Students fight corporate publishing control to combat rising textbook costs

Photo credit: Benjamin Pecka

With standardized testing processes driving curriculum and funding, large publishing corporations are gaining a stronger hold on the education system, and at a rising cost. In light of this, some instructors and schools are creating their own path to education.

This system, which gives publishers control over deciding what each child throughout the country needs to know and learn, forces a top-down form of education – partly thanks to No Child Left Behind in K-12 education – and also constricts pedagogy for educators.

NCLB never accounted for the effectiveness of textbooks. Innovation in the classroom is hindered, and textbooks represent the knowledge deemed necessary for a school to continue to receive funding.

As textbooks get more expensive, schools are forced to find new routes or make deals. In many primary school districts and colleges across the country, schools are making deals with these industries where the publisher offers a “bundle,” of sorts. The schools can get the textbooks at a discounted price, but it comes with an entire online package that may completely guide a faculty member’s curriculum.

MCTC’s answer to publisher control and affordability

New calculus textbooks cost $308.25 and $231.25 used at the MCTC Bookstore. Photo credit: Benjamin Pecka

“MCTC is on the other end of the spectrum,” said Maran Wolston, faculty member in the philosophy department and committee chair of the Traditional and Alternative Educational Materials Committee. “MCTC is currently running two textbook initiatives that I’m aware of. The first gives faculty members a small stipend to encourage their adoption/use of completely free materials. The second… offers students immediate access to the eText of a course textbook. It is at a faculty member’s discretion if they wish to participate in either program.”

At MCTC, teachers who take part in the $0 Course Material Initiative are rewarded with “a small stipend to encourage their adoption/use of completely free materials (library materials, Open Educational Resources, self-authored materials, etc.,)” Wolston said.

Multiple innovative alternative teaching programs are offered and implemented at MCTC. Some faculty members in the philosophy department, including Ruthanne Crapo, a professor in ethics and philosophy, have implemented an oral dialogue teaching program to “offer students culturally relevant pedagogy, or engage cultural practices beyond a Western-centric written approach.” Crapo said that along with the cultural relevancy, the amount that students have saved in textbook costs in “staggering.”

On the note of staggering savings Anthony Ross, course materials buyer in the bookstore, said that 58 classes have switched to digital delivery of textbooks. These classes, when compared to their previous requirement of physical textbooks, have exhibited a savings of $220,000 in a single semester.

Though, Ross said that buyback has been the bookstore’s greatest tool in the fight against rising textbook costs and has been around for about 50 years.

“For the last 20 [years] or so, there’s been essentially an arms race between publishers and bookstores where they keep trying to come out with new things to kill it,” Ross said. This has included things like CDs coming with the text, access codes, bundles, and the one that we hear about the most today: the constant and swift turnaround of new editions to a text.

Corporate publishers vie for control of education

Human Physiology Textbooks
New Human Physiology textbooks cost $239.00 and $179.25 used at the MCTC Bookstore. Photo credit: Kathryn Chadbourn

So what about schools that don’t offer alternatives and aren’t putting so much focus into textbook affordability and alternative resources? Textbook publishers are offering scaled-incentive programs for schools to adopt a direct access model.

“Some publishers present a pricing and adoption model that offers lower eText prices proportional to the degree of departments or courses that participate in direct access programs,” Wolston said.

In these situations, the publishers can guarantee sales at a higher number, and thus are willing to offer a higher discount. But what happens when schools and departments completely adopt this model from a publisher? What about when textbooks are controlling the curriculum, whether in a college classroom or for younger students?

“Corporate standardization and government regulation of textbook publishing impedes innovation and flexibility on part of the teachers and local schools,” according to a scholarly article titled “Curriculum and the Publishing Industry” by J Larson, A-R Allen, and D Osborn from the University of Rochester.

“This results in the deskilling of teachers as professionals, and the production of texts that are characterized by superficial and biased treatment of topics, and include irrelevant materials and unchallenging tasks.”

The textbooks are the formation of a curriculum that aims to re-create each year to be the exact same as the last.

Along with this, the textbooks aim to cover as much information as possible rather than give depth to specific topics, and keep the norms of the dominant groups in play.

As Bobby Ann Starnes, chairperson of the educational studies department at Berea College in Kentucky, states in her article “Textbooks, School Reform, and the Silver Lining”, “History is, after all, merely a tale told by the winners.”

She also discusses state textbook adoption, saying “textbooks designed for a few large…markets are… used for the whole country.” In these cases where textbooks have been completely adopted by a district, state, or college, the pedagogy and standards are set by these publishers and it can be constrictive on education.

“Publishers normalize content in order to make the largest profit. This… results in a ‘dumbing down’ of the content as publishers vie to capture the largest market share,” according to “Curriculum and the Publishing Industry”.

The model basically treats knowledge as being housed in the textbooks, and “learning is just a matter of getting it out of the textbook and into the heads of students,” according to “Curriculum and the Publishing Industry”.

But students and educators still have a voice

MCTC bookshelves
Minneapolis, MN -08/28/2017- MCTC book store shelves. (Kathryn Chadbourn/MCTC) Photo credit: Kathryn Chadbourn

As Dallas Rising, Student Senate Vice President and member of Traditional and Alternative Educational Materials Committee, said “I am not an empty vessel for you to fill with whatever you want. [I’m not] this passive receptacle that is supposed to just absorb whatever it is that you want to push in here.”

She said how it was through student efforts that women’s studies and African studies came to be, and are now practically ubiquitous on campuses around the country.

As textbook costs rise, groups are finding their voice to create alternative paths. Through this, groups are also fighting back for the sake of academic freedom and in-depth education and discussion.

For those interested in being involved with the Traditional and Alternative Educational Materials Committee, contact Maran Wolston, head of the committee, at

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