7 Reasons Why K12 Education Publishers Exist

Operations Department Sign CAEducation publishers have taken a lot of fire in the last few years – many believe that we are too big, too powerful, and that things would be better if teachers just wrote their own materials or used free stuff.

So why do we continue to exist? Are publishers a necessary evil soon to be eliminated by a tsunami of free OER content, or is there an ongoing beneficial role in public education that publishers can fill?
This post is one publisher’s take on what justifies our place in education. This isn’t intended as a direct refutation of critiques of publishers, any industry as large as ours (over $10 billion) has plenty of opportunities to improve what we do. Rather, I focus on some of the lesser appreciated positive contributions we make. It also isn’t a takedown of OER materials, which have earned a permanent place at the table.

So howl away at how boring some materials are and at what scumbags we all are*, but take a few minutes to look at this issue from a different perspective.

The key points are:

  • Publishers save teachers time.
  • As professionals teachers need pro-grade tools
  • We help keep the extremists at bay.
  • Publishers help innovative best practices spread quickly.
  • Publishers externalize the risks of R&D while provisioning a thriving marketplace for instructional ideas.
  • Commercial platforms provide long-term sustainability, particularly in the digital age.
  • K12 Publishers save schools money.

In what follows I don’t make a distinction between types of publishers,** I’m speaking in broad generalizations about the industry as a whole. Thus, for every assertion I make I can guarantee there are exceptions.

Publishers save teachers time.

If you sit and listen to teachers you understand that the single most precious resource in their lives is time. Class sizes have expanded, prep periods have been eliminated, mandates and tests have proliferated, and teachers still have a life and families outside of work. A high school teacher with 4 sections of a class can have 110-130 essays to correct for a single homework assignment.

Anything that takes teachers away from working directly with students undercuts their ability to fulfill their central role in learning. By purchasing materials that have been carefully designed to support good classroom practice teachers can focus their energy on students.

Artisanal curriculum sounds nice in theory, but in practice it isn’t practical for the vast majority of teachers given all the other demands on their time.

As professionals teachers need pro-grade tools

Teaching is an art and a profession. Educators demand research to support product claims and have become quite discriminating about evaluating materials. In response publishers use a disciplined creative process to create well crafted, classroom tested, research based, and engaging materials.

I’ve often heard educators complain about parents who think they know how to run a modern school because they went to school 20 years ago. They have a point. The notion that anyone who has used a textbook can write professional grade resources is just as demeaning to the craft that publishers practice.

Yes, there are some highly skilled teachers who also have strong project management skills, peerless writing talent, deep editing discipline, graphic design chops, software coding expertise, and a knowledge of the legal framework around IP. But they still have 120 essays to correct this weekend.

Or, more likely, they are already working at a publisher. A significant majority of product developers at educational publishers have classroom experience. Publishing is their advanced craft, learned by apprenticing with others who have made the same shift from teaching. At root they are still educators, they have just chosen to work on a broader canvas supporting frontline educators.

We help keep the extremists at bay.

Publishers have to keep track of acceptable use policies on a national scale, which provides a level of insurance to local decision makers that the materials have been carefully screened for objectionable material.

There are legitimate gripes that sometimes this results in materials that don’t address controversial subjects as honestly or thoroughly as they should, but in this regard publishers are responding to the need not creating it. Most School Boards don’t want to be on the front page of the local paper because someone got their knickers in a twist over an issue with a textbook, so purchasing processes tend to encourage toeing the line.***
Then, when things do go bad we provide a convenient scapegoat. Most publishers assiduously go out of their way to avoid this, they want to be in the local paper even less than the school board. But it comes with the territory.

Publishers help innovative best practices spread quickly.

Publishers have a competitive imperative to stay on top of rapidly evolving research, standards, and assessments.

For time beleaguered teachers innovative products often serve as the foundation for new practices in the classroom. A good case is SDAIE and SIOP for ELL instruction. The foundations for these approaches came out of academia, but the publishers who embraced them and wrote materials around them supported their diffusion across the market.

It isn’t just a case of building the products, distribution is also essential to spreading ideas. Education in the United States is a vast enterprise, second only to the military in size, and typically one of the top 3 employers in any city or town. Unlike the military there is no true centralized control, education remains a distributed process – 50 states, 16,000 districts, 110,000 school sites, 3 million teachers.

