The Textbook Oligarchs

 Everyone claims to want ardently that US students get a better education.  But the dynamics of a struggle between an oligopsony and an oligopsony

  The Textbook Oligarchs

 Everyone claims to want ardently that US students get a better education.  But the dynamics of a struggle between an oligopsony and an oligopsony has got in the way,

The oligopoly is the textbook publishing industry. Four companies together own 70% of the textbook market. They are Harcourt (a division of Reed Elsevier), Houghton-Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson. These four companies are each the result of many mergers and acquisitions. For example, Harcourt publishes under its own name and under the imprint of Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Pearson’s imprint includes Scott Foresman and Prentice-Hall. And so on.

The oligopsony is made up to three state textbook evaluation committees. In 20 states, such committees chose the textbooks they find acceptable for the whole state, choosing several for each grade level and subject. In other words, local school districts in these states are required to choose among the accepted texts only. Of these states, three end up buying 30% of all textbooks sold, namely California, Texas, and Florida. Getting your elementary math series accepted by these states’ committees means a bonanza; rejection is a small disaster. So these three states education bureaucrats are the gatekeepers, while other committee states, and those 30 other states with local textbook choices, are not as immediate a concern, since they will be as the result of many smaller evaluations.

So it’s oligopsony, in the guise of the “educrats” from these three states, that set the rules. But let’s face it, California is in a totally different cultural and political world from Texas and Florida. So pity the textbook editors that try to appeal to both extremes, left-wing political correctness in California, and right-wing political correctness in the two Southern states.

The result has been a massive self-censorship, that is described at length in Stanford Professor Diane Ravitch’s new book  The Language Police.  For example, even high-school history and English texts cannot mention: divorce, drugs, homosexuality, or dinosaurs (evolution) on one hand; religion, women as homemakers, slavery, inequality, and so on, on the other. In other words, anything real or interesting or historically accurate.

The result according to the Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform (an education advocacy group)  “is an increasing trend toward texts that are long on visual gimmicks, short on factual information, and homogenized in content…And this result is having a 'trickle down' effect, weakening the classroom instruction by teachers who are more often than not reliant upon these books for a de facto lesson plan.”

All this Ravitch elsewhere has called “a de facto national curriculum,” one that is “mainly geared to minimal competencies, and expectations about what children should learn are frequently low and unchallenging.”

Another result is that all of the Big Four produce clone versions of the same empty, picture-laden textbooks, so that even choosing between them is no choice at all.

Principles illustrated:

  • Members of oligopolies tend to converge.
  • Oligopolies offer pseudo-variety.
  • Oligopolies lead to oligopsonies.

[Oligopoly Watch]

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