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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

14 reasons schools are troubled (and no, it’s not all about teachers)

By Ron Willett

It is both bizarre and egregious to see a big lie used in the movement to allegedly reform America’s public K-12 schools: That is, America’s teachers are the fulcrum and sole arbiters of whether U.S. public K-12 education is working.

Some underprepared and underperforming teachers are undoubtedly in the roster of causal factors for schools’ learning deficits. Juxtaposed against approximately 3.5 million U.S. human resources practicing the profession just in K-12, and the propositions by J. C. F. Gauss, it is amazing that the franchise is as excellent as it has been.

After a decade of studying U.S. K-12 education, in some cases up close and personal, I think it is likely that a larger fraction of underprepared, besieged, or dogmatic K-12 principals and superintendents are accountable. The two former conditions trace to marginal preparation for the organizational and management tasks faced, a product of sub-par managerial training, and an organizational culture that is more complex than most private sector firms in asset size or head counts.

The latter condition is more problematic, a function of Lord Acton’s most famous lament (“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), and the discontinuity between qualities required by a de facto educational CEO versus how they are recruited and hired. Few local school boards have the experience to hire a superintendent, who may hold an EdD or PhD, and needs the vetting aligned with the management challenge of a complex system.

Aggravating the challenge, in the writer’s home state the only requirement to become a superintendent, given prior district or system service, is a one-page application and check payable to its Department of Education, along with a job offer as a superintendent. The department lacks even the manpower to verify degrees claimed.

This is just a beginning to understanding why our teachers should not be burned at the stake. There are 12 other entities that play a major role in whether a district, or school, or even a classroom can meet our learning goals:
  • Inept local school boards; this is not just an off-hand pejorative, but the result of decades of refusal of states to attempt serious reform of how boards are chosen and held accountable. There is also this puzzling conundrum: How does a group of intelligent, generally public-spirited, and frequently professional citizens taken individually, turn into a paranoid, secretive, and self-righteous organization, that either micromanages, plugs minutiae, or hides and is intimidated by school administration?
  • Politicized state boards and departments of education as a byproduct of the mashup of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and ideology, leaving even educationally aware departments caught between the U.S. Department of Education, state legislatures, and limited dollar resources and information to assert better strategies.
  • A corporate testing and textbook oligopoly, producing testing that bypasses genuine learning; now suspected of even rigging some testing to assure failures, to sustain the demand for tests and scoring.
  • A small army of opportunistic charter school and voucher entrepreneurs.
  • The U.S. Department of Education, that as late as a couple of years ago was actually focusing on legitimate classroom research on what actually works.
  • A pedantic or “tracked” Arne Duncan, and misinformed President Obama, who in a liberal surge to erase educational inequity have paradoxically adopted the conservative and corporate reform mantra and rendition of accountability, smashing head-on into the "law of unintended consequences."
  • The political right wing’s sworn enemies of the U.S. system of public education, who would prefer to see it replaced by a market-driven system, plus eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Na├»ve advocacy by Gates and Kopp, et al., including even the now highly praised Kahn Academy and its bite-sized learning menu abstracted from MIT’s free STEM and other curricula, that still manage to bypass genuine knowledge creation as defined by students of learning.
  • A sluggish and partisan U.S. Congress, that could have made No Child Left Behind into something rational.
  • The K-12 public education establishment itself, and its unions, that delayed far too long to start internally reforming their strategies and rubrics to respond to both market needs, organizational innovation, and the neural science of learning firming up in the last decade.
  • Most of our collegiate schools of education that have taken a knee or run for cover rather than stand up and execute needed self-reform.
  • Growing American economic and cultural poverty surrounding too many of its children, and that even when it was earlier improving, was still an acknowledged tactical impediment to learning for many children at the classroom level.
The observant reader may note that the above list is one short. Here it is, though it is not politically correct to say: “America’s K-12 parents.”

So, metaphorically, kill the bad teachers and learning will automatically improve? More likely, do that and in ten years the United States will have to have most K-12 education online, or home-schooled, or see a doubling of class sizes.

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp can work like a demon to extract more grant and foundation dollars, and the United States will still have a teacher crisis because every TFA teacher will likely need to have their hand held by a master teacher for at least several years to become effective in a classroom, or the cultural impact of demonizing some teachers will halo to all teachers — already happening — throttling motivation to even approach the profession. Another unthinking victim of the aforementioned “law.”

