Textbook maker's view: the ground rules need to be changed

``Right now, publishers do a very good job bringing the American public the best schoolbooks the public will accept,'' says Peg Paul, owner of Educational Challenges, a textbook producer in this Washington suburb. Ms. Paul agrees with those critics who feel that textbooks need improvement. But she also says that ``many of the people who call for big changes in the quality of textbooks don't seem to understand the nature of the problem publishers face.''

Educational Challenges is what is known in the industry as a ``development house.'' From a three-story Colonial town house in downtown Alexandria, Paul not only writes and revises all types of textbooks for such big publishing houses as Scott-Foresman, Houghton Mifflin, and others, but she also designs and constructs them.

Paul says that, like many of her colleagues, she is concerned about giving children quality education. She and her staff understand that problems of money, time, and state textbook requirements make it difficult to do their absolute best, so they do the best they can.

``We are missing creative alternatives in the industry, because every publisher is trying to sell to as many markets as possible,'' Paul says. ``In order to make a profit, you have to appeal to a wide variety of buyers.''

Many states, she says, feel it is enough to demand better texts without realizing their own complicity in the problem -- or the fact that publishers have to make a profit.

In Florida, for example, state law now requires ``learner verification and response'' for all publishers, where textbooks must be ``field tested'' with children in classrooms. While publishers have been tolerant of Florida's demands, Paul notes that if every state were to require such a test, the load would be ``stag gering.''

In producing a text, says Paul, ``Time is the biggest problem to deal with.'' Quality textbooks take time to write, she says. Publishers used to have five years to develop a basal reader -- now they have two.

Furthermore, she often has to write an entire book series -- Grades 1 to 6 -- all at once. This makes ``enormous demands'' on early planning, she says. ``We don't have time to look it over, tinker with it -- create a more consistent flow of ideas.'' And there is often no chance to correct mistakes -- ``you are stuck with them.''

Paul also laments the lack of a ``voice'' in a good social studies or history text. ``A single author cannot possibly have the know-how to satisfy all the state requirements,'' Paul says. Adding to the problem is the fact that ``states constantly change their minds about what they want.''

To the complaint that textbook writers are ``out of touch'' with the education world, Paul remarks, ``I would love to send my staff out for a week to a local school -- have them talk to teachers and students -- but it's impossible on the schedule we have to keep.''

Paul looks forward to the day ``when we have fewer constraints,'' allowing more ``alternative approaches to subjects -- meeting the specific needs of many different types of students.''

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