Basically, the curriculum is what your kids are expected to learn in school. It might surprise you who decides this.
The other day, I wrote that the No Child Left Behind legislation explicitly forbids a national curriculum. This was actually unnecessary, since the U.S. Constitution has no mention of education, and any power not reserved for the federal government or forbidden to the states is automatically the province of the states. Each state functions a little differently, which is why there is really no one overall "education system" in the U.S. Some states regulate schools more strictly than others.
Textbook publishers definitely have a hand in the process of establishing curriculum, and their influence is great, because in some places, states adopt textbooks for every school in that state. In other states, textbook companies are allowed to send reps to "market" their textbooks directly to school districts. Minnesota is one of those, and having sat on a textbook adoption committee for ELL, I can tell you that the sales reps put on a pretty good show, sweetening the deal by giving the committee members complementary copies of some of the books to try out in their classrooms. These days they don't just sell one book at a time. It is usually a set of books that are to be used together, for all grade levels. The math textbooks these days are no longer hard-cover books. Instead, they are paperback workbooks, called "consumables," which means that the school district is obligated to buy new workbooks every year. My district adopted one math text that cost $7 per textbook, but two years later, the price per book went up to $15. Unfortunately, our textbook funding was not doubled, which meant that we had to make cuts somewhere else so that we could order enough math textbooks. A lot of textbooks these days are supplemented by electronic materials, accessed online. Some are going completely digital.
Once a text is adopted, it needs to be used for at least five years, to make it cost effective to buy, and remember that these textbooks cost millions. The textbook companies are for-profit businesses, and their main goal is not to educate your child. Their main goal is to sell textbooks. One criticism of textbook companies is that they steer clear of issues that are controversial, such as "creationism" vs. "evolution," by writing in such a vague style that no one will be offended. Another criticism of textbook companies is that, although there is often a list of authors on the front cover, basically, textbooks are written by teams of 40 or more people. The "authors" listed on the cover of the book are "signed on," and sometimes not until the text has been written.
In the 1980s and 90s, there was a lot of merging going on in the textbook publishing industry. A few people my age might remember having textbooks published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. This company bought another which may be familiar: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Houghton Mifflin bought D.C. Heath and Co. McGraw-Hill bought Macmillan. Silver Burdett was purchased by Simon & Schuster, which had already swallowed up Prentice Hall, then merged with Ginn & Co. All of these were eventually swallowed up by Pearson Education, now known simply as Pearson, which already owned Addison-Wesley and Longman. What you may not realize is that Pearson is not an American company. It's a British company, with headquarters in London. They do 60% of the textbook publishing business in the United States, plus they do business in 70 other countries around the world. And the scary thing, for me, is that there is a sister company called Pearson Educational Testing, that writes standardized tests. Are you getting this, people? The standardized tests are written by the publishing companies!
OK, so if a British company controls 60% of the textbook market in this country, who controls the rest, and are there any American companies? The other biggies in the textbook publishing world are Vivendi Universal, a French company, Reed-Elsevier, a British-Dutch concern, and McGraw-Hill, the lone American firm. In November of last year, McGraw-Hill announced that it was selling its entire education division to Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion. Apollo is an American private equity firm. So if you think that curriculum is controlled by the schools, you are wrong. It is controlled by Big Business.
By now all states have developed a set of "standards" that describe what is to be taught in schools, and teachers have to "align" these standards with whatever textbook the state or district adopts. Textbook companies do consult the standards in the states which control the textbooks for their entire state, but basically they don't care about the standards of smaller states. The result is that an adopted textbook may not even cover some of the state standards at all, making it necessary for the teachers to develop other materials to teach the standards that have been left out of the textbook. You may ask, why not just drop the standards that are not in the textbook? Well, because... it will be on the standardized tests, and we have to make sure our kids can answer those questions on the test.
The "big three" textbook adoption states are Texas, California and Florida, but Texas is the one to watch, because they spend the most money, so the textbook companies actually listen to them. This means that if there is a curriculum issue being debated in Texas, you need to keep informed about it, because whatever happens, your child's textbooks will be affected, no matter where you live in the United States!
This brings us to the effect that boards of education, special interest groups, and the public have on curriculum. All "adoption states" allow the public to review and raise objections to the textbooks that the state is considering adopting. This allows special interest groups to lobby for their particular perspective.