The arguments to date about the flaws in present standardized testing are damaging enough to be grounds for getting back to sanity. But even these arguments pale compared to the misdirection of reform created by simply ignoring that K-12 education is not a one-cause system, and that it will take a balanced portfolio to change U.S. K-12 learning performance.

[Note from Laurie RogersIn a later blog, Ron Willett offers solutions to the problems he articulated above, along with commentary about the curriculum and the Common Core Standards. I did ask
Dr. Willett about his comments about the political right ("enemies") and political left ("misinformed"), and he modified the article slightly but left in the language. Nevertheless, there is a lot here to like.]

The above article was published with permission from author Ronald Willett. Willett is a self-described “fish-with-feathers,” from a quarter century as B-school professor, researcher, and administrator, transitioning to the private sector as an entrepreneur and CEO. His avocation for over a decade has been researching U.S. K-12, and advocacy of K-12 reform and learning innovation. His web site is Reanimating Public Education: Challenges & Futures, and he may be reached for comment or critique at The post originally appeared in the 3/17/2012 Washington Post education section, in the feature “The Answer Sheet.”

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In long-expected move - legislators, school districts outlaw the children

By Laurie H. Rogers

(Note: This article is a satire that contains much truth.)

Perched up there the tears of others are never upon our own cheek.”
― Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch
“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Republicans, Democrats, progressives, communists, anarchists, elitists, corporatists and fascists are finally working together – in a multi-partisan effort to look the same. Having outlawed logic several sessions ago, Washington legislators are fixing education by breaking it some more.
  • HB 2799 would pay the deep thinkers in the colleges of education to “partner” with K-12 on “innovation,” thus sending all of us farther into financial, academic and social ruin.
  • HB 2337 would pay the geniuses at the state education agency to write online curricula in alignment with the unfunded, unproved, arguably illegal, obscenely expensive de facto federal mandate called the Common Core. Legislators who had promised to help fight off the Common Core defended their support of HB 2337 by saying, “Shut up. Don’t be so negative.”
  • HB 2586 would pay for mandated standardized testing of kindergartners, getting them started early with government brow-beating and low self-esteem. Legislators explained the idea: “Why should kindergartners feel good about themselves? Nobody else gets to do it.”
  • HB 2533 was affectionately dubbed “Fund the Education Mob First.” Legislators defended their support of this bill by refusing to discuss it.
School districts already suffering from a phenomenal growth in their operating and capital projects budgets over ten years have been forced to consider doing things properly and efficiently. Desperate, they begged for help, and lawmakers came to their aid by voting to eliminate everything from school buildings other than administrative staff. As a matter of efficiency, the measures became law before they were written.

As a result of these measures, school district buildings in Washington State soon will have nothing in them but administrators, support staff and “Vote Yes for Kids!” signs. Forums were held around the state to pretend to gather feedback. In Spokane, administrators shrugged and said, “So what? We’ve already begun to do that. We’ve been trying to get rid of the little buggers for decades.”

At a town hall meeting, a representative seemed puzzled when asked if banning the children would be academically counterproductive. “Academics? In public schools? That’s funny,” he chuckled, sipping a latte. “Oh, you’re serious. Well, we can’t fund everything. Everyone has to sacrifice.”

Union leaders attending the town hall meeting defended the decision, in a show of strength and supreme self-interest. “Why should we fight for children?” a union president sniffed. “Do children ever fight for us? No, they do not. Go ask them why they’re so focused on themselves. Irritating little snots.” Asked about academics, she looked blanker than normal. “Academics?” she asked. “What? Where?”

A few reporters at the meeting roused themselves from a decade-long stupor to ask a board director about the decision. The board director looked in vain for his District Talking Points. “Well, yes, it’s unusual, to be sure,” he said, carefully, unused to thinking for himself. He looked around for help, but administrators were off collecting favors. He began to sweat. “It’s precedent-setting. Unprecedented. Innovative, you know. Transformative. Part of the reform.” His voice trailed off.

“We had to do it,” he said suddenly. “We gave the keys to the U.S. Department of Education, and the secretary said he’d get us a spare set. We haven’t gotten them back yet. Maybe the mail is late… I don’t know.” He stopped, horrified. “This is not good for me,” he said, rushing off.

