Local educators are held accountable for results, but they have little flexibility in the selection of instructional materials and other key inputs for the development of successful programs

Instructional materials policy reform: local educators are held accountable for results, but they have little flexibility in the selection of instructional materials and other key inputs for the development of successful programs

Brett McFadden

No discussion about K-12 accountability and assessment is complete without at least some reference to instructional materials. In fact, the foundation of California’s education reform movement rests on four pillars: world-class academic standards, accountability and assessment, high quality teaching and standards-aligned instructional materials. Organizational theory and some common sense will tell you that all four should be coordinated if schools and the students they serve are to achieve their goals and outcomes.

California has struggled for several years to implement all four elements simultaneously. The logical sequence of adopting standards, adjusting instructional materials and professional development to reflect those standards, aligning assessments and then holding schools accountable was essentially reversed. California implemented an accountability system first and then rushed to align everything.

The state has come a long way in bringing these elements into alignment. Part of the problem now is that this rapid, simultaneous alignment has been accomplished through enormous top-down pressure.

The reality is that there is a fundamental tension between California’s school accountability system, which measures outcomes, and its instructional materials funding and adoptions process, which controls inputs. This article will explore the state adoption and funding process for instructional materials, and suggest modifications that would expand academic achievement.

The state adoption process

Under the state Constitution and current statute, the State Board of Education is charged with the responsibility for adopting K-8 instructional materials in core academic content areas. The board’s primary mission in this regard is to ensure that those materials are aligned with California’s academic content standards.

Although recent adoptions deserve recognition as having helped promote improved student performance on state-approved assessments, it is equally important to note that past state adoptions contributed heavily to the problems now being corrected. It is important to remember that the state is not always right.

A growing challenge to local education agencies has been the rigid, command-and-control fashion the state has used to implement its goals. Local educators are held accountable for results, but have diminished flexibility in the selection of instructional materials and other key inputs for the development of successful programs. Investing too much control in the hands of the state at the expense of local decision making is not the optimum manner in which to implement public policy.

Even if the state adoption process results in the right program, the record shows that it has been poorly managed. For example, as recently as 1999 districts were urged to quickly purchase materials under a special adoption based on the state’s reversal of its previous whole language instruction policy. Over the next two years, LEAs were criticized for failing to move fast enough to spend those funds for new materials.

Then, in 2002, school districts were informed that those “interim” materials were not adequate and they needed to purchase entirely new programs. The result was that several hundred million dollars were wasted in an attempt to reverse prior state policy.

The state adoption process should be modified in three ways:

1. Where school districts or schools have demonstrated success, either in terms of overall API scores or via the achievement of growth targets, they should be granted flexibility to select the instructional materials that they determine will maintain their record of success.

2. LEAs need greater discretion to purchase basic instructional and supplemental materials according to a timeline that reflects their local needs.

3. Where districts can demonstrate via their own analysis that materials are appropriately aligned to the state’s academic standards, a process should be in place for the state to fairly review and add materials to the list of state-adopted materials.

Proponents of the current system will argue that past adoptions have been the driving force behind California’s improvements in student academic performance. Others believe that the major factors in California’s student academic achievement have been the combination of rigorous academic standards, the development of an accountability system based on those standards, and the alignment of instructional materials and California’s assessment system with the content standards.

The adoption of standards-aligned materials should not be viewed as a “silver bullet,” but rather as part of a comprehensive set of policy reforms.

Supplemental materials

Supplemental materials are an important element of any comprehensive instructional program, particularly when they are used for targeted student populations. Even with the adoption of high quality basic programs, there will always be students in need of enrichment materials, who are having difficulty with specific lessons or concepts, or whose learning style requires a different instructional approach. For these students, supplemental materials can mean the difference between academic success and failure.

Current state policy, however, is designed to discourage the use of supplemental materials. Recent state policies have overturned the long-standing authority of school districts to use a portion of their instructional materials funding to purchase supplemental materials.

