The Print

Debra Angel

In this, her first column, Deb Angel reflects on the national initiative of "No Child Left Behind" and how it impacts the publishing industry and literature for children.

The Other Side of NCLB

With the presidential elections just around the corner, both Republican and Democratic candidates are talking about key issues, one of which just happens to be education. And one cannot bring up education without talking about the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, more commonly known as NCLB. Articles on this topic abound. I spent some time scouring them. Most of the articles discussed the provisions of the law and its immediate and cumulative effects on schools and school districts. It's no surprise to anyone that NCLB is a hot topic, a sticky, hot, and complicated topic. What struck me most about the information on NCLB was that little of it touched on what effect this law has had or will have on textbook publishing. Sure, a lot was said about standardized testing, but nothing much was said about the teaching materials used in the classroom. Since I come from the world of publishing, it only makes sense that this would be one of my concerns. So, what effect does NCLB have on textbook publishing and school curriculum? Not an easy question to answer.

Because NCLB puts all its emphasis on standardized tests, schools are forced to focus their energies on testing students. Teachers fear deviating from the curriculum. It goes without saying that the textbooks used in the classroom are going to be affected. Like any business, textbook publishing is concerned with the bottom line. No one with any business sense can fault the industry for that. In textbook publishing, state adoptions are the bread and butter for editors and publishers. Much planning and hard work goes into ensuring that a math or a health textbook includes every state standard for as many states as possible. If a state with a large school district adopts your textbook, and all the accompanying supplementals, that means high sales. Because NCLB is a federal law, every state must adhere to it, which, in turn, means there are still more standards that textbook publishers must incorporate into the development of their books. It's a complicated, complex web.

As stated earlier, NCLB is a federal law, which is essentially a rewriting of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. According to Secretary of Education Rod Paige's welcome letter on the Department of Education's Web site (www.ed.gov), "No Child Left Behind puts the focus on instruction and methods that have been proven to work." Elsewhere on the site, we're told that NCLB "is built on four common-sense pillars: accountability for results; an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research, expanded parental options; and expanded local control and flexibility." Sounds good, doesn't it? But the problem for textbook publishers and for teachers is that state standards and NCLB mandates mean that all the focus is on testing students and making sure that those students test well. After all, accountability is the first pillar of NCLB. And most public schools in the United States can't afford to lose government funding.

What all this means is that the focus on standards and standardized testing is tightening the noose on curriculum and what's being taught. Because textbook publishers must ensure that they meet the standards set by each state, textbooks in general are becoming more and more alike. It also means the content in textbooks is specifically associated with the outcome of the tests. Choice is limited. Books are being produced to the same standards, which means creativity and creative curriculum are lost. As Nicholas Lemann in an interview with PBS's FrontLine says, "I think this whole bill is a step toward a national curriculum." He doesn't see this as a bad thing because NCLB gives the federal government control over local public education in ways it never did before. However, teachers are being forced to test and test and retest their students. This leaves little time to teach them anything more than what's going to be on the test. This leaves them little time to teach period. Who suffers more? The student or the teacher? Sure, NCLB is a well-intentioned law. Education is important. But how well can a teacher teach and how well can a student learn when so many restrictions are being applied? Lemann believes that teaching to the test is useful, if the test is in line with the curriculum. Perhaps I'm skeptical because my own childhood was riddled with state tests. The memory is still fresh.

NCLB is not the only thing facing textbook publishers. Special interest groups do their share of imposing restrictions, but that's a topic for another day. If you want to read up on that issue, Diane Ravitch's book The Language Police discusses it at length and then some. While the writing is not engaging, the book is informative, if not just a little bit frightening.

The most concise article explaining what NCLB is and what it's trying to do is "No Child Left Behind" in the June 23, 2004, edition of Education Week on the Web. I encourage anyone not familiar with NCLB to check it out. Another good source of useful information on NCLB is PBS.org. For more information on NCLB, check out the Department of Education's Web site. I didn't find it particularly helpful. I found much more useful information at Education Week's Web site at www.edweek.org. The Council of Chief State School Officers has helpful information on its site at www.ccsso.org.

What I've learned is that a lot more than ABCs goes into producing a textbook. Content and curriculum have more to do with meeting state and federal standards. Decisions on content are based on what is politically correct and less on what will interest a student. Publishers spend more time worrying about diversity counts of photos and how many selling points they can fit into the first ten pages of a book. As business decisions outweigh curriculum, publishers and editors are more concerned with making sure no student, or rather, no teacher or administrator, is offended by any content or image. Sure, reading, writing, and arithmetic are sprinkled between all this, but I wonder how well publishers and editors really know or remember about being a child in a classroom trying to learn.

If we homogenize the texts we use to teach our children, are we providing them with the best possible education? Are we really educating all our children at all levels, given that everyone learns differently and that no one method of teaching is ever used in the classroom? What kinds of challenges does all this pose for the teacher? If teachers spend all their time preparing children for standardized tests, their methods of teaching are limited. Can they increase their experience and skills as teachers? Or will they too become homogenized? And what does this mean for writers of children's literature? Will publishers of children's literature start to apply new standards to what kinds of books get published for children? Will certain literary themes become taboo? Will the list of banned books eventually increase? Will children's librarians be limited to what kinds of books they're allowed to order? In other words, will NCLB mandates trickle down to all other areas of our children's lives? After all, education is not limited to what children learn in school.

Like any business, a lot of textbook publishing involves headaches. I'm not convinced that in the end our students are getting the best education because of NCLB. And I'm not sure what scares me more, the tests or the fact that the federal government is controlling more and more of our lives. NCLB is a topic that will be heavily debated year in and year out for some time. I just hope our children don't suffer for it. Perhaps there are a few politicians who should go back to school.


"The President's Big Test," Wen Stephenson (FrontLine , www.pbs.org, March 28, 2002)

"No Child Left Behind," Anthony Rebora (Education Week, www.edweek.org, June 23, 2004)

Department of Education, www.ed.gov


Volume 8, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September, 2004

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The Other Side of NCLB" © Deb Allen 2004
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