refute the charges. He said publishers have to fashion products to markets in California, Texas and Florida, states where textbook adoption is decided centrally - and where a quarter of U.S. kids go to school. (This hasn't changed since I looked in 1976.)

Rogalin said all textbooks contain factual errors, but he and his critics agreed that inaccuracies, though they make for good newspaper headlines, are a small part of the problem.

Further clouding the picture are high-stakes tests in many states. Rogalin said publishers are under pressure to "align" materials with states' curriculum. And because it costs $40 million to $50 million to develop a new textbook series, publishers aren't about to pay a lot of attention to less populous states such as Maryland.

Because textbooks are the workhorses of most schools - 80 percent of teachers rely on them - consolidation in the industry should concern parents and educators. With less competition, the publishers are less likely to clean up their acts, and they will be less likely to take chances.

Nelson, a former astronaut, said parents and teachers could influence textbook reform. The education system, he said, "has a lot of leverage, but it doesn't seem to be attached to anything."

Cardin secures $250,000 for program at six schools

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin again has brought home some education bacon to schools in his district. The 3rd District Democrat announced Monday that he has secured $250,000 in federal funds to expand the Baltimore Reads after-school program at six area elementary schools.

The program, "The Reading Zone," will help about 200 pupils below grade level in reading at Arundel, Charles Carroll Barrister, Cross Country, Guilford and Highlandtown No. 215 in the city and Winand Elementary in the county.

White's not right in Pa., if you're talking T-shirts

You thought white was a perfectly acceptable color for school wear. You thought wrong.

A Pittsburgh area school banned white T-shirts because they "look like underwear." Fifty kids were suspended yesterday, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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