The “Creative Destruction” of the American School Publishing Industry

Cross-posted at Education Week.

In case you had not noticed, allow me to inform you of the precipitous decline of the American school publishing industry.

When I was in school, there was a great kaleidoscope of textbook publishers from Scholastic to Addison-Wesley, Silver Burdett to McGraw Hill, all jousting with one another in the same American textbook market.  The texts were big, full of pictures, printed in bright colors and heavy.  But not so heavy that I could not carry around the ones I needed on any given school day.

Then came the Great Consolidation.  When it was done, only a handful of big firms were left, like giant sharks in the ocean, surrounded by schools of minnows skittering out of the way of the big ones.  Towering over them all was Pearson, which by then had become the dominant force not only in text publishing, but in assessment, and virtually all the related fields of educational publishing and services.

The consolidation that had been going on for some time in the industry accelerated just before the Great Recession.  In 2006 and 2007, two of the biggest firms, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace, were bought by a small Irish company with a great deal of borrowed money.  When the crash came, that company could not pay the interest on those loans and had to reorganize.  The publishing companies were still there, but greatly weakened.  McGraw Hill was distracted by the possibility that the investors who had been damaged by the strong bond ratings given by its Standard and Poors unit would sue the parent company, thus limiting the funds available to the schools division for investment in new texts.  Pearson, having absorbed a large number of previously independent publishing and service companies (including our own America’s Choice School Design), emerged from the fray as by far the most important player in the field.

But this giant player was playing an old game.  The companies that Pearson had bought were quite different from one another in editorial approach, style and, often in the education values that they brought to the work.  At first, Pearson let them preserve these identities when they came under the tent.  But, in time, Pearson consolidated the editorial staffs and other key functions, homogenizing the product and the business model. Eventually, even the names of these publishing companies were gone, and everything was sold as a Pearson product or service.

Looked at from my perch, the business model was pretty simple.  The product itself had become a commodity in the eyes of the sales people and senior management.  That’s because it had become a commodity to its customers.  One text in a given subject at a given grade level was pretty much like another.  They were sold like cars on flash (that is, aesthetic appeal, the pictures colors, graphics), features (availability of accompanying digital stuff, workbooks, teachers guides, etc), expensive dinners on the publisher’s dime for school boards members and—the big deal—price and discounts.

The steady addition of flash and features had brought the price of the typical text book to more than $100.  The text itself had gotten so big and heavy that it was no longer possible for students to take all the texts they needed for the day to school with them.  Because all the niche publishers had been put through the food processor and homogenized, they had to appeal to everyone.  There was far too much in them for any teacher to cover.  When the Common Core came out, the investment in these behemoths made was so great and the cost of starting over so large that the publishers just stuck a label on the cover of the old text announcing that it was aligned with the Common Core, thus creating a situation in which most of its product was no longer aligned with what the schools were supposed to be teaching.

Because the sales people viewed the product as a commodity, the thing that mattered most was not the educational quality of the product but its price.  No one expected to pay the list price, so the publishers mainly competed on features and the discounts they offered.  Then the Great Recession drained the market of buying power.  So, the publishers saw themselves as forced to keep adding features like digital, which was quite expensive, without being able to raise prices.

So, Pearson ended up gobbling up its competitors and becoming king of the hill just as the whole business model I described fell apart.  Pearson is a global publisher, but its biggest elementary and secondary textbook market by far is in the United States.  It has made hardly any profit in that market for years.  So, it put that business up for sale.  Insiders think it will end up selling for far less than the company had at first anticipated.  The other very big companies in the domestic school publishing market are likely to follow suit once the Pearson sale is completed.

If you want to see what is rising up from the ashes of the old school publishing industry, Google LearnZillion, Carnegie Learning and Teachers Pay Teachers for a few examples.

LearnZillion is a digital platform, host to a Chinese menu of curricular content, everything from short units to full courses and at least one multi-year course sequence, supplied by Illustrative Mathematics.  The web site for Illustrative Mathematics part of the web site describes the product as a: “shift from workbook time to discussion and problem solving time”;  “differentiated instruction”;  “warm-up activities, cool-down, practice problems, small groups, individual students” ; “the least expensive option for implementing Illustrative Mathematic”;  “integrated digital assessments (grade 6-8), auto-scored formative feedback”;  “practice with tech-enabled problem types”;  “lesson plans”; “student handouts”; “instructional routines”;  “ELL supports”;  “supports for students with disabilities”;  “family friendly concept explanations”; “pacing estimate for each lesson”; “misconceptions”; “instructional routines”; and, finally, “embedded supports”.

They use their digital platform, in other words, to supply everything a teacher could possibly want to support the teaching of a middle school mathematics curriculum.  The cost to the district for this digital delivery is far less than the cost of a comparable product produced in the conventional way. The publisher makes the digital text available to the districts in print form as an option.  Almost all districts end up purchasing that option.  Having thought they were getting a great deal when looking at the digital delivery price, they end up paying what they would have paid to Pearson.  But Pearson cannot compete with this.