“Sanity has become vanity,” chuckled a math teacher, watching the board director escape. The teacher thought fondly of his third margarita of the day, now two margaritas ago. “I lost my man-ity when we lost our sanity,” he sang softly. He glared at the room, then hiccupped. “No one will let me save the children, you know,” he confided, his breath an alcoholic mist. “But I am allowed to save the manatees.”

Asked about the children, another board director snapped, “Who cares?” Then he remembered his Talking Points. “No, wait,” he said sincerely. “That’s not right. It’s all about the kids.”

“Hey, look, you, you’re missing the point,” a tech vendor fretted, looking over a parent’s shoulder. “What are you writing? Stop that. It isn’t about us. You seem obsessed, and you’re very negative. You aren’t all that likable, either, I don’t know if anyone has said that to you. No offense. But you don’t understand what we’re going through. We aren’t bad people. We just want to do what’s best for us. For the kids, I mean. Damn it, I keep mixing that up. It’s really all about the kids.”

The vendor was tapped on the shoulder, and he turned around. “Oh, thank you,” he said politely, stuffing a hundred-dollar bill down his pants. “I got my kids through private school this way,” he confided.

Meanwhile, local citizens were startled to find out that their children had been outlawed. “What the heck?” asked a perplexed parent. “Aren’t schools supposed to have children in them?”

“Not necessarily,” replied a superintendent. “We wish we could accommodate that. We know that’s what parents expect, and we suppose most of the teachers care about the kids. We’ve done our best, but with the economy so weak, with parents and teachers being incompetent, and with nobody but a few malcontents insisting that we actually teach the children, well, we’ve run out of options. This was a last resort. It isn’t something any of us want.”

The superintendent said if people want their children back in schools, they could always come up with more money. “Another billion might do it,” she mused, staring out the window at her new Mercedes, parked outside the door in two spaces so no one could dent a door. “It depends on many things.”

Meanwhile, an associate superintendent told the parent that perhaps some of the children could be allowed back in, on an interim basis, to carry the district’s “Vote For Our Levy, Damn You” signs, or to spray-paint “If You Aren’t a Kid-Hater, Vote for the Levy” on the side of houses. “The children also could open doors for us,” he offered helpfully, “wash the Mercedes, and serve tea.”

“I guess it was to be expected,” the parent said sheepishly as she left to buy paint and tea. “Phonics went away, then arithmetic. Then grammar. Then cursive writing. The kids were bound to be next.”

Amid speculation as to how these bills and decisions would affect children academically, one local know-it-all said it might actually be better for them to be taught at home. “They aren’t being properly taught in the schools, and the district’s failed approach seems abusive. Maybe parents and grandparents will teach them,” she said hopefully, to loud guffaws from the Education Mob.

“Don’t listen to her,” a legislator told the Mob. “She’s an idiot, and she didn’t donate to my campaign. The kids are fine. Well, ours are fine. OK, well, mine are fine. And that’s what matters.” The Mob and media nodded as one, knowing he wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

The math teacher, now fondly recalling his 6th margarita, was accidentally asked where education money goes. He said blearily, “We have no freaking idea. Everyone in the city is out for themselves. Nobody cares about the kids or the parents. Teachers are subbed out constantly to learn stupid things and to manage fund-raisers. The paper complains about excessive power, full disclosure and budget cuts, but they have the power, there are no budget cuts, and nobody but parents wants full disclosure."

The room quieted. The Mob/media blinked, wondering what to do. Someone began preparing a rope. An instructional coach jumped up, smiling thinly. “You’re drunk. Be quiet. You’re fired,” he said to the teacher. He turned back to the room and assumed a caring expression. “Budgets have been devastated,” he said. The Mob/media nodded. “Superintendents are crying, in their offices,” he said. The Mob/media tsk-tsked. “Poor things,” they murmured.

“It’s a budget tsunami out there,” the coach added, shedding a tear. “A budget lynching. It’s a civil rights issue.” The media listened investigatively. “I don’t have exact numbers with me, but listen. How will districts buy pencils, now, for the children? We do not want the children to not have pencils. And they’ll starve. Do we want the children to starve? No, we do not!” The Mob/media nodded obediently.

