Sunset for Textbook Adoption in California

There is great news from California. The State Board of Education has announced that it will drop its longstanding textbook adoption standards, which for many years have only allowed California schools to use state textbook funds on a limited set of choices. Many states have approved lists of textbooks, but California was relatively unique in limiting options to a very short list. For example, in recent years, California allowed only two basal reading series, Open Court and Houghton Mifflin.

For many years, California and the other large textbook adoption state, Texas, have had an outsized impact on textbooks everywhere, because publishers have had to dance to their tune. This has had a negative effect nationally. It has restricted innovation, and kept smaller competitors out of the textbook market, since it is hugely expensive to go through the adoption process.

For an advocate of evidence-based reform, the California and Texas textbook adoption policies are particularly galling. While California had rules against mentioning junk food in texts, for example, no textbook adoption state has ever paid any attention to the evidence base supporting the use of particular texts. This meant that in California, districts could use their textbook funds on texts found in high-quality research to be ineffective, or ones that had never been evaluated, while programs with strong evidence of effectiveness were effectively banned from the state.

I often hear the objection to evidence-based reform that schools should not be required to use proven models. I happen to agree, and have always argued that the proper role of government is to provide encouragement and incentives to use proven programs, not to mandate them. Yet it strikes me as absurd that California was requiring the use of particular programs based on no evidence at all, and Texas and other textbook adoption states continue to do so.

State textbook adoption lists have got to go. They should be replaced with solid information on the outcomes of various programs, perhaps with incentive funding to choose the best-evaluated. But schools and districts should be free to use that information to make whatever choices they believe to be best for their kids, knowing that they will ultimately be held accountable for the outcomes.

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