Free market failure: Education in the balance

When free market types start moving their lips on the subject of education, you're sure to hear many wonderful stories about how the entrepreneurial spirit can transform schools, leading us down a miraculous path toward the corporate takeover of teaching and learning in America.

Well, there's one sector of education that has already been taken over by corporations: textbook publication. And in the neverending push to sell more books to more states, publishers have dumbed down their products to satisfy lowest-common denominator states, most notably Texas. It's a sad saga of profit-above-all-else, a perfect example of factory-schooling run amok where the only common good is creating wealth for shareholders.

If America’s textbooks were systematically graded, they would fail abysmally. American textbooks are both grotesquely bloated (so much so that some state legislatures are considering mandating lighter books to save students from back injuries) and light as a feather intellectually, flitting briefly over too many topics without examining any of them in detail. Worse, too many of them are pedagogically dishonest, so thoroughly massaged to mollify competing political and identity-group interests as to paint a startlingly misleading picture of America and its history.

Textbooks have become so bland and watered-down that they are “a scandal and an outrage,” the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank in Washington, charged in a scathing report issued a year and a half ago.

“They are sanitized to avoid offending anyone who might complain at textbook adoption hearings in big states, they are poorly written, they are burdened with irrelevant and unedifying content, and they reach for the lowest common denominator,” Diane Ravitch, a senior official in the Education Department during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, wrote in the report’s introduction.

A closed market
The culprit is the system by which many states choose what books their students will read. Because the market is a small one, textbook publishers must cater to the whims of elected school board leaders in the biggest states that buy the most books: Texas and California, which control a third of the national market, the Association of American Publishers estimates.

Few elementary and high school textbook publishers “can afford to spend millions of dollars developing a textbook series and not have it adopted in these high-volume states,” the Fordham Institute said. So the operating philosophy is one of “superficial compliance with the rules, not a focus on results,” Wang said.

Free markets often race to the bottom, cutting costs and looking for economies of scale, especially when they operate as near monopolies. The only hope I see is that the businesss of printing books will soon be a distant memory and the rich possibility of web-based content will transform how schools access and use a much more diverse range of content. Unless, of course, the Republican Congress sells the Internets to their corporate enablers. In which case we will all be totally f*cked.