Textbook publishing ills

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Textbook publishing ills

Postby emceng » Mon Mar 05, 2012 3:07 pm UTC

http://open.salon.com/blog/annie_keeghan/2012/02/17/afraid_of_your_childs_math_textbook_you_should_be


Spoiler:
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 knoweldge 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.



tl;dr - Due to cost cutting, market concerns, etc. textbooks, especially for children, have experienced a significant decrease in quality. With this decrease in quality, how are children supposed to learn math when the textbook is riddled with errors.


Ok, this partly sounds like a whiny rant about the person's career changing with the times. But I'd say that's only about 10% of it. The rest is a very valid criticism of a publishing system that is hurting the education of the children in our schools.

Years ago I thought of creating an open source/non-profit textbook company. How much has changed in basic math or science in the past 20 years? You could even pick up a chemistry text from the 50s, and many of the concepts appropriate for teens would still be accurate. So why are books being re-written every year? Why are schools paying for new books all the time, especially in subjects that have not changed?
When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. - CS Lewis
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 3:54 pm UTC

That pisses me off, textbooks are not the kind of thing with which you can skimp on quality, and Feynman has taught us that the textbook review process is too suckish to filter out bad textbooks properly. That said, I really like your open source textbook idea. You could easily put them on the web, and as that becomes more ubiquitous more classrooms will use it. The startup cost wouldn't be too insane, particularly for math textbooks, and you could almost certainly find some volunteers for things like that.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Enokh » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:03 pm UTC

You'll be hard-pressed to find public schools willing to take the leap to an open-source textbook program. You might find some here and there, but you'll never get enough to actually make it mainstream. This is more a problem with how budgets work than with, say, an aversion to free things due to the perception that free things are innately worse products than expensive things.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:07 pm UTC

Enokh wrote:You'll be hard-pressed to find public schools willing to take the leap to an open-source textbook program. You might find some here and there, but you'll never get enough to actually make it mainstream. This is more a problem with how budgets work than with, say, an aversion to free things due to the perception that free things are innately worse products than expensive things.

How do the workings of budgets discourage open-source textbooks? I find it hard to imagine that a budget would frown upon free stuff :P
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby ++$_ » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:08 pm UTC

I recently saw a textbook that had a whole page of problems like this: "Suppose that there is a linear relationship between the number of hours Tom studies for his math exam and his grade on the exam. If Tom studies for three hours, he will get a grade of 80%. If Tom studies for four hours, he will get a grade of 85%. Write an equation for the relationship between the length of time Tom studies and his grade."

So I guess what we're teaching the students is that if Tom studies for 10 hours, he will get a grade of 115%, and that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything should be treated as though it were a nail.

About half the word problems were like that, including one where students learned that if you have 10 clerks on duty in the DMV office, then the line will be so short that on average, visitors will receive service 2 minutes before they even arrive.

What boggles the mind is that someone would actually choose a book like this for use in the classroom.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Krealr » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:16 pm UTC

emceng wrote:So why are books being re-written every year? Why are schools paying for new books all the time, especially in subjects that have not changed?


Schools buy new textbooks because they get damaged/lost/stolen (I have no idea why a student would steal a textbook but they do). When they do this they have to buy complete new sets because the textbook companies rewrite their books every year and stop selling the old ones.

Here is a "wonderful" example of a rewrite just to make money.

http://blog.mrmeyer.com/wp-content/uploads/larsoncommoncore.gif
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby kiklion » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:17 pm UTC

Assume all programmers are equally skilled. If a programmer can make a game in 3 years, how many programmers do you need to get the game made in at most 3 months?

Well, if <insert major publisher people don't like here>'s marketing department can figure it out, I'm sure kids can as well.

As for that gif, the page numbers are drastically different. While I agree that textbooks are 'rewritten' just for money, it seems as if there were more changes in that revision then just different font and the sidebar.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Dauric » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:20 pm UTC

After reading that I needed to highlight this paragraph. Even if you TL:DR the rest of the article this one...

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 math exercise to prove your kids are ugly.

