Will Va’s Textbook Review Reforms Make Any Difference?

A few days ago the AP reported that the Virginian Department of Education would be “tightening” its textbook review process by requiring textbook publishers to certify that their materials have been reviewed by “competent authorities who vouch for their accuracy.” Odd. I thought that was what the state textbook review committees were supposed to do.

Will yet another piece of paper from a textbook publisher claiming that their materials are the greatest ever really ensure that the materials used by children in Virginia public schools are factually accurate and sufficiently address the topics they are intended to address?  Unlike the AP, I see this move as yet another in a long line of policies and regulations issued by the DOE / BOE that sound great but do absolutely nothing.

The process of identifying which textbooks are recommended for use in Virginia public schools starts with the state standards of learning. Almost every year state standards for a given subject are reviewed and updated and new “revised” standards for that subject are issued. The standards for K – 12 mathematics were updated in 2009 ; standards for History were updated the year previously.

Once the revised standards are accepted by the Board of Education, instructional materials (aka textbooks) are submitted to the Va Department of Education so that the DOE can review them to ascertain how well they align with the updated state standards of learning for that subject. Materials which adequately meet a sufficient level of state standards are recommended by the DOE for use in Virginia public schools, though local school districts are allowed to select any materials they want.

Textbook publishers don’t just submit their materials for review – they also submit a report noting which standards are met in their materials and referencing the chapter and page numbers where the standards are met. For instance, the 2009 math SOLs call for 3rd grade students to recall multiplication and division facts through 12 x 12. A publisher who submits a 3rd grade math textbook for review will cite whether their materials meet that standard and reference the unit(s) and page numbers where their materials address that standard.

Submitted instructional materials and publisher prepared alignment reports are then given to the state’s appointed textbook review committee.   The publisher prepared alignment report provides members of the state textbook review committee a “road map” of sorts to assist them in their assessment.  Textbook review committee members are comprised of classroom teachers and curriculum specialists from school districts throughout the state.  Committee members are nominated by their local school districts, are compensated for their service, and are considered experts in the subject being reviewed (so math teachers will review math textbooks and history teachers will review history textbooks).  Instructional materials are also placed in libraries throughout the state for members of the general public to review and comment upon.

Members of the textbook review committee are expected to review the instructional materials given to them and rank how well the materials meet each standard for that grade level or subject.  The rankings are Adequate, Limited, and No Evidence.  There is no uniform definition for what constitutes Adequate, Limited, or No Evidence – that determination is made based on the reviewers judgment.  Adequate does not mean fully met.   There are a number of instances where a textbook is rated as adequately meeting a standard when it only covers a portion of the required concepts.

A textbook is recommended for use in Va schools if it adequately meets enough standards to be recommended.  There is no set level that earns a textbook a pass versus a fail – that determination is based on the judgment of the review committee.  There is also no set definition of what earns a textbook series a pass or fail.  There are instances where a textbook which only adequately meets 54% of state standards for a given subject and grade level is recommended for use in schools in the state.

The review committee prepares their conclusions and provides those results, along with their determination as to whether the textbook will or will not be recommended for use in state schools, to the textbook publishers.  Textbook publishers are then given a set period of time to refute and appeal the textbook committee’s analysis.  Based on the feedback from the textbook review committee, some publishers pull their materials from further consideration, some accept them, and others ask that the committee reconsider their conclusions.  Once the appeal process is complete the draft list of recommended and not recommended texts is submitted to the VA Board of Education.  The final list is approved by the BOE a couple of months later.

After the BOE provides its final approval of the state recommended textbooks, the selection process is handed over to the local school districts.  Local school districts have a set amount of time to select the materials they believe are appropriate for their students, are expected to follow the review process described by the BOE in its local textbook adoption regulations, and are expected to notify the state of the materials they’ve selected and to certify that the process they followed complied with state regulations.  Local school districts can select any materials they want, whether they’re state recommended or not, provided they follow the proper procedure.

Looking at this process, does it seem that the “reform” the VA DOE will be pursuing will accomplish anything?  Textbook publishers already submit a detailed report identifying which standards their materials address and where those standards are addressed.  I can spot lots of holes in the textbook review process that allow factually inaccurate and inadequate materials to “pass” the review process.  What additional value is derived from having textbook publishers submit yet another piece of paper stating that their materials were reviewed by “competent authorities who vouch for their accuracy” ?

This is yet another example of education officials in the Commonwealth pretending to “get tough” while doing absolutely nothing to address the real problems with textbook review in the state.

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