“Wrong!” the math teacher shouted, from his drunken purgatory. “Parents send in pencils, every September. They have to. They get a list. They also have to buy paper. And glue. And pens. And tissues. They bring in big bags of stuff. Nobody adds that to the costs of public schools, but it must be …”

“Damn it,” the coach snapped at the teacher. “You were fired. Why are you still here?” Turning to the room, the coach smiled earnestly. “It’s very simple. If we have the children, we can’t afford more coaches and principals, and we need the coaches and principals because parents and teachers are crappy. Everybody knows that. It’s a tough economy, and tough decisions have to be made.”

Behind him, the representative nodded sensitively. “I’m a businessman, and I know all about it. He’s right. They’re doing their best. It’s no one’s fault, although I do think it’s the kids’ fault.”

The Mob/media nodded, relieved to be hearing from a businessman.

“I get it,” a reporter said collaboratively. “Adults need other adults, and they all need car allowances, and the cars need gas, and gas is more expensive. No money left for pencils. Wow. Poor kids.”

“Poor kids,” the other media echoed, taking careful notes regarding each other.

“Are you all idiots?” the drunken voice asked, from his purgatory. “Parents have to do most of the academics. Long division, grammar, handwriting, phonics … They can’t get any of that in public schools. The problem is not money – it’s them,” he said, waving a middle finger at the bureaucracy. “What’s the country coming to when schools don’t have children?”

The drunken math teacher was led away and shot. Hearing the sound, the reporters moved uneasily in their seat, wondering how to respond. Taxpayer-funded doughnuts were quickly furnished for them –sugar-coated cakes with sprinkles. Everyone took two, daintily brushing sugar and sprinkles onto the taxpayer-funded carpet. Someone sighed happily; the rest hastened to follow suit.

A superintendent grinned, showing canines. “It’s such hard work to keep everyone happy,” she said. “Hard, hard work. It’s another challenge we face, on top of so many. But we care about you, and we’ll help you … in whichever way you want.” The reporters nodded, mouths full and faces sticky.

A school director stood up. He was smiling. Sober. Happy to be there. Not intending to be shot. “We can’t depend on the whims of voters,” he said confidently to the media, who so appreciate confidence. “Nothing is more important than the kiddoes. We care about them just that much.” He smiled at the reporters, and they smiled back. All were in alignment with themselves.

In an inspired use of his brand new Ed.D, the school director suggested taxing the second-to-top 1% of the population, the bottom 17%, the near-bottom 43%, and the upper middle 38% to pay for basic education, work for social justice, fight for revolution and take care of inequities. A parent raised a hand to ask about that last 1%, at the very top.

“What?” the Ed.D turned on him, eyes narrowed. “You want to ask a question? You aren’t anti-school or something, are you? Anti-kid? Anti-teacher? You aren’t a hater, I hope.”

The parent whimpered and lowered his hand.

“It’s about the kiddoes,” a superintendent cooed administratively. “Those little kids. Little tykes. So cute. They need us. They have so many challenges. We must all take responsibility. It isn’t like we enjoy making these tough decisions. It keeps us up at night. We suffer and sacrifice and feel awful about it. But we have no choice. We’ve cut to the bone. Go out now and tell the people. Then come back and we’ll give you a pat and a doughnut. Just remember. It’s all for the kids.”

The media nodded, wanting to be forceful but fed. “All for the kids,” they repeated.


In 2014, children were allowed back into the schools. Parents who refused to put their kids in public schools faced a firing squad. (Most chose the public schools.) Grade 12 students were faced with daunting choices: Paint graffiti and serve tea; emigrate and start all over again; or apply to a college of education. (In a happy coincidence, legislators innovatively passed a Bill that tasked Colleges of Education with creating new Schools of Graffiti and Tea.)

During the first 2014 session, the legislature made truth illegal. The measure passed, nearly unanimously, or so they said. One lone representative dissented, scaring everyone. He was shot. The governor climbed over his body to sign the bill, her heels leaving small, dark holes in his forehead.

Hearing that the Truth Bill had passed, a superintendent said, “We aren’t changing anything. We’re just formalizing what we’re already doing. You won’t see any difference at all. It won’t cost you anything, and you won’t even know.”

The media nodded. “No difference,” they murmured. “No one will know.”

