Worse Than Awful: An Insider’s View of Educational Publishing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2012

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.

13 Comments »

  1. If writers/editors have slowly been affected by this, then we are lucky there has been such a tremendous delay.

    http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm – Richard Feynman identified the roots of this issue back in the 60s (unfortunately the problem started on the demand side)

    Comment by John — February 23, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  2. Simple math textbook test: can you read it? Besides Jacob’s Geometry, no. Clarity isn’t what customers want. It’s features. Don’t worry, the teachers are blamed for failures, not the admins.

    Comment by Dennis Ashendorf — February 23, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  3. So true. I have a kid in middle school that uses Connected Math which, as we all know, does not explain ANYTHING. It is simply a booklet of story problems. We spend a lot of time using our own Saxon textbooks to supplement. I feel terrible for other kids in school, but I spent several years fighting the stupid program and the teachers, administrators and board STILL re-adopted it.

    My son is in PreCalculus. The new textbook is terrible at explaining concepts. It’s the teacher’s first year teaching it and is failing miserably. Most of the class is failing and has just given up. She hands out 150 test prep questions spanning 4 chapters–each one completely different and then gives them an 8 problem test and takes over 2 weeks to grade it. I am trying to help my son figure out other ways to get the information he needs (lots of great sites online), but it is disheartening to see him grow to really hate math. And truthfully, I don’t blame him. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a conspiracy! Dumb us all down and dispirit us—mission accomplished.

    Comment by C. M. — February 23, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  4. This might explain why I have resorted to YouTube to help my child through more than a few math assignments.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 23, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  5. Am I the only person who wonders why she can’t give specific examples? It’s a woeful tale with no evidence.

    It certainly could be true, but why are we expected to take her word for it?

    Comment by Cal — February 24, 2012 @ 12:06 am

  6. Cal, my assumption is that she won’t give specific examples because she is concerned about charges of libel–or at the very least, that she’d have to waste her own precious time dealing with the backlash if she named the publishers she is describing in her examples. These companies have paid lawyers on staff. Or they used to.

    I don’t expect you to take her word for it, or mine, but for what it’s worth, my experiences in 20+ years of K-12 publishing confirm her report. If you want more information, with an extensive bibliography, read The Tyranny of the Textbook by Beverlee Jobrack.

    Comment by MK — February 24, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  7. At the risk of “commercializing” education the following comes directly off the Internet:

    _________________________________________________________
    A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

    The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.

    All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.

    __________________________________________________________

    P. S.

    And guess what else? Everyone can progress through the material AT THEIR OWN PACE. Bazinga (alah, Dr. Sheldon Cooper)!!!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 24, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  8. There’s a business opportunity here. The Core Knowledge label is golden for people who value serious liberal arts curricula. Why not write better educational materials under the sponsorship of the Core Knowledge Foundation? – you already do some of this. If upfront funds are needed, surely there are philanthropists who believe in the Core Knowledge philosophy who would be willing to help.

    CK honchos, how about doing this?

    Comment by John Webster — February 24, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  9. Cal, check out the Feynman link provided by “John” for a corroborating view.

    As for Ms Keeghan’s reluctance to provide examples—by which I assume you mean naming names—couldn’t that get her in serious trouble with the publishers? Defaming their products? Wouldn’t the lawyers come swooping down like the little devil-monkeys in The Wizard of Oz?

    An anecdote: Three years ago our “Dynamic” principal, (among teachers the word “dynamic” modifying “principal” is a term of art meaning “incorrigibly addicted to the Kool-ade-of-the-moment,”) announced out of the blue that “we” were going to buy new English anthologies for our Middle School. We met in a conference room. On the table were piled samples of three texts. “We’ve got to be quick. We have special deals available on all three but only for two weeks. For any one of these we could pay under a hundred a copy if we order within ten business days. Of course, if you have another other suggestions, give me the particulars and I’ll contact the sales reps. After all, you are the English department and this is your professional choice.” I hefted each sample like they were largemouth bass—all “trophies,” nine pounds and up—and peered into one.

