From publishers to classrooms, how textbooks are selected - The Explorer: Import

From publishers to classrooms, how textbooks are selected

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Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Once in awhile, a notice appears in a school district newsletter inviting parents to flip through a textbook and put their word in about it before it gets approved by the school district's governing board.

But few people know how the textbook made it to this place in the selection process.

Although textbook selection varies across grade levels and school districts, it follows basically the same process Amphitheater Public Schools' textbook selection committee members followed three years ago when it selected a new U.S. history textbook for its three high schools.

"Step one is that we independently take a broad look at what is available on a specific subject," said Bill Bendt, who served on that committee.

Just as designers get a feel for what's hot by attending fashion shows, teachers often first see new textbooks in expo rooms at conferences.

At a social studies conference, for example, Bendt and other teachers went from booth to booth flipping through new social studies textbooks and perusing their supplemental materials - such as DVDs, maps and workbooks.

With pockets full of business cards, they return home.

Next, all the major textbook publishers of social studies got a chance to parade their wares in front of a textbook selection committee. Each of them get a letter in the mail saying the school district is in the market for a new social studies book. They send sales reps ladened with free samples.

The reps' job was to convince the committee that their book is not only the most stimulating and attractive, but that it also most thoroughly meets the educational standards detailed in Arizona law.

Arizona LEARNS is the state's method for quantifying progress as required by the national No Child Left Behind legislation, which was designed to close the achievement gap in America.

In reality, textbook companies care most about California's and Texas's standards. Not only are these states immense - "practically countries in themselves," Bendt said - they also have laws that every school district within their boundaries must use the same textbooks. Their markets are huge.

"Luckily," Bendt said, "their standards are fairly similar to Arizona's."

"We modeled ours from theirs," he said. "They did it first."

The reps showed up with typed up packets showing the exact locations in their books where each of Arizona's standards are met.

After that, the sales job stopped, and committee members got down to the business of deciding for themselves how the competitors stack up.

They read and compared crucial chapters. Since Arizona standards place a great emphasis on teaching the parts of government, committee members read related chapters of competing U.S. history textbooks.

Students got in on the critiques, too.

Bendt asked his U.S. history class to critique a selection of competing books, including a college text intended for students in advanced placement classes. Although his class was not AP, his students liked the college text best.

"Generally they're written by one person and are a narrative," he said.

After casting a scrutinizing eye on the books - using multipage guides from their school districts' governing board policy books - textbook selectors gathered as a committee and announced their picks.

The two finalists received places of honor on display tables at schools, and garnered attention from teachers who wanted some say in the textbooks they use.

While the books stood on display, others exactly like them got test runs, of varying lengths, in classrooms.

Then, the day of judgment arrived. The selection committee met again, armed with feedback from teachers at each school. It discussed. It dickered. It decided on one districtwide textbook.

"By the time they get to us they have already been through so much selecting that they're all pretty close," Bendt said.

The winning textbook went to the school district's governing board office, which is when the notice comes out in district newsletters giving parents 60 days to critique the winner for themselves.

Few parents did, Bendt said.

"I think I saw a little more interest from K-8 parents," he said. "Most of the input is from parents in lower grade levels. There, parents are more inclined to be helping kids with homework more and using them more."

After the 60-day wait, the textbook was brought for acceptance to the governing board. Usually, the board says "yes," and it's in.

Still, teachers differ in their opinions about how subjects should be taught.

And even in an age when national legislation has made states' education standards more in line with each other than ever before, Texas and California still rule the textbook market.

How do teachers personalize lesson plans for their students?

Supplementary material, said Patrick Nelson, Amphi's associate superintendent in charge of school operations.

"Every teacher I know uses supplementary materials," he said. "All the things you want to teach are not in all textbooks, so you use supplementary materials to target the gaps."

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