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (March 2012). “In long-expected move - legislators, school districts outlaw the children." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was reposted March 8, 2012, on Education News at:

This article was reposted March 8, 2012, on Education Views at:

A link for this article was posted March 9, 2012, on School Information System at:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Afraid of your child's math textbook? You should be

By Annie Keeghan

There may be a reason you can’t figure out some of those math problems in your son or daughter’s math text and it might have nothing at all to do with you. That math homework you're trying to help your child muddle through might include problems with no possible solution. It could be that key information or steps are missing, that the problem involves a concept your child hasn’t yet been introduced to, or that the math problem is structurally unsound for a host of other reasons.

I have worked for over 20 years in educational publishing as a product developer, writer, and editor of curriculum materials for grades K-8. I’ve worked directly for textbook publishers and supplemental publishers (supplemental being those books that are adjuncts to the text), start-ups and large publishing houses. I’ve attended countless sales meetings, product meetings, and planning sessions, seen and taken part in the inner workings of a successful textbook from inception to completion. Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with publishers dedicated to producing the best materials possible. Because of them, I was able to produce several successful reading, math, and assessment programs and make a darn good living doing it.

Best of all, I was able to feel proud of those books to which my name was attached. But there are no longer many projects that allow such a feeling to take hold. Why? Because the “new normal” among too many publishers is a severe lack of oversight in the quality of curriculum being produced, and a frightening prevalence of apathy to do anything about it.

The root of problem begins with this key fact: There are only a small number of educational publishers left after rabid buyouts and mergers in the 90s, publishers that all vie for a piece of a four-billion dollar ( pie. In recent years, math has become the subject du jour due to government initiatives and efforts to raise the rankings of U.S. students who lag behind in math compared to 30 other industrialized nations. With state and local budgets constrained to unprecedented levels, publishers must compete for fewer available dollars. As a result, many are rushing their products (especially in math) to market to before their competitors, product that in many instances is inherently, tragically flawed.

At one time, a writer in this industry could write a book and receive roughly 6% royalties on sales. The salesperson who sold the product, however, earned (and still does) a commission upwards of 17% on the same product. This sort of pay structure never made sense to me; without the product, there’d be nothing to sell, after all. But this disparity serves to illustrate the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide for decades—that sales and marketing is more valuable than product.

Now, the balance between the budgets for marketing and product development is growing farther and farther apart, and exponentially so. Today, royalties are a thing of the past for most writers and work-for-hire is the norm. Sales staffs still receive their high commissions, but with today’s outsourcing, writers and editors are consistently offered less than 20% of what they used to make. As a result, the number of qualified writers and editors is diminishing, and those being contracted by developers and publishers often don’t have the necessary skills or experience to produce a text worthy of the publisher’s marketing claims.

Here’s how it works: Many publishers solicit developers, often on the Internet and from all over the world, looking for the best bid on a project. With competition this fierce, developers are forced to drastically lower their rates just to stay in business (and publishers exploit this fact). Let’s say a publisher hires a developer for a certain low-bid fee to produce seven supplemental math books for grades 3-8. The product specs call for each student book and teacher guide to have page counts of roughly 100 pages and 80 pages, respectively. The publisher wants these seven books ready for press in five weeks—over 1,400 pages. To put this in perspective, in the not too recent past at least six months would be allotted for a project of this size. But publishers customarily shrink their deadlines to get a jump on the competition, especially in today’s math market. Unreasonable turnaround times are part of the new normal, something that almost guarantees a lack of quality right out of the gate.

Of course, the developer could say no to this ridiculous timeline, but there are plenty of others who will say yes. So, the developer accepts the work and scrambles to put together a team of writers and editors who must have immediate availability, sheepishly offering them a take-it-or-leave-it rate, a mere pittance of what they could once demand. As is the case for the developer, for each writer or editor who declines, there are scores in the wings who will say yes just to survive. Those who do accept the inferior pay and grueling schedule often do so without the ability to review the product specs to know what they’re getting into. That’s because the specs are still being hashed out by the publisher and developer even as the project begins. And when product specs are “complete”, they are often vague, contradictory, and in need of extensive reworking since they were hastily put together by people juggling far too many projects already.