Here's what happened and is happening in Texas: In the late 1960s, a Texas couple named Mel and Norma Gabler, decided to use textbook adoption hearings to put pressure on textbook companies. These people have no education credentials or teaching background, but they felt strongly that they wanted certain things taught in the public schools. They lobbied for phonics, sexual abstinence rather than contraception, free enterprise rather than federal oversight of business, creationism, rather than evolution, firearm safety rather than gun control, and the primacy of conservative Christian values. These people were expert organizers with a talent for expressing what they wanted in the language of the official state curriculum standards. They launched a nonprofit organization called Educational Research Analysts at their kitchen table in 1961 in the tiny town of Hawkins, in east Texas. The purpose of the organization is to monitor public school textbooks. Through workshops, books, and how-to manuals for the public, the Gablers trained a whole generation of conservative Christian activists to carry on their work.
In California, the liberals have a lobbying presence, too. Norman Lear's nonprofit group, created in 1981, called People for the American Way lobbies for politically correct terms such as "Native American" instead of "Indian," and for banning racial and gender-based stereotypes. "To make the list in California, books must be scrupulously stereotype free: No textbook can show African Americans playing sports, Asians using computers, or women taking care of children," says Tamim Ansary, a former textbook publishing employee. The mission of People for the American Way is to promote equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to seek justice in the courts, the right to cast a meaningful vote. An associated foundation carries on research and training activities, including training for young people as "future leaders."
One of the objections from the public concerned an article whose author was rumored to be a member of an organization called One World Council, supposedly a "Communist front" organization. The textbook company simply chose another article by another author who was apparently above reproach. It was later found that the rumors were completely unsubstantiated. This means that the author didn't get his work included in the textbook, based on a fictitious rumor, without regard to whether the article itself was a good fit for the textbook.
Many objections from the public are to the pictures, rather than the content of the books. For example, one social studies book was attacked for showing a picture of a large family at the dinner table. The objection: they looked like Arabs. The publisher said they were Armenians. Well, since the largest populations of Armenians outside of Armenia live in countries such as Iran, Georgia, Lebanon and Syria, they might reasonably be confused with "Arabs." But the vast majority of Armenians are Christians, which somehow made it OK to include a picture of them in the text. After all, the people who complained were not really against Arabs. They were against Islam.
Recently in some states, there has been a movement to use information available freely on the Internet to create online texts, in part so that teachers and the public in general can wrest control away from textbook companies, but mainly to save money. In Illinois, where some $40 million was eliminated from funding specifically for textbooks, some school schools now "rent" textbooks to students for a hefty fee. Other districts are distributing iPads to every student, so that they can take advantage of the many sites that offer lessons online. The California Open Source Textbook Project has a goal of leveraging free, already-existing, and widely-available K-12 content in the public domain. Many educators agree that the future of textbooks is electronic delivery, rather than print materials.
Given that there is no national system of education in this country, all any American citizen can do is pay attention to what is going on in your own state, and locally. If you are concerned about what materials your children are learning, you need to learn about your own state's policy for textbook adoptions, and ask to be notified if there are public meetings about textbooks. The only place you have any input into is your local school district. Stay informed. Otherwise, you may find that your child's textbooks are not fair. :-/
Sources for this blog;
Ansary, Tamim. "A Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education." Edutopia. November 10, 2004. http://www.edutopia.org/textbook-publishing-controversy
Bream, Shannon. "Who Decides What's in Your Kids' Textbooks?" Fox News LiveShots. March 8, 2010. http://liveshots.blogs.foxnews.com/2010/03/08/who-decides-whats-in-your-kids-textbooks/
"California Open Source Textbook Project." Wikipedia. September 7, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Open_Source_Textbook_Project
Huston, John P. "School Districts Turn to iPads to Cut Textbook Costs." Chicago Tribune. April 19, 2012. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-04-19/news/ct-met-ipad-classrooms-20120419_1_ipads-school-districts-textbook-costs
Rado, Diane. "Illinois Textbook Costs Going Up." Chicago Tribune. August 9, 2010. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-08-09/news/ct-met-textbook-cuts-20100808_1_textbook-costs-book-sale-u-464,
Sadker & Sadker. "Controversy Over Who Controls the Curriculum." Teachers, Schools and Society, Seventh Edition. (online textbook) (2005) McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Accessed on March 14, 2013. http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072877723/student_view0/chapter7/