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 (forbes.com) 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 (ascd.org) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 email@example.com . 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.