On a typical evening from 1993 to 1994, I took the elevator to the VIP lounge atop the Sacramento Hyatt for happy hour with fellow members of the California State Board of Education, with whom I was serving a one-year term as the student member. As was customary, several lobbyists and friends joined us for appetizers and drinks. Among the most represented lobbyists were those from the textbook industry—Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, and others. These lobbyists were always at our side; I still remember their faces.
Why their attentiveness? The curriculum companies’ very survival depended on our eleven precious votes. Only we could ensure that their textbooks made it onto the official list of “Adopted Instructional Material” for the state. Without us, they had no access to the lucrative California public school market.
Today the landscape for these publishers is shifting dramatically. The 2009 Keeping Pace report highlights the growth of online learning opportunities for students, in place of traditional classrooms and textbooks. State virtual schools now exist in 27 states, and six other states are undertaking online learning initiatives.
Has the future arrived? Only partially. While the paper textbooks of yesterday are now increasingly moving online, the pedagogy of today still mostly resembles the pedagogy of the past. Most often, computer-based courses still present material in a monolithic way, with little customization to respond to students as individual learners. Sure, thousands of kids now have access to foreign language and A.P. courses, where before they had to do without. But is access enough?
The problem increasingly becomes one of quality. The days of eleven appointees selecting one universal canon of texts and one learning approach for millions of students are gone. Computer software makes the creation and dissemination of user-developed, highly customized modules of content possible. Rather than spend their time adopting monolithic content, state leaders should turn their attention exclusively to defining desired outcomes. Local teachers, parents and entrepreneurs will then rise up to create customized modules—and tools to share these modules—that help students achieve the defined outcomes, one approach at a time.
As a bonus, states will enjoy the cost savings from eliminating the textbook adoption process from state board of education duties. Those VIP lounge parties might not be as fun, but children will win.