Indiana Textbook Reform
For release May 11 and thereafter (665 words)
School Superintendent Tony Bennett wasn’t exaggerating when he declared, “From top to bottom, it’s a new world for Indiana schools.” Even textbooks won’t look the same.
House Bill 1429, which passed the House 80-11 and the Senate 40-9, didn’t get the attention that went to vouchers, charter schools or teacher performance pay. But it has potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn.
For starters, it redefines what a textbook is. As of July 1, the word “textbook” in the Indiana code will refer not just to books but also computer hardware, software and digital content.
Also, the statewide textbook adoption process will end for all but reading instructional texts. Local schools will have flexibility to choose their own textbooks or none at all. And they can use the same books for as long as they wish – as long as they continue to meet academic standards. Current law requires new books every six years.
For more than half a century, textbook adoption in Indiana has been a cumbersome process requiring publishers to produce free samples of books in core subjects like language arts, math, social studies, science and health. The publishers submit sealed bids that guarantee prices over a six-year cycle. Books are made available for a public comment period before an advisory committee recommends up to seven books in a subject area. The local districts conduct their own review of the state-approved books before making a final selection.
In 2009, the State Board of Education began expressing reservations about the quality of textbooks it was endorsing. It granted school corporations a “blanket waiver” that allowed them to use Internet resources in place of textbooks and to select their own teaching materials. HB 1429 puts that change into state law.
This reform was a long time coming.
As far back as 1989, research concluded that statewide adoption failed to achieve its two main goals: ensuring quality of books from district to district and holding down costs through high volume sales. On the contrary, an unrestricted marketplace in which prices are determined by supply, demand and competition would be cheaper than a system of state-imposed price controls, said the report by Michael A. Tulley.
In 2004, the Fordham Institute issued a similar report urging Indiana and 20 other states to abandon statewide adoption, which it blamed for “unwieldy kitchen-sink textbooks that are poorly written, dull and crammed with watered down politically correct content.” It called the $4.3 billion textbook market a “cartel controlled by just a few companies.”
That report suggested that “textbook selection and purchasing decisions should be made as close as possible to the teacher, ideally by the teacher herself.”
With textbook adoption under local control, small and on-line publishing houses will have a better shot of showing and selling their materials to schools. Teachers will be encouraged to write their own texts and a plethora of free on-line curricula will have a level playing field with big publishing firms.
As one example, the Digital History website developed by the Department of History and College of Education at the University of Houston offers an interactive multimedia history of the United States from the Revolutionary War to present times. The site includes an online textbook, primary source readings, worksheets, e-lectures and lesson plans. All of it is free to students and teachers as long as it properly credited.
As for quality control, the Indiana Department of Education will retain responsibility to review instructional materials to make sure they meet Indiana academic standards.
“In and of itself, a textbook is neither good nor bad,” said Truman University Professor of Education Marlow Ediger. “Quality instruction rests upon the uses made of textbooks by creative teachers and pupils in teaching and learning situations.”
HB 1429 will encourage schools to replace books with new technology like the Kindle, but the choice of hardware is a cosmetic one. The real reform involves the content choice, which classroom teachers are in the best position to judge and will now have more power to influence.
Andra Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.