I have outrage but not the words to express it right now.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby ++$_ » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:24 pm UTC

And of course attractiveness does not necessarily have anything to do with the golden ratio, and if they want to teach kids that the golden ratio is interesting maybe they should do it using some actual interesting property of the number instead of some made-up non-mathematical self-esteem-destroying bullshit?
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:25 pm UTC

It honestly wouldn't bother me so much if that were an actual method of determining "objective" attractiveness, because accurate self-image is good. But given that that's not the nature of attractiveness, the whole point is kind of moot.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Arancaytar » Mon Mar 05, 2012 4:38 pm UTC

Assume all programmers are equally skilled. If a programmer can make a game in 3 years, how many programmers do you need to get the game made in at most 3 months?


Three months is way too long. With 95 million programmers, that game will be done in under a second.

And yes, the textbook industry is completely ludicrous. Maybe the Wikimedia foundation could get in on that, and sell print copies of certain Wikibooks to schools (although they'd need some more quality control and typesetting, they might well beat the proprietary texts at this point). Even while radically undercutting the overpriced competition (perhaps a donation of $5 per book) they could make enough not to have to do any more personal appeals from Jimmy Wales. :)
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby kiklion » Mon Mar 05, 2012 5:50 pm UTC

Another idea, have the text books hosted online and allow people to connect to it. Pretty sure schools spend more than $35 per kid, get each kid a raspberry pi. If the content were free (donated/Opensource whatever), then the majority of the cost would stem from printing and distribution.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Dauric » Mon Mar 05, 2012 6:14 pm UTC

kiklion wrote:Another idea, have the text books hosted online and allow people to connect to it. Pretty sure schools spend more than $35 per kid, get each kid a raspberry pi. If the content were free (donated/Opensource whatever), then the majority of the cost would stem from printing and distribution.


While I'd agree with the concept, the Raspberry Pi wouldn't work as it's not a complete device, and at least one 'special' darling is going to stick their finger on the board while it's running and/or after they've scuffed their feet on shag carpet... check that, the ones that -don't- fry the motherboard are likely to be the exceptions.

You'd probably be looking at older tablet/e-readers for the purpose, if it's a multi-part machine Timmy's going to 'forget' his screen at home and can't follow along in the text with the rest of the class (under the safe assumption that the school-book-reader hardware will be fairly locked down to prevent installing of unapproved software, games, or other distractions).
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Enokh » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:29 pm UTC

sourmìlk wrote:
Enokh wrote:You'll be hard-pressed to find public schools willing to take the leap to an open-source textbook program. You might find some here and there, but you'll never get enough to actually make it mainstream. This is more a problem with how budgets work than with, say, an aversion to free things due to the perception that free things are innately worse products than expensive things.

How do the workings of budgets discourage open-source textbooks? I find it hard to imagine that a budget would frown upon free stuff :P


If a High School spends (as a made-up number) $5,000 a year on text books, and then switches to a free text book, that five grand is not transferred somewhere else -- copier supplies or whatever -- it GOES AWAY. And then, what if the Open Source textbooks fall through? What if they don't update as frequently as the School Board (either local or state) requires, and they have to buy textbooks again? Well, they no longer have the budget, because once upon a time the person in charge of buying text books, likely an Assistant Principal, did an entire year's textbook supply on 80 dollars and as such the yearly Text Book Budget is exactly $80. So then they've got to go through the incredulously long, difficult process of upping their text book budget by $4,920.

Not to mention that the people who spend the money are (or feel) completely disconnected from the source of the money. It's there to spend -- why not spend it? It's probably not even their tax dollars, since so much of the public school system's budget comes from local taxes, and a lot of people don't live where they work. And it's not like shaving a hundred bucks off of copier supplies gives them a hundred bucks to use elsewhere, as the budgets for k-12 public education are INSANELY strict. Example: There is a sub-department at the high school I work at which has it's own budget/grant from the federal government. However, in order to prevent abuse (this is fair), things bought with that grant must stay in that department. This prevents them from buying things they don't need just to use up the budget, and then give it to someone else -- it doesn't prevent them from buying things they don't need, however. The bonus: when they upgrade their computers, they cannot give away their old computers to the rest of the school, even if their "old" computers are five years newer than the ones in the library.

If all of this sounds crazy, or stupid, or inane, it's not because we're miscommunicating. It's because the budget for public education is crazy, stupid, and inane.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Dauric » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:37 pm UTC

Enokh wrote:If all of this sounds crazy, or stupid, or inane, it's not because we're miscommunicating. It's because the budget for public education is crazy, stupid, and inane.