    Now, in my indiscreet youth I had sampled, also, a number of psychaedelic drugs. Pointedly, I learned that whatever amusement they afforded in the moment, they were treacherous for their long, lingering aftereffects. Thus my alarm when after thumbing through six or seven pages of this book and having my senses assaulted by the “features”—garish, clashing color-codings sometimes four shades on a page, superimposed on the text with boxes, circles, arrows and bullet points of still more hues, and with side-bar illustrations and photos and digressions of all sorts printed in all manner of type faces, bold and italic—there crept up on me a premonition that if I did not slam the tome shut and flee that instant, a monstrous purple red and black demon “flashback” would leap off the paper and seize me. Men in white coats would have to come and take me away.

    I did force a last peek into what I thought would be a harmless region somewhere near the back beyond page eight hundred. I found a list of authors. There were none I recognized except Rudyard Kipling and Gary Paulsen, and for an instant an image of these two on a life raft in the Pacific sprang into my imagination. But that kicked up the demon again and then I did flee.

    But in the principal’s parting words I saw an opportunity, if only for amusement. Upstairs I owned a copy of the Core Knowledge literature anthology for seventh grade. I saw her again that afternoon. “Here, some very bright people on the cutting edge of reform have put these together. See? Some of the very best and classic authors of English are in here. Top-stuff for higher order thinking skills. And look… No illustrations! No distractions. And paperback. I got it for twenty balloons and I’ll bet we could get a set for fifteen or sixteen. And no lumbar problems, either; they hardly weigh a pound. ”

    She thumbed through a copy. She looked befuddled but recovered quickly. She looked up and flashed me a professional smile and said, “Well, I’ll look into them.”

    Next day, she buttonholed me in the corridor. “Those books,” she said, “I checked them out on line.” (The site she queried had some association with Stanford.) “But…I think these are a little too conservative for us.Too controversial. We’ll choose among the other three.”

    And that was that. One of the interchangeable nine pound largemouth backbreakers was “chosen,” and the set I have rests on the floor of my closet awaiting the day Rudyard Kipling and Gary Paulsen begin their dialog. (Interesting idea, don’t you think? Any suggestions for the lesson plan?)

    Comment by bill eccleston — February 24, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

  10. I second that, John Webster.

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — February 24, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

  11. I currently use a combination of Singapore Math and the CK books to teach my son math. I’m at a loss as to why schools need new textbooks every few years. I have not seen that math has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, just the lack of direct instruction, hence I home school. Why can’t one take the time to put together a well thought out textbook with examples and a logical flow. I really don’t need flashy, although I have a friend that won’t use Singapore because it isn’t colorful and she says her children are visual learners :-(

    Comment by cb — February 24, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  12. Cal–Did you read the whole piece on the OS site, or just the condensed version here? If you read the whole blog you’ll see that specific examples are cited, just no publishers names listed, which would, as others stated, likely result in some hefty legal repercussions for Keeghan. She has, however, done everything else short of that.
    Count me among the others who can verify her claims; I too have worked in the ed publishing industry for decades and have seen similar practices, and far too rampant.

    Comment by CharlieA — February 24, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  13. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t believe that stating facts is grounds for a lawsuit.

    Did I misread here (and yes, I read the whole article) or did she not say these errors are in existing textbooks? She even said that our children’s confusion might be caused by these terrible errors.

    And she’s somehow legally banned from saying “Prentice Hall’s Algebra II textbook, page 53″, “Houghton Mifflin 5th grade math, page 187″ or “Singapore Math for Morons textbook, page 87″?

    Sorry, not buying that. These are existing errors. Why can she–or you, or anyone of these other people who confirm her accounts–give examples?

    If you all say the practices are rampant, you should be able to point out the errors.

    Comment by Cal — February 26, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

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