by Emma Cloyd
On Tuesday, November 17, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia discussed the monopolization of textbook — the three major ones being McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson —companies on high school curriculums in the United States. Many states also have standardized, state mandated tests designed by these companies that they use to assess how schools are operating vis-à-vis student scores. The discussion was moderated by Nicki Felmus, the Education Center Chair, and Karen Reppy, a general body member.
In most states, these companies set public schools’ curriculums. This has both positive and negative consequences. Since the companies are private, competition between them to make the best possible textbooks with the most up to date research allows for increased quality in educational materials. However, multiple members raised concerns about the impact that these private companies can have on the content of curriculums as Pearson writes different tests for different states. Ricardo Esteves, who is from Texas, raised this concern by discussing how there are movements within the state government to ban teachings of evolution in public schools. Since these textbooks companies are private and for profit, they have no reason to not indulge Texas in such requests. All of the members agreed that this control that private companies exert on public educations should be concerning to Americans because it does not necessarily guarantee an equal or even similar education to all students.
Furthermore, the competition between the three major companies comes across through the high pricing of the textbooks. Many of these textbooks cost well over $100 and are a massive financial burden to many school districts. Additionally, the same companies that design the books typically design the state mandated standardized tests, used to rank high schools, students, teachers and ultimately to decide the amount of funding a school should receive. One member of Roosevelt, Emma Gomez, remembered taking a test on a subject that clearly corresponded to a newer version of a textbook than the one her school had used; this adversely affected the test results and the students’ learning outcomes.
This led to a discussion of the cyclical nature of rewarding schools for higher test scores. Schools that score well on state mandated standardized tests tend to receive more funding from their state. As a result, these schools become further advantaged by gaining or increasing their financial capability to hire the best teachers, improve their facilities and purchase the best textbooks. Conversely, schools who do poorly on the tests are subjected to budget cuts which in turn make it more difficult for them to improve or maintain their current quality of education.
The dramatic impacts of these state mandated standardized tests made the group ponder the overall emphasis our education system puts on standardized testing more closely. Not all students are good test takers, despite how much practice they have, therefore it is not necessarily fair to use these results alone to judge how schools are operating. Furthermore, when students have low test scores, teachers are often blamed and are at risk of losing their jobs. Therefore many teachers teach “to the test,” planning their curriculum around achieving higher test scores rather than broader educational goals. Many members of Roosevelt agreed that this is not a good idea because it teaches students to find loopholes in the test rather than how to think critically.
The group also discussed the importance of the SAT and ACT in college admissions. Like the aforementioned state tests, these college admissions tests can be gamed for higher scores; however, in order to learn how to do so students often have to hire expensive tutors or attend classes. This is incredibly unfair to who cannot afford extra prep. Furthermore, these tests cost money to take and send to colleges, again giving deeper-pocketed students a leg up. As a result of the amount of money required to do well on these tests and subsequently utilize them, underprivileged students are at an extreme disadvantage.
Roosevelters proposed many policy solutions ranging from removing state mandated and college admissions tests to leaving these tests in place but deemphasizing them. The group almost unanimously agreed that these tests should not hold as much weight as they currently do. The members also agreed that if these state mandated tests do stay in place, schools that do poorly on them should receive more funding rather than less. This would facilitate improvement, allowing all public schools to offer equal educations to students in the United States.