27 Jan 2010: my big bad textbook
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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.

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14 Thoughts on "Education Regulation — New Challenges and New Opportunities"

Seems a perfect opportunity for the growing ranks of companies offering customized textbooks. The idea is that a publisher develops a wealth of content in a subject area then works with each teacher or school, district or state to put together a customized text that’s tailored to their needs.

Interesting, David C. Do you have an example of such a company? I know very little about this market, except that it is vast. I only got into it because I developed a search algorithm that estimates the grade level of content. The prototype is running on http://www.scienceeducation.gov. To build the algorithm, I had a team of teachers use state standards to catalog all the concepts taught in K-12, several thousand in all, then we estimated the average grade at which each concept is taught. We could only do this because of the new regulatory nature of the K-12 education system. In most states what is taught when is really no longer up to the teacher, or even the district. It is state law.

Thanks David C., but these services are nothing like what I am talking about. There is no hint on either site of what I am trying to point out, which is the new, highly constrained reality of K-12 science education, and the publishing opportunities it provides. There is nothing about teaching to the tests, not that I can see.

By the way, there is jargon in the field that addresses this issue. It is called “alignment” with the standards. Generally speaking it is mistaken. That is, publishers claim their material is aligned with the standards but at the concept level it is not.

I think these are aimed at higher levels in education (college and graduate courses) but the concept would likely apply. If one could provide a series of modules and let each state (or county, school, etc) tailor the textbook specifically for their test, that would seem to fit the bill.

As for how well teaching to standardized tests works, I’ll simply refer to this recent NY Times article about how college students bail out of studying science because it’s “too hard”:

David C: You are quite right about a modular approach being needed. I think that the concepts do tend to cluster, which clusters would be the natural module units, but that is a research question.

However, I would go one step further, which is where supplemental materials play a big role. My research suggests that different people are confused in different ways, so alternative texts are needed. (I have a diagnostic system of 126 kinds of confusion.) Students should be able to find the explanations that work best for them. This is where the scholarly societies might come in. Each “owns” certain scientific concepts, as it were, so they could provide these alternative explanations. But as I have said, these explanations need to meet the criteria established by the standards and the pressure.

David C: The NYT article is typical of a genre that I disagree strongly with. Science education does not need to be “reformed,” any more than science communication needs to be reformed, nor science itself for that matter. In fact this reformist language is insulting to many teachers. I have tracked through the reformist rhetoric and there are some highly questionable arguments behind it, but I am not sure this is an appropriate topic for us Chefs. If it is I can do a post on it.

David W:
Yes, I agree that the NY Times article missed the mark. The message was supposed to be that we are teaching science “wrong” and need to change our ways, but instead it delivered a story of petulant students who didn’t want to work hard, or who had been poorly prepared to move into advanced studies (hence my comment about the efficacy of teaching to standardized tests). The other more subtle message was that those who did continue in science often take jobs in the financial sector as the rewards offered are much greater. Rather than reforming our educational system, we need instead to look at the compensation offered to scientists for their hard work. If we want to build a new generation of researchers, we need to offer them an incentive that outweighs the incentives offered for scamming faulty mortgages and hacking the stock market.

But as you note, that’s likely a rant for a different day in a different place….

Living in Texas now, I’m acutely aware of the power wielded by the State Board of Education, which has been dominated in recent years by social conservatives who are rewriting curriculum standards to reflect their biased viewpoints, ignoring what teachers and educational experts have been saying. because Texas uses a centralized process for the entire state, the SBOE has a powerful influence on what textbook publishers offer. Fortunately, in the most recent election, the SBOE’s social conservative members have lost their majority and we can hope for some sanity to be restored to the process. Meanwhile, though the state budget has cut back so much money for K-12 education that the schools cannot afford to purchase new textbooks anyway.

The Texas standards are among the ones my team used to build our search algorithm. But there is almost no social content in any case, just specifying in which grade which specific scientific concepts will be taught. We are talking about the thousand or so standard scientific concepts, like battery, conductor, star, supernova, etc. Some are politically charged, but only a few. Evolution, renewable energy, sex, etc.

The interesting thing is that the sequences of concepts within a field generally follow the sequences of discovery, because that is how science works. New ideas are often specialized versions of old ideas. The complexity arises because how one jumps from field to field is relatively arbitrary. This is called spiraling. We teach a little physics, then a little chem, then a little bio, then some space, then earth stuff, then we go around again, and again, and again, adding new concepts every cycle, and so on for 12 years. Spiraling is the fundamental problem. The topology is very complex, so kids get lost.

The SBOE tried to get equal time for creationism, or at least compelling teachers to make clear to students that evolution is “only” a theory. Its detailed standards for teaching history were fare more extensive and intrusive, such as portraying Senator Joseph McCarthy in a more favorable light, paying more attention to conservative social movements, etc.

I understand that there are some political issues with the standards, but that is really not relevant to the point I am trying to make, which is that there are new publishing opportunities.

Except that the opportunities are severely constrained by the insistence of bodies like the SBOE that will rule out adoption of texts that do not conform to the mandated and politically influenced standards and by the state’s budget crises that will prevent them from spending any more money on adopting new texts, modular or otherwise.

Sandy, I really don’t see that the political context has much to do with the market I am describing. Textbook decisions have always been made by political entities, usually local school boards, now sometimes entire states. If anything the politics is more visible. The fact remains that there is a significant need for properly designed instructional material. What is new is the pressure to pass the tests, not the politics. The pressure is the opportunity.

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