Raising awareness for new ideas in a fragmented market is a massive undertaking. Having the scale to reach broadly with new approaches requires organizations with strong distribution networks. National educators organizations like ASCD and IRA are one leg of this stool, publishers are another.

Publishers externalize the risks of R&D while provisioning a thriving marketplace for instructional ideas.

The risks that publishers take in creating materials allow educators a wide range of choices appropriate to their students, budgets, and infrastructure.

A Google search for “commercial first grade reading program” returns over 60 million results. No, there are not 60 million separate programs, but this is evidence that there is a boat-load of commercial content available.

More often than not these materials are created in partnership with researchers and academics who serve as the authors or designers of the programs. Bringing their ideas to life takes the financial, production, and distribution resources of a publisher.

Schools can then test competing products/ideas at scale in the real world to see what delivers the goods.

Commercial platforms provide long-term sustainability, particularly in the digital age.

The average basal program is used for at least five years. There is a lot of efficiency for schools (and taxpayers) in using a good program for as many years as they can. Programs like Plaid Phonics and SRA have been continuously offered and incrementally updated for decades.

More critically, educators now demand that all products have digital components, even those with a lot of print materials. It is one thing if a publisher goes under and a school still owns the books – quite another if they are relying on a website and it goes dark. Software requires ongoing enhancement and maintenance.

Products that are grant supported die when the funding stops. Companies have more flexibility to pitch and roll with funding shifts and can bring to bear resources to maintain and support products for the long haul.

K12 Publishers save schools money.

Given the hyperbole around the (always “outrageous”) cost of textbooks how I can make this claim? Most people conflate the cost of higher education textbooks with K12 textbooks, but the markets are fundamentally and radically different. The notorious $200 textbook is a creature of academic niches in higher education, not general purpose textbooks and materials in K12.****
The average K12 textbook (including ancillaries) costs about $60 and is used for 5-7 years at a cost of $10 per student. For high quality, professionally designed, and academically sound materials that save teachers time this is a great deal.

A basal reading program can cost north of $30 million to produce. Because publishers can spread the development costs across the entire country they can keep these prices down. If a state or district decided to do this on their own the cost would be exponentially higher per student.*****

Taken as a group these benefits outline some of the positive contributions commercial publishers make in education. Associations, universities, think tanks, foundations, non-profits, and government at all levels provide these same benefits and many others, but only publishers cover this particular combination completely.

A state could chose to write their own curriculum, but that would more expensive and restrict the choice districts and teachers have to meet specific needs. Foundations sponsor OER repositories, but the consistency of design and research support behind most of the materials is non-existent. Associations help spread ideas but they don’t have the risk capital to develop robust programs.

In the next ten years we will see a profound shift in the products and services publishers provide. They will be more digital, will include more professional development, and will evolve with standards and research findings. But the benefits outlined above are independent of platform, media, and ideology and should always have a place at the table.

Footnotes & Editorial Snark Repository

* In the midst of the reading wars an entire company I worked for was referred to this way by a high ranking government employee who disagreed with our pedagogy. Classy.

** I include basal textbooks, supplemental materials, software, professional development and cloud based services from commercial providers.

*** My personal favorite along these lines as was a middle school biology game. One of the characters was a slob who was prone to illness as a result of his less than stellar personal hygiene. The designers built him with a visible butt crack – which would have tickled middle school funny bones while making an instructional point. His pants were pulled up in the final product to avoid controversy.

**** In higher education the decision maker and the buyer are different – professors select materials and students buy them. In K12 the same institutions selecting the materials also provide the funds to buy them – providing an economizing incentive entirely missing in Higher Ed. In addition, in Higher Ed the student as purchaser has little bargaining power. K12 buyers are usually Districts or even states – the institutional nature of the buying process and the bargaining power of the purchaser create a much more level playing field.

Nevertheless market forces are creating the same economies we see in K12. Services like Chegg rent books. There is moral pressure being applied to professors to select reasonably priced materials.

That said, it is unrealistic to assume that a specialized book on Nanotechnology ($180 at Walmart.com!) will ever achieve the kind of economic scale that it can be priced the same as a High School Physical Science program ($69).

***** More expensive for the state which has to fund the development and maintenance – but maybe not for the districts who then get it for “free.” From a taxpayer standpoint it isn’t more efficient – it just buries it somewhere else in the budget.