You could easily replace "crazy, stupid, and insane" with "bureaucratic". It's a fairly common budgetary system in most government agencies, and one of the reasons that budget battles are most always treated as zero-sum situations.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Enokh » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:44 pm UTC

Except I don't feel like the word "bureaucratic" necessarily sums up the situation. There is plenty of bureaucratic nonsense that is necessary -- paperwork, for instance. It's a hassle, but it's necessary. Perhaps not to the extent it's taken, but filling out forms is hardly the end of the world.

This, on the other hand, is a system that constantly berates it's people for using too much money, and yet encouraging them to waste money on stupid shit so that their budget goes down. It not only doesn't reward you for following a stated goal (save money), it punishes you for doing so and rewards you for NOT doing so.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Krealr » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:51 pm UTC

kiklion wrote:
As for that gif, the page numbers are drastically different. While I agree that textbooks are 'rewritten' just for money, it seems as if there were more changes in that revision then just different font and the sidebar.


That's actually part of the fun they take the exact same chapters and reorder them so that the pages won't match up anymore.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 7:57 pm UTC

Dauric wrote:
kiklion wrote:Another idea, have the text books hosted online and allow people to connect to it. Pretty sure schools spend more than $35 per kid, get each kid a raspberry pi. If the content were free (donated/Opensource whatever), then the majority of the cost would stem from printing and distribution.


While I'd agree with the concept, the Raspberry Pi wouldn't work as it's not a complete device, and at least one 'special' darling is going to stick their finger on the board while it's running and/or after they've scuffed their feet on shag carpet... check that, the ones that -don't- fry the motherboard are likely to be the exceptions.


You'll be able to get cases for it soon.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Diadem » Mon Mar 05, 2012 8:18 pm UTC

This is a topic very close to my heart.

I can assure you that America is not the only country in the world with this problem. The quality of textbooks here in The Netherlands is absolutely terrible. I do a lot of remedial teaching, so I see a lot of different textbooks, mostly on physics, chemistry and math, and I can't believe the number of errors.

For example a chemistry textbook that devotes a whole chapter on explaining what significance means, and how to write down stuff with the correct number of significant digits. Important stuff. But then the very next chapter they make several errors with that themselves. That's just terribly confusing to kids trying to learn that shit. Another example is a chemistry book that derived the energy content of gasoline by using a formula for gasoline vapor and applying it to the liquid phase (or vice versa, I don't recall). They thus managed to derive that gasoline was a few thousand times more efficient per liter than lpg. They even explicitely asked you to compare those numbers in the second part of the exercise and give your opinion on which fuel was more efficient. I guess it never occured to them that lpg cars don't need to refill several thousand times as often as gasoline ones.

And that's just factual errors. I won't even mention the number of times they explain stuff so confusingly even I am left wondering if I understand the subject.

I'd love to write textbooks. I am very good at explaining stuff, I've often been told I should pursue a career in teaching. In fact my current job-on-the-side is teaching. But I wouldn't want to do that full time. I love writing too though, so textbook writing would be the perfect career for me.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 8:35 pm UTC

Do it. I'd love to read a textbook written by an XKCD forumite. Unless that forumite was me, I suck at explaining things.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Diadem » Mon Mar 05, 2012 9:05 pm UTC

You'd have to brush up your Dutch though. I don't think I'd be writing in English :)

Though translation is not the biggest challenge when writing math or physics textbooks, I guess. (Keeping your examples culturally relevant might be a problem though).
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 05, 2012 9:07 pm UTC

Ah, the wonders of Perverse Incentives
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Mon Mar 05, 2012 9:09 pm UTC

Diadem wrote:You'd have to brush up your Dutch though. I don't think I'd be writing in English :)

D'oh!

Though translation is not the biggest challenge when writing math or physics textbooks, I guess. (Keeping your examples culturally relevant might be a problem though).

Eh, we're each in first world countries. Does Dutch and American culture differ so substantially that that would really be a problem?

Griffin, thanks for linking that article, it's cool that this is a described phenomenon.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Diadem » Mon Mar 05, 2012 11:12 pm UTC

I guess cultural differences wouldn't be that terrible now. Not in math or physics at least. Most changes would be relatively minor. An exercise that references place names could just have the names changed for example.