Given the five-week turnaround time, one book is often broken up among several different writers, a practice which assures a lack of consistency and structure throughout a single book. But I’m being picky. Midway through the writing, the developer realizes that even more writers are needed in order to meet the deadline. Sometimes, in the rush to complete the project, there is no time to discuss resumes and qualifications; there’s a schedule to keep and the developer’s bottom line is starting to dwindle. What often happens is that writers overstate their abilities and haven’t the first clue about state educational standards, Common Core State Standards, or those put out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a knowledge of which is essential to produce a worthy math book or text, a knowledge of which should be demanded by developers and publishers alike.

Educational publishing is a small world, and the pool of qualified writers and editors has always been comparatively small to that of mass market or trade publishing. Now with fewer of us willing to accept these conditions, that pool is drying up. Over the last few years I’ve stopped developing and writing educational books; there’s no longer any satisfaction in the work, no demand or appreciation for a product well crafted, no way to make a decent living or produce something that I feel proud to have my name attached to. The day I heard myself ask a publisher not to include my name or that of my company's in the credits of the book I’d consulted on (the final product was nothing like what was originally conceived), came the sad realization that my career as I'd known it was dying. I'd heard whisperings for years from other writers and editors working for other publishers about this “new normal,” but I didn’t understand until I saw with my own eyes what they’d been telling me. I finally understood all their frustration and angst, the conflicted feelings of weighing the need of a paycheck against principle, the feeling of trying to improve a product even if it meant bucking heads with those in charge, people who weren't going to appreciate the effort or compensate appropriately anyway.

So, like many of my fellow colleagues, I’ve taken a step back, chosen not to be a party to something so fundamentally backward. The only work I accept is copyediting, and only when the money is decent (which isn’t often) and when the developer is at least committed to producing curriculum of quality (which also isn’t often). Most of the work I’ve been offered in the past few years is in math, the subject du jour I spoke of. Copyediting, the work I generally do now, is the final stage of editing before the product goes to press, where only a check for grammar, punctuation and things of this nature should be required. Content editing is a whole other expertise, one that is done after the writing where the content editor reviews the writer’s work for accuracy, sense, and structure, and makes sure the material adheres to the product specs. When I’m hired to copyedit, the profound errors I see in content are often staggering enough that grammar and punctuation seem immaterial. Sometimes the content in the student materials is so poor—steps omitted, unclear directions, concepts introduced when they’re not developed till later in the text, distorted interpretations of math terms and applications —that it boggles the mind it got past a content editor. With so many errors rampant at this stage of editing, rewriting is hastily done and it’s only inevitable that some errors will show up in the final printed product. And with a different copyeditor on each book, there are those who don’t even think about, or have the experience to recognize, the content issues so they go unaddressed. For a rate of four dollars a page, most copyeditors will do only what they were hired to do—look for errors and in grammar and punctuation and move on. There's a mortgage due after all.

When I point out critical errors in content to a developer’s project manager, there’s generally a pause at the other end of the phone. I’m ruining their day, handing them a problem they don’t want, can’t possibly address given their resources and time. Some do their best; they’ll ask me to make corrections and bump up my rate a bit. Some will ask me to make notes so that they can fix the errors and do the rewrites themselves on their own time. Others will simply sigh, “The publisher knows it’s bad. Just do the best you can.” The publisher knows it’s bad. And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s because the sales and marketing team is already at work developing videos, brochures, webinars, catalog copy, and whatever else their bloated budgets will allow in order to sell what doesn’t actually exist—a quality product.

And speaking of the printed product, there’s one more step before we get there—production. These are the people who typeset the books and get them ready for press. India is a favored venue for some publishers because workers are available on three shifts and work fast, but mostly because the price is far cheaper than in the U.S. As editors, we often have to compensate for language barriers by color coding our instructions to the production staff or using simple language that is still frequently misunderstood, resulting in further unintended errors that often make it into the final product because there’s no time left in the schedule, no money left to pay someone, to do a final and thorough review in the manner it should be, and used to be, done.

You may be wondering by now where students fit into the grand plan of these practices. Let’s write and solve and equation to find out: Poorly-executed product (x) + a greater concentration of money spent on marketing to maximize profits (y) = nowhere, that’s where.

One must conclude that students and their education, if this is judged against product quality, is becoming an increasingly low priority. Not only don’t some publishers care, some have no problem expressing their lack of concern. Example: I received an email from a senior math executive of a well-established publisher responding to a concern I raised about the lack of correlations in a particular math series to the Common Core State Standards, correlations that were part of the product specs. The reason they were part of the product specs is because Common Core State Standards have been officially adopted by 43 states ( and publishers are racing to make sure their products address them. This is how the senior executive answered my query: “It doesn’t matter if there aren’t enough correlations; our marketing materials say only that we ‘expose’ students to Common Core.”

Not only did this top-level “professional” have no problem stating this, she had no problem committing it to writing. Buyer beware: Read that marketing copy very carefully.

One math series out there is from a well-known textbook publisher incorporating the success of a particular math approach in another country (that’s a hint) into their textbooks. A while back, a group of us was hired to edit and adapt the product for the English-speaking market since it was written overseas. Not much time passed before it was clear that what the product required was not editing but extensive rewriting. One math exercise in a chapter I was assigned called for students to use a math formula to calculate their level of attractiveness, using a mathematical ratio of 1:1.618 (otherwise known as phi or divine proportion), a formula scientists have devised to set standards of beauty. Math can be tough enough for some kids without having to learn that, on top of struggling to apply math formulas to their face, they are also inherently unattractive. Talk about installing math phobia! No publisher in their right mind would allow such a problem to slip into their math books, but what does it say about the hiring practices of publishers and their developers when a writer who believes that such an exercise is appropriate gets a contract? The project was scrapped, but only temporarily. The publisher felt the writers just needed more time to clean up their work. Yeah, that’s all they needed. Meanwhile, the marketing for the product was already developed, prominent on the web and in mass media. And customers likely believed it because of the publisher’s reputation.

A more recent math project I was hired to edit was not only full of content errors, the books were so peculiar in the execution of math concepts and instruction that I hadn’t seen anything like it in all my 20+ years of experience. I asked the project manager if she’d ever seen math approached in this manner. She gave a resigned groan and said no, but this was what the publisher wanted. The books in question were a series of supplemental products designed for struggling students, which is sadly ironic because students of all abilities will indeed struggle to complete the lessons in these books. How could this happen, you might ask? Well, the books were published by a company that was reorganized a few years ago in order to boost profits. That’s when the bulk of the product development staff was let go and the budget for their department slashed. Meanwhile, the marketing and sales departments swelled, as did their budgets. And though many of those in charge now have lofty MBAs, few have little, if any, experience in publishing of any kind, never taught in a classroom, and haven’t the first clue of how to build a coherent educational book from start to finish. The lust for the bottom line—that is how this happens.

At the end of this project, the same project manager mused to me aloud, “I want to know who buys this crap.” Crap. That was the word she used after all her exhausting efforts trying to make a silk purse out of this pig’s ear. My reply to her was, “I want to know who buys it twice.” Because that’s the only way educational publishers make money, on repeat sales. Those books are out there now in print, on the shelves in the publisher’s warehouse, being packed and shipped to a school near you. So who are you people who choose to buy these books? Identify yourselves. Because you, too, a part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong; they are many responsible educational publishers out there, publishers who are careful to hire teachers or those with a background in education and publishing to produce their materials. But they are becoming the minority. Teachers, curriculum specialists, parents, home schoolers, and anyone interested in the education of this generation of children need to beware. There are those who are capitalizing on established reputations to produce low-budget, low-quality materials with a high-concentration on disingenuous marketing all in the name of priority one—profit. Meanwhile, the people qualified to develop and write sound educational products are leaving the industry in droves to pursue more profitable careers at Wendy’s and Wal-Mart.

And so, I say to parents: Take a good look at the materials your children are bringing home. And to educators: Look at what you’re purchasing. Don’t be satisfied with the classic “thumb through” and don’t take those marketing materials or the sales pitch at face value. Take the time to study the materials; match them to your state’s desired standards and preferred benchmarks. If they’re not a good fit, take a pass and develop your own if you must. The only way kids are going to become better educated through the materials you buy, to increase their rankings among those 30 other countries, is to break the cycle and stop buying those books that are—there’s no other way to put it—crap.

Annie Keeghan is an editor, educational consultant, and a "writer with a novel looking for a good home." If you would like to contact her, please write to Laurie Rogers at, and I will forward your message to her. Her article is reprinted here with her permission. It was previously published Feb. 17, 2012 at Open Salon.

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.