Even more dramatic is the example of the implementation of the federal Reading First Program. Federal guidelines explicitly allow LEAs to use those funds for State-Board-approved supplemental materials. Not only has the State Board failed to adopt any such materials, it has not even developed a process to consider the approval of such materials.

Educators’ hands tied

Here again the tension between the state’s accountability and assessment system and its rigid system of approving instructional materials manifests itself. No one is arguing that supplemental materials should not be standards-aligned. But it is unreasonable and unfair for the state to deny students access to these materials. Furthermore, it is unfair for the state to hold local districts responsible for students’ academic results when they have tied educators’ hands.

Two policy changes are recommended in the area of supplemental materials:

1. Restore authority to local school districts to expend 30 percent of their instructional materials funding on supplemental materials.

2. Provide districts the explicit statutory authority to determine those supplemental materials that may be purchased with federal Reading First funds as being standards-aligned.

Textbook costs

On top of the abovementioned policy issues, school districts continue to struggle with exorbitant increases in textbook prices. According to a 2002 analysis by the San Jose Mercury News, textbook costs soared in the previous 14 years–outstripping the pace of inflation and the escalation of home prices.

Between 1990 and 2002, the average price of K-8 English textbooks grew by 212 percent, while the price of math books jumped 156 percent, on average. A decade ago, a sixth-grade English book would have cost between $25-35. Today, the price averages around $55-60 per book.

Textbook publishers defend these price increases by arguing that meeting California’s strict academic standards is expensive. But a closer examination suggests otherwise. Textbook industry profits have been estimated to be 15 to 19 percent, prior to taxes. That amount is almost double the 9 percent profit margin for other industrial companies overall.

ACSA has argued that there are two primary reasons why textbooks cost so much: publishing-house mergers have decreased competition, and the state does not negotiate for the best deal possible. State law cannot address the first issue, but it can address the second.

Historically, the state has never negotiated with publishers on the matter of price. The board’s selection of approved K-8 materials has been based solely on whether the materials are appropriately aligned to California’s academic content standards. Publishers submit their bids and the board accepts the price as part of its selection process.

But this is not how it is done in other states. There are 21 states that have textbook adoption processes. Many of those states negotiate the final price of textbooks directly with publishers prior to approving them for sale. Publishers enter contracts at the set price. In other states, the legislatures set a price during the state budget process and take into account the costs of each subject.

Opponents argue that making price a criteria in textbook adoption will decrease the quality of the materials’ content. That logic has cost local schools and taxpayers millions of dollars.

State law requires that standards-aligned materials be used in all K-12 instruction. Furthermore, there are many states that make textbook costs a factor in their adoption process and have higher per capita academic achievement than California. When looked at from a national perspective, factoring price is not unique to a statewide adoption process, nor is it unfair for publishers.

Four policy changes are needed in the area of textbook costs:

1. Require the State Board of Education to establish price and cost limits prior to each subject matter adoption.

2. Require the board to establish reduced prices for second sets of instructional materials.

3. Stagger the adoption process so that major adoptions are not back-to-back.

4. Allow districts to extend the use of reading-language arts and mathematics materials by an additional two years (as opposed to the current six-year cycle).

ACSA-sponsored legislation (AB 2455) in the 2004 legislative session incorporated the above reforms. Unfortunately, the legislation was vetoed by the governor. ACSA will continue to work on legislative solutions to this problem.

Enhancing a solid foundation

Any improvements to California’s K-12 accountability and assessment system will invariably require changes to the state’s textbook selection and adoption process. Fortunately, the process is not broken. To the contrary, it has a solid foundation that has played a key role in improving academic achievement.

The policy changes listed in this article will not diminish the overall success of California’s state adoption process, nor will they usurp the State Board from providing general policy direction on such matters. Instead, they will enhance the system and provide LEAs greater discretion to design and use methods best suited to their local needs.

Not only will the congruency of our K-12 education system be increased, but the most important of our measured outcomes will rise as welt–the academic achievement of California’s K-12 students.

Brett McFadden is a legislative advocate for ACSA, specializing in K-12 budget and finance issues.

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