Are Textbook Publishers Too Big To Fail? I Think Not.

While there are major problems that face public education, "aging textbooks" is definitely not one of them. The practice of contemporaneous inclusion of recent events like the election of President Obama and the subprime meltdown have never been considered something that belong in any serious history book, because sufficient time has not passed for there to have developed an historical perspective.

Rather than lament the failure to include these recent events, a more productive endeavor might be to look at the objective reality that the vast majority of our students do not have the ability to read the textbooks they have. With the relatively recent advent of the Internet, supplemental material is easily accessible to all LAUSD schools, which have already incurred the significant expense of having high speed Internet connections available at virtually every school site. There is already a law set to take effect in January of 2020 that aims to make all California textbooks available online, unfortunately there seems to be a few hurdles in the way.

By googling either the "subprime meltdown" or the "election of President Obama," any student has easy access to more current historical events that might not be a part of the student's aging textbook. However, such a pragmatic solution might not be "on the table," because it threatens the vested interests of book publishers and education bureaucrats who see change as a threat to their economic self-interest.

One suggestion that might more effectively deal with the aging textbook issue is to do with textbooks what the federal government is proposing to do with federally insured student loans -- get the banks out of it and have the government make the loans directly to the students. This is proposed because banks that have operated as middlemen on these loans add a prohibitive and unnecessary expense.

If school districts published their own books with chapters written by those teachers who had the writing talent and desire for some extra money, the districts as owners of the copyright could print up as many copies of these books as they needed at a fraction of the present cost, while paying the teachers a continuing royalty for their work. School district generated textbooks would not only cover national issues, but would be more easily adaptable to local issues by having built in links to other data on the Internet that is far richer than any single textbook could ever hope to be.

There are several other very inexpensive ways to save significant amounts of money in public education materials. Every year, thousands of teachers retire, taking with them into retirement the work of over 30 years in many cases. And yet, school districts have no formal debriefing process as part of retirement to harvest the best lessons and materials that these teachers have developed in their professional lifetimes that could also be included in district generated textbooks or given to new teachers, so they have some real support while getting started. Clearly school districts have already paid for this work product of these retiring teachers. It should be noted that teachers already sell lesson plans.

Something as simple as declaring an amnesty on stolen or unintentionally kept student books would also obviate the necessity of replacing these books as often as we presently have to. I remember once going down to the old LAUSD headquarters at 450 S. Grand and seeing dumpsters filled with "obsolete" textbooks. In a reality where many schools do not presently have or cannot afford enough textbooks for all students, I think they would be happy to have any books.

However, textbook publishers, like their counterparts on Wall Street and the banking world seem to have also been deemed "too big to fail." These publishers seem to only use computer technology to devise more ways to make money for exorbitantly priced textbooks that now cost as much as $100 a copy or more. In the past, you could always use the old textbook, because the new one that replaced it usually only added some minor supplemental chapters or material. Now these publishers use computers to mix up the content of newer texts to the point that they cannot be used with the older editions.

Since the time when I started elementary school, there is now more than 55 years of history, but we are still cramming it into the two high school semesters that have traditional been allowed for the teaching of U.S. History. Maybe this is the reason that Americans seem so unaware of their own history and geography, because under the present archaic system, there is no time to teach these subjects in a manner that might nurture the citizens of a democracy to the point where they can actually assume their role as arbiters of power under the U.S. Constitution.

Flickr: Teuobk

1 Comment

Hi Lenny:
Thanks for your comment about my Obama "Flogging the Teacher" critique. Sometimes I despair that anyone is actually reading it. Your take on textbooks is right on the mark. I always looked for the cheapest textbooks or editions of novels or lit texts for my students because I remember how overpriced they were when I was a college student in the 60's.
The sad fact is that most college text publishing houses LIVE on the rip-off on ed-texts. Without that revenue, most, I believe, would cave in. Since there are cheap ways of publishing through indies--I use Fidlar-Doubleday for my students when we "publish" their essays or stories at the end of the semester for all of them to have as something they can "own," not merely a grade--the collapse of Random and Harper might not be that much of a tragedy given how relatively few Americans actually read. I have something more to comment on about your take on "learning." (Students can't really be taught unless they want to learn; how to get them to want to learn? Get them to believe it means something to you if they do and something to their peers in the class. That is creating "learning communities" in the classroom; not a mirror of the "jungle out there.")
I would like to contact you more directly than through blogs which can be more cumbersome than e-mail. So since I am very impressed with the quality of thinking you show, my e-mail address is
Hope you contact me.


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