What is the response of textbook lobby representatives to HB4, which is forward looking and seeks to transform in fundamental ways the manner in which education is offered and experienced in the state of Texas? Sadly, to engage in personal attacks. 

In my philosophy 101 class in college, I remember learning that in ideological debate– one strategy employed (usually by a party without valid logic or many supporting arguments) to discredit and confuse others is the “straw man” approach. In using this technique, one party describes a different problem or idea– the “straw man”– and then attempts to argue against that position instead of directly dealing with the issue at hand. Authors of the Wikipedia write, “As a rhetorical term, “straw man” describes a point of view that was created in order to be easily defeated in argument; the creator of a “straw man” argument does not accurately reflect the best arguments of his or her opponents, but instead sidesteps or mischaracterizes them so as to make the opposing view appear weak or ridiculous.”

Recent articles relating to House Bill 4 in the Texas legislature, which among other things would change the word “textbook” in the state education code to “instructional materials” and effectively destroy the present stranglehold textbook companies enjoy over millions of state educational dollars– seem to be falling into this pattern of “straw man” attacks. Rather than address the heart of the issue: what kinds of instructional materials do our students need today in the early twenty-first century, and what schedule for a state adoption cycle makes sense given the informational and dynamic realities of our present age– some individuals appear to be resorting to desperate, false personal attacks against legislators and others involved in the legislative process instead of presenting cogent arguments relevant to the topic at hand.

In an article from today’s Dallas Morning News, “Vendors Criticize School Technology Legislation,” as well as an April 2nd article in the Houston Chronicle I briefly commented on last week in my edtech updates blog, representatives of the textbook lobby appear to be engaging in straw man debate tactics when it comes to HB4 and the future of education– important not only in the State of Texas, but in the entire United States of America.

Do technology companies stand to gain if additional state dollars are made available under a flexible definition of “instructional materials” in the Texas Education Code? Absolutely. But does this smell of backdoor politics, corruption, or any type of dishonesty in the case of HB4? Absolutely not. The language of the bill (which is available online for anyone to read) does not specify any particular vendor, software type, or platform. No evidence of any dishonesty or wrongdoing has been presented or even suggested– “critics” have merely alleged that technology companies who are self-interested would benefit if the state increased authorized spending categories for technology.

In the United States today, we spend an obscene amount of money already for educational technology hardware and software, as I pointed out in my February 2005 presentation at our state technology conference, “Luddite Literacy: Digital Tools or Toys in the 21st Century Classroom?” — especially when you consider the minimal impact (PDF) those dollars have had on predominant educational practices in K-16 classrooms nationwide. According to e-School news estimates in late 2004, in 2005 schools across the nation will spend approximately $7 billion on educational technology for K-12 schools.

But what is being proposed in HB4, set to go for a floor vote later this month in the Texas Legislature, is far from “business as usual” when it comes to education in Texas. Let’s demonstrate this with a short, hypothetical Q&A dialog.

Question 1: What has defined public education in the United States more than anything else in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Answer: The textbook.

Question 2: Who are the the principal beneficiaries of our present educational system, in which curriculum content is (at least officially) provided primarily via printed textbooks?

Answer: A small number of educational textbook publishers.

Question 3: Just how much money is at stake here when it comes to school textbooks, and how does this process of writing and adopting textbooks work?

Answer: According to Forbes magazine five years ago in 2000, at least $4 billion. With inflation, you can confidently bet it is worth even more today. And how does this process work? Well, it is complicated, but it is not even a mild exaggeration to say it involves large amounts of political lobbying– especially in the key states of Texas and California. If a textbook manufacturer can’t make it in Texas, their product is likely doomed. Adoption in Texas as well as California has long been known as a guaranteed gravy train of revenue for textbook publishers. For more details on the inner workings of this process, especially the way in which textbooks are written, see the excellent article “The Muddle Machine” from the November 2004 issue of Edutopia magazine. (A superb, free print and electronic publication by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, incidentally.)

Question 4: Who else besides publishers would want to keep our current textbook adoption cycle of 5 years or more, which makes fixing errors and adding new content an extremely arduous and slow process?

Answer: Great question. I can’t think of anyone else who does.

Question 5: What viable case could textbook publishers and their political lobbyists present to argue against the passage of HB4?

Answer: Again, great question. No viable reasons readily come to mind. To defend the status quo of printed textbooks, these publishers and lobbyists could say things like:

1- Kids love textbooks. You can tell by the way they take such good care of them.

2- Textbooks help build muscle in our youth. Have you seen the average 5th grader in a Texas public elementary school lately hauling his/her textbooks to and from school and home? A backpack will often not suffice: students today need sturdy luggage like you see in airports to manage their textbook load. Textbooks help promote physical fitness! And the back pains and injuries students commonly report related to hauling around heavy textbooks just help keep the income flowing for many of our local doctors and chiropractors!

3- Knowledge is static and unchanging, so a textbook is the best resource for curricular content. What is the World-Wide Web? No one in education wants kids to know how to validate an information resource or aquire “digital literacy!” In the good old days, all we needed was a Big Chief tablet, our textbooks, and a chalkboard. Life hasn’t changed, the economy hasn’t changed, and neither should education in our classrooms.

Of course we are not going to hear textbook lobbyists offer comments like these, because most conscious to semi-conscious US citizens today can recognize how ludicrous each of these statements are.

Recent surveys indicate that students today are far more likely to go online rather than offline when conducting research for school projects. Can we turn back the clock to avoid digital plagiarism issues as well as other problems brought on by technology like picture phones and instant messaging? Probably not.

But neither can we afford to continue in an educational paradigm rooted in 19th and 20th century technologies, fundamentally based on a communicative technology (the textbook) which served its purpose well, but whose time has come and gone. I join Alan November and other forward looking educational thinkers in saying: it is time to say goodbye to the textbook as we have known it in education.

Neither I nor the authors of HB4 are advocating a complete rejection of instructional materials for the classroom in direct exchange for the morass of information which today comprises the Internet’s World-Wide Web. There are and will continue to be fantastic free web resources, but also superb commercial instructional materials available electronically like Nettrekker and KidBiz 3000, to name only a couple. The competition of the educational marketplace will bring numerous options, with the playing field for potential authors and publishers much more level in a digital era than it was in the era of 5 year textbook adoption cycles.

Let’s not fall for an easily identifiable straw man argument when it comes to HB4. Doing so would be neither sensible, practical, or fiscally responsible.

Unless of course, you happen to hold a large amount of stock in a current educational publishing house. 🙂 

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