In the last 15 years or so, K-12 science education has become a regulatory regime. This transition has deep significance for the scholarly publishing world, but it seems not to be widely recognized.
Not long ago, and for 100 years before that, K-12 science education was based on textbooks, plus what teachers thought was interesting — but that is no longer so. In the last 15 years, most states have promulgated detailed regulations dictating what will be taught when. These regulations are often called “standards,” and they are enforced by extensive testing. How content is taught is still up to the teacher, but what content is taught is not.
For example, Virginia’s K-12 science standards specify the following as a small part of the Middle School science curriculum:
The student will investigate and understand that all living things are composed of cells. Key concepts include
a) cell structure and organelles (cell membrane, cell wall, cytoplasm, vacuole, mitochondrion, endoplasmic reticulum, nucleus, and chloroplast);
b) similarities and differences between plant and animal cells;
c) development of cell theory; and
d) cell division (mitosis and meiosis).
Note the level of detail. This is just a small fragment of what is to be taught, roughly one concept per hour, which is why I call science education a “marathon of sprints.” This is what the state mandated tests will be on so this is what the teachers teach. The term “teaching to the tests” is often used as a form of derision, but it is the regulatory reality. Science education is now a regulatory regime in K-12. The question is what is the impact on scholarly publishing?
Ironically, this profound transition seems not to have been publicly recognized, but it is hell on publishers. It is also a new opportunity, as deep change often is. The hell is that no two states specify that the same content be taught in the same years. So it’s virtually impossible to write a textbook that fits a lot of states, much less the whole market. As a result, the textbook market has been fragmented by the rise of standards.
On the other hand there is a great demand for alternative and supplemental materials. The pressure on teachers to get their students to pass the tests is intense, so they are looking for better ways to teach each specific concept. This is also true for students, and those parents who care. Creating or providing this material is potentially a large market, if one can figure out how to make money doing it.
There is also an interesting potential for publicity and promotional type materials, geared to the specific grades where the relevant concepts are taught. Some scholarly societies produce such materials while many do not or at least not yet. The point is that the demand is there, if the materials support the standards. I myself am interested in the idea of grade level-specific educational press releases.
However it’s done, the key element is to design for the standards. This primarily means keeping it short and not using any advanced concepts. Advanced concepts — meaning concepts that will not be taught until later years — are very disruptive of the teaching process. Materials intended for classroom use must recognize the marathon of sprints, which means there is very limited time for teaching each concept.
Many of the supplementary materials that are presently out there fail to meet these two requirements, so they are seldom used. Thus, there is a major opportunity for publishing material that suits the standards.