Curriculum differences though would be a real problem. Do 12 year olds in America have the same background as they do in The Netherlands? I doubt it. You probably get taught roughly the same material, but I'd be very surprised if you got it in exactly the same order. Same for every other nation. And that's just for the exact subjects.

History and geography would be quite different. And languages even more so.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby yurell » Tue Mar 06, 2012 12:41 am UTC

Hang on a sec, I seem to be missing something -- the schools are buying these textbooks, not the students?
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby gametaku » Tue Mar 06, 2012 12:51 am UTC

yurell wrote:Hang on a sec, I seem to be missing something -- the schools are buying these textbooks, not the students?


Yes, the schools from K-12 (Kindergarten through High School) buy textbooks. It's not to College/trade schools that students pay for textbooks.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby yurell » Tue Mar 06, 2012 12:52 am UTC

Oh, here students buy their own textbooks, at least in every school I've attended.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Shivahn » Tue Mar 06, 2012 1:13 am UTC

yurell wrote:Oh, here students buy their own textbooks, at least in every school I've attended.

That seems so... weird to me. Just because I'm so used to our system.

What do they do if a kid can't afford a book? Does the school pay for it, or is there usually a library copy or something? Or is that just never an issue?
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Joeldi » Tue Mar 06, 2012 2:01 am UTC

yurell wrote:Oh, here students buy their own textbooks, at least in every school I've attended.


Not at my high school, a Catholic school in Queensland. A few days before term started, students had a day to go down to the library and pick up their books for that semester. They were usually 5 years old, or so, but perfectly usuable. I can't comment on the quality of the writing/material/examples because I was too young to judge then, and probably wouldn't be all that decent a judge now, but I /think/ that I have a decent understanding of high-school level science and maths.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Proginoskes » Tue Mar 06, 2012 6:50 am UTC

sourmìlk wrote:Do it. I'd love to read a textbook written by an XKCD forumite. Unless that forumite was me, I suck at explaining things.


I'm also in the middle of (hopefully) writing a new textbook for one of the courses at Arizona State (and hopefully elsewhere as well). The students who have read through the rough drafts like the way things are explained, so it might be coming out in a few years (hopefully).

Dang. Too many "hopefully"s there ...
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Tue Mar 06, 2012 6:56 am UTC

What subject / level is it being written on?
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Proginoskes » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:01 am UTC

sourmìlk wrote:What subject / level is it being written on?


It's a college-level Linear Algebra textbook. The course is called "Elementary Linear Algebra", so we don't get into the theory, just calculations. The working title is "Linear Algebra without Theory"; amazingly, I didn't get any hits when I Googled this expression a few months ago.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby sourmìlk » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:07 am UTC

I actually need that book right now.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Diadem » Tue Mar 06, 2012 9:50 am UTC

yurell wrote:Oh, here students buy their own textbooks, at least in every school I've attended.

Even if they buy their own textbooks, I assume they don't select them right? They get a note from their school listing which textbooks they should buy? So it's still the teacher that selects the books. Whether he buys 'em or not.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby yurell » Tue Mar 06, 2012 10:39 am UTC

Shivahn wrote:What do they do if a kid can't afford a book? Does the school pay for it, or is there usually a library copy or something? Or is that just never an issue?


I can't recall it ever being an issue. Maybe the school has some copies they can lend out, or the students just look on to their neighbours for questions. I've never experienced that situation so I've no idea what the contingencies are.

Diadem wrote:Even if they buy their own textbooks, I assume they don't select them right? They get a note from their school listing which textbooks they should buy? So it's still the teacher that selects the books. Whether he buys 'em or not.


Indeed, but if a textbook is crap parents will whinge to the school, because they bought the book out of their own pocket, so the school seems to be much more likely to pick better books to keep the parents happy (in my experience).
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Tirian » Tue Mar 06, 2012 1:07 pm UTC

Proginoskes wrote:It's a college-level Linear Algebra textbook. The course is called "Elementary Linear Algebra", so we don't get into the theory, just calculations. The working title is "Linear Algebra without Theory"; amazingly, I didn't get any hits when I Googled this expression a few months ago.


Good luck with that; I'm given to believe that publishers are humorless folk and will insist that you call your book Elementary Linear Algebra. I recall my Logic professor's rant about his wish to call his magnum opus "To Truth Through Proof" and having to compromise on that being the subtitle.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby Mambrino » Tue Mar 06, 2012 3:29 pm UTC

yurell wrote:
Diadem wrote:Even if they buy their own textbooks, I assume they don't select them right? They get a note from their school listing which textbooks they should buy? So it's still the teacher that selects the books. Whether he buys 'em or not.


Indeed, but if a textbook is crap parents will whinge to the school, because they bought the book out of their own pocket, so the school seems to be much more likely to pick better books to keep the parents happy (in my experience).


How many parents are capable to judge whether the book is good or bad, especially above the elementary school level? Both of my parents have their university degrees in Humanities. Even though they had the expertise to applaud my school's choices for History and Philosophy textbooks, I not certain if they could have distinguished a sub-mediocre Physics or Mathematics textbook from a good one. I guess they would have noticed if my Mathematics and Physics textbooks were total crap, but in the other hand, no teacher I've ever met would ask students to buy a textbook that bad.

And anyway, it isn't just that simple even with the elementary school textbooks. I have been told that the preferred method how to teach children to read and write changed here a decade ago or so, and because of that, there have been much confusion amongst parents, as the alphabet books etc their children use are now way different than in their own childhood. How could they recognize a bad alphabet book from a good one, if all of them are now totally different? I guess most parents would choose the book that bore most resemblance to the book they used 20-30 years ago, if they were to decide.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby lutzj » Tue Mar 06, 2012 8:53 pm UTC

Mambrino wrote:How many parents are capable to judge whether the book is good or bad, especially above the elementary school level? Both of my parents have their university degrees in Humanities. Even though they had the expertise to applaud my school's choices for History and Philosophy textbooks, I not certain if they could have distinguished a sub-mediocre Physics or Mathematics textbook from a good one. I guess they would have noticed if my Mathematics and Physics textbooks were total crap, but in the other hand, no teacher I've ever met would ask students to buy a textbook that bad.


It only takes one loud parent with a background in a given science to rile up the other parents. Your parents might not deeply understand chemistry, but they talk to the people down the street who do, and they love to whine about incompetent school administrators.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby omgryebread » Tue Mar 06, 2012 10:26 pm UTC

lutzj wrote:
Mambrino wrote:How many parents are capable to judge whether the book is good or bad, especially above the elementary school level? Both of my parents have their university degrees in Humanities. Even though they had the expertise to applaud my school's choices for History and Philosophy textbooks, I not certain if they could have distinguished a sub-mediocre Physics or Mathematics textbook from a good one. I guess they would have noticed if my Mathematics and Physics textbooks were total crap, but in the other hand, no teacher I've ever met would ask students to buy a textbook that bad.


It only takes one loud parent with a background in a given science to rile up the other parents. Your parents might not deeply understand chemistry, but they talk to the people down the street who do, and they love to whine about incompetent school administrators.
This would be cool if it happened that way. It usually happens that parents get riled up about other stuff though. Evolution is an obvious example, but more insidiously (and successfully) people have worked to eliminate things like the Trail of Tears, the support for slavery from some Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson from American history textbooks.
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Re: Textbook publishing ills

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Tue Mar 06, 2012 10:47 pm UTC

omgryebread wrote:
lutzj wrote:
Mambrino wrote:How many parents are capable to judge whether the book is good or bad, especially above the elementary school level? Both of my parents have their university degrees in Humanities. Even though they had the expertise to applaud my school's choices for History and Philosophy textbooks, I not certain if they could have distinguished a sub-mediocre Physics or Mathematics textbook from a good one. I guess they would have noticed if my Mathematics and Physics textbooks were total crap, but in the other hand, no teacher I've ever met would ask students to buy a textbook that bad.


It only takes one loud parent with a background in a given science to rile up the other parents. Your parents might not deeply understand chemistry, but they talk to the people down the street who do, and they love to whine about incompetent school administrators.
This would be cool if it happened that way. It usually happens that parents get riled up about other stuff though. Evolution is an obvious example, but more insidiously (and successfully) people have worked to eliminate things like the Trail of Tears, the support for slavery from some Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson from American history textbooks.

Why would they want to eliminate Thomas Jefferson?
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