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An Education Publishing Consultant's Defense of the Industry

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Education publishing companies take a lot of heat from those who see them as too powerful and too monolithic, inclined to stifle creativity, and limiting the options for schools and teachers.

In what won't be a popular opinion in some quarters, but is certainly a colorfully framed one, Lee Wilson, a consultant to publishing companies, argues that many of those criticisms are off base, or dead wrong.

Wilson, in a recent post written for the Education Business Blog, focuses on whether education publishers are a "necessary evil" who will be made irrelevant by open-education resources and other changes in the K-12 market, or if they have an "ongoing beneficial role in public education." The facts, he says, point to the latter.

The author is the former chief executive officer of a supplemental print and software publisher, PCI Education, and is the board president of the Association of Education Publishers, though he says the opinions he offers on the blog are his own. He currently consults education businesses for Headway Strategies.

He puts forward a number of arguments for why publishers bring value to K-12 education, including that they produce well-crafted materials, often with direct input from current or former educators. Those companies also take risks in developing materials and a diverse array of products to meet teachers' and schools' needs, Wilson says. They're more likely to produce and update sustainable products, unlike many of the digital materials that tend to burst onto the scene and then vanish, he says.

And despite the belief that publishers are resistant to change, Wilson contends that they spread innovative practices, in part because they have a "competitive imperative to stay on top of rapidly evolving research, standards, and assessments."

"So howl away at how boring some materials are and at what scumbags we all are," Wilson writes, "but take a few minutes to look at this issue from a different perspective."

One of Wilson's more provocative opinions is probably his view that publishers make teachers' lives easier, by saving them time.

"By purchasing materials that have been carefully designed to support good classroom practice teachers can focus their energy on students," he writes. "Artisanal curriculum sounds nice in theory, but in practice it isn't practical for the vast majority of teachers given all the other demands on their time."

Not everyone views the materials available on the market that favorably. When I reported on math and science curriculum, for instance, I often heard complaints from teachers and others that the textbooks assigned to them were jammed with too much material, and presented in an incoherent way. I visited more that one classroom where teachers, believing students were overwhelmed by those texts, avoided using them whenever possible and crafted their own, streamlined print-outs of lessons and activities.

Wilson also contends that many of the claims of the high costs of K-12 textbooks are bunk. Many of the most costly materials are required for academic niches in higher education, not K-12, though those costs are often conflated by critics of the industry. "The average K-12 textbook (including ancillaries) costs about $60 and is used for five to seven years at a cost of $10 per student," he writes. "For high quality, professionally designed, and academically sound materials that save teachers time, this is a great deal."

He sums up his case this as follows:

Associations, universities, think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, and government at all levels provide these same benefits and many others, but only publishers cover this particular combination completely. A state could chose to write their own curriculum, but that would [be] more expensive and restrict the choice districts and teachers have to meet specific needs. Foundations sponsor [open-education resource] repositories, but the consistency of design and research support behind most of the materials is non-existent. Associations help spread ideas but they don't have the risk capital to develop robust programs. In the next ten years we will see a profound shift in the products and services publishers provide. They will be more digital, will include more professional development, and will evolve with standards and research findings. But the benefits outlined above are independent of platform, media, and ideology and should always have a place at the table.

In an evolving landscape for K-12 materials, Wilson's views will probably strike some as anachronistic or off-base, while others will see them as a clear-eyed view of the current and future market, and publishers' place in it. I'll put the questions to Marketplace K-12 readers: Where do you come down? If you have a contrasting view, bring it forward.

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