Carnegie Learning uses a digital platform to support both a middle school and high school mathematics curriculum, incorporating a wide variety of supports similar to those offered by  LearnZillion described above.  It produced good results in a very rigorous independent evaluation by the RAND Corporation.  Designed to take full advantage of recent developments in cognitive science, artificial intelligence and instructional design, it is intended to create a learning experience in which the students’ interaction with the software enables the software to adjust the instruction in light of what the student is doing, thus individualizing the instruction. Misconceptions are detected and corrected.  The lessons are problem-based, situated in real-world scenarios.  As with LearnZillion, a wide range of resources are provided for the teachers, including professional development that is embedded in the online program along with access to a centrally maintained teacher resource center.  And, again, like LearnZillion, the materials are all digital, delivered over the platform, but can be purchased in print form from the publisher, and usually are.

The third example, Teachers Pay Teachers, is very different from the ones just described, a growing collection of teacher-made materials available to other teachers for purchase at a nominal price.  There is no claim here of overall curricular alignment, quality or coherence.

Just as the makers of horse-drawn carriages did not become manufacturers of automobiles, the old-line textbook publishers have not become the leaders of the new digital version of the industry. What should we make of this reborn industry?

There is much that is attractive here.  Digital technology, combined with the disciplines of artificial intelligence, cognitive science and instructional design make it possible for the instruction to adjust instantly and in a very sophisticated way to what the student is doing, creating the opportunity to individualize instruction in a way that was simply impossible with the traditional textbook.  Dynamic graphics and various forms of responsive testing are major advances, too, as is the capacity to enable the student to access instantly an endless trove of information and analysis via the internet.  Because the new companies do not need to protect the value of their enormous investment in what is clearly outdated infrastructure and are not encumbered by a business model that is undermining their own business, they are free to build companies that are much more efficient than their old-line competitors and use business models that return more profit with greater scale rather than plowing them under as they grow bigger.

So, is that it?  Are we simply seeing the modern driving out the old, and good riddance?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps I am simply old fashioned and need to be ushered out the door along with the old-line publishers.  But I see another model, one I much prefer, and it has been around a long time.

One story from my past will make the point.  Early in the development of our New Standards Project, its director, my friend Phil Daro, walked several of us over to a table.  On one side was a stack of curriculum materials about a foot and a half high.  On the other a textbook no more than half an inch high.  The first was all the stuff that came with a modern middle grades math program from an American publisher.  The other was a Japanese text for the same subject, for the same grade.  The American product was all glitz, the Japanese was plain Jane.  The math in the American material was very difficult to follow, buried in the voluminous exercises and supports.  The main ideas in the Japanese text were crystal clear and logically organized.  The Japanese assumed that the curriculum was to be delivered by professional teachers who would know what to do with the ideas.  The American materials assumed that the teacher needed detailed lesson plans and countless other supports to succeed.  Japanese students were then and are now far ahead of their American counterparts in mathematics.

After World War II, the National Science Foundation made grants enabling some of this country’s leading mathematicians and scientists to develop a new, modernized math and science curriculum, working hand in glove with some of our most capable classroom teachers.  The materials that came from this effort looked much more like the brilliant, engaging, intellectually challenging and elegant hands-on curriculum in the Japanese textbook Phil Daro showed us than the American curriculum materials on other side of the table.

Commercial producers of textbooks in all their forms, ancient and modern, have to recover their costs and make a profit to stay in business. Critics blame the publishers for producing a poor quality curriculum, failing to understand that the publishers are responding to what the market demands, not what the critics would like the market to demand.  The market we have is highly fragmented, looking for discounts, pretty content with low-to-mediocre content quality, impressed by glitz and technological wizardry.  Our teachers are looking for many kinds of support—from lessons plans to built-in pacing guides—the Japanese, Singaporean, Finnish and Estonian teachers aren’t looking for and don’t need.

For the countries with the world’s best education systems, curriculum is a vitally important component of their overall design.  In some of the top-performing countries, the curriculum frameworks and materials are produced by the state.  In others, the framework is drawn up, usually in some detail, by the state, and the materials are produced by commercial publishers to fit the framework.  Either way, the product looks much more like the material that Phil Daro showed us than anything I’ve seen online in this country.  And, either way, the state is structuring the market.

My entire professional experience tells me that high-quality curriculum development is hard, expensive work, requiring the sustained input of expensive teams of leading scholars in their disciplines, gifted school teachers, instructional designers, videographers, programmers and many others.  Such materials, however impressive, will be used by teachers only if they are aligned with the curriculum frameworks that are supposed to guide their teaching and the examinations the students will take along the way.  Even if all that is in place, it will not produce world-class student performance unless it is taught by first-rate teachers who will need support all right, but not the flashy supports American-style materials suppliers offer that assume that teachers cannot do the job unless held by the hand.  The first American state or commercial enterprise that builds a modern publishing house on these principles will be amazed at the demand for their product and the progress students make.