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Publishers Feeling the Reading First Cuts


Some of the publishers that made a heap of money off the Reading First program—which pumped $1 billion a year into instructional materials and professional development, as well as coaching positions in participating schools—are reporting losses now that the budget has been axed, according to this Publishers Weekly article.


"Worsening economic conditions facing large urban districts were exacerbated by a sharp reduction in federal funding for Reading First programs," the magazine quotes Terry McGraw, the chairman of the company that publishes Open Court Reading and other popular reading series.

Despite the 5.4 percent decline for McGraw-Hill's school division, the company's K-12 arm still gained $1.4 billion in revenue ($6.4 billion in revenue for the company overall). State textbook adoptions are still fueling profits.

A few weeks ago, another publisher also reported some money troubles. Riverdeep, which bought ed publishers Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt a couple years ago, has been saddled with debt and may be looking to sell off some of its consumer publishing assets, according to news reports.

This story, however, includes claims from Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt officials that their business is solid. Houghton Mifflin's reading program has been a popular choice among Reading First schools and was one of just two approved programs, along with Open Court, in California's English/language arts adoption for the early elementary grades several years ago.


I remember McGraw-Hill’s SRA reading program when I was in fifth and sixth grade. It’s funny that what I remember was the glossy cardboard title pages of the pieces I was supposed to read that were brightly color coded, based on the reading level you had attained. I started in at maybe the red and had to successfully read a certain number of prose pieces – some stories and some expository – and then answer multiple choice questions about the piece I read, before I could “level up” to maybe the blue level and eventually the green or purple or whatever. You get the idea.

I don’t recall if what I was reading was interesting or not, but I do recall not really caring, but just focusing on trying to scan each piece as quickly as possible and successfully answer those multiple choice questions so I could quickly move to the next piece and as quickly as possible have the satisfaction of moving up to the next level and eventually complete the final triumphal color at the top of the reading achievement pyramid. I recall being almost obsessed with the glittering display of the different colored pamphlets and the artistically designed case they were displayed in.

But alas… sixth grade ended, and I was deprived of SRA for the summer and had to make due reading books like Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Mysterious Island”. There was no multiple-choice test at the end and no leveling up involved, so instead I took my time, sitting in our big overstuffed rocking chair (which I still have 40 years later) and savored a story of the incredible adventures, trial and tribulations of Captain Nemo and the rest of the cast of characters.

So why did my Ann Arbor school district shell out money for the SRA program? Did some publishing company rep sell district administrators on the effectiveness of this program versus just reading plain old books? John Taylor Gatto, one of my alternative education “gurus”, makes the argument that there is an “educational-industrial complex” of foundations, think tanks and publishers, putting billions of dollars in play, selling textbooks and recommending these other instructional programs like SRA to school districts and states. And when there is big money in play, of course the players throw their weight around trying to influence education policy to their economic benefit. The bigger and more “one-size-fits-all” the programs become, the more educational widgets that can be moved.

And speaking of “one-size-fits-all” (one of my recurrent bogeymen obviously), I keep thinking of all those textbooks… those fat, brightly colored volumes weighing down kids’ backpacks with their sections and vignettes, designed no doubt by committees of national experts charged with the transmission of the authorized state curriculum to our youth sitting in their neat rows of identical desks or tables. When I think about it now its so 19th Century Industrial Revolution! It seems to me there are plenty of real books out there that kids can read. Do we really need all these highly trained people spending so much time repackaging all this information at great cost to us taxpayers?

That said… I must say that a well written math text can be very helpful in the step-by-step construction of knowledge needed for many abstract algebra, geometry, number theory and calculus concepts. But science seems best learned observing and experimenting with the real world and I’ve always felt that history textbooks are a particular waste of money, there are so many good real books about history. Of course, when the state mandates that every fourth grader learns these 200 facts about history it is convenient to have someone that creates a book that highlights and packages those 200 facts in easily digestible and sanitized vignettes.

But really… we are now in the 21st Century with some pretty amazing tools like the Internet at our finger tips where you can quickly learn to search yourself to find all sorts of information about history, science, mathematics and other subjects. Why do we need to continue to spend all those billions on these expensive books that are quickly out of date and in need of replacement? Feels like we’ve been sold a bill of goods here, and we’re just feeding an industrial gravy train with the best PR that money can buy to convince us that these books are just the best things for our kids.

I am hoping that there might be a silver lining to our present economic woes and shrinking state education budgets. Maybe school systems will be forced to take a long look at the billions they shell out for those ubiquitous, weighty and obsolescence-planned textbooks, and consider leveraging some of the incredible contemporary technology and that amazing repository of knowledge… free knowledge…residing on the Net.

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