Can’t figure out a problem in your child’s math textbook? Maybe it’s not you. “It could be that key information or steps are missing, that the problem involves a concept to which your child hasn’t yet been introduced. “Perhaps the problem is structurally unsound for a host of other reasons,” notes veteran textbook writer and editor Annie Keeghan at the blog Open Salon.
The “new normal” in educational publishing is “a severe lack of oversight in the quality of curriculum being produced” and a “frightening apathy” to do anything about it. Keeghan’s piece, “Afraid of Your Child’s Math Textbook? You Should Be” is a jeremiad. It does for textbook publishing what The Jungle did for the meatpacking industry.
Keeghan paints a bleak and dispiriting picture of a business gutted by mergers, competition for fewer available dollars, and an increased focus on sales and marketing at the expense of producing quality products. Materials rushed to market at breakneck speed are “inherently, tragically flawed.” Plus the pool of qualified writers and editors is drying up, and those doing the work “often don’t have the necessary skills or experience to produce a text worthy of the publisher’s marketing claims,” she writes.
Otto von Bismarck famously quipped that laws and sausages are two things you should never watch being made. What might he have said about textbooks?
“Here’s how it works: Many publishers solicit developers, often on the Internet and from all over the world, looking for the best bid on a project. With competition this fierce, developers are forced to drastically lower their rates just to stay in business (and publishers exploit this fact). Let’s say a publisher hires a developer for a certain low-bid fee to produce seven supplemental math books for grades 3-8. The product specs call for each student book and teacher guide to have page counts of roughly 100 pages and 80 pages, respectively. The publisher wants these seven books ready for press in five weeks—over 1,400 pages. To put this in perspective, in the not too recent past at least six months would be allotted for a project of this size. But publishers customarily shrink their deadlines to get a jump on the competition, especially in today’s math market. Unreasonable turnaround times are part of the new normal, something that almost guarantees a lack of quality right out of the gate.”
Keeghan has stopped writing educational books, finding there’s no longer any satisfaction in the work, no demand for a good product, or even a way to make a decent living at it. These days, she says she only accepts copyediting work. And that’s bad enough.
“When I’m hired to copyedit, the profound errors I see in content are often staggering enough that grammar and punctuation seem immaterial. Sometimes the content in the student materials is so poor—steps omitted, unclear directions, concepts introduced when they’re not developed till later in the text—that it boggles the mind it got past a content editor. With so many errors rampant at this stage of editing, rewriting is hastily done and it’s only inevitable that some errors will show up in the final printed product. And with a different copyeditor on each book, there are those who don’t even think about, or have the experience to recognize, the content issues so they go unaddressed.”
When she points out profound problems with educational materials, Keeghan writes, a typical response is, “The publisher knows it’s bad. Just do the best you can.” The losers, naturally, are students, who are caught in the squeeze between a poorly executed product and a marketing push to maximize profits.“One must conclude that students and their education, if this is judged against product quality, is becoming an increasingly low priority,” Keeghan writes.
“And so, I say to parents: Take a good look at the materials your children are bringing home. And to educators: Look at what you’re purchasing. Don’t be satisfied with the classic “thumb through” and don’t take those marketing materials or the sales pitch at face value. Take the time to study the materials; match them to your state’s desired standards and preferred benchmarks. If they’re not a good fit, take a pass and develop your own if you must. The only way kids are going to become better educated through the materials you buy, to increase their rankings among those 30 other countries, is to break the cycle and stop buying those books that are—there’s no other way to put it—crap.”
Stunning. Sobering. And even more so if the reader comments following the piece are credible. Several are from publishing industry types largely confirming Keeghan’